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The Photograph Collector, vol. XIX, n° 11, 15 novembre 1998

French Claim Discovery of the Earliest Photographic Portrait

André Gunthert wrote recently to announce the release of the 5th issue of the French review Etudes photographiques, which contains a reproduction of the purported oldest known photographic portrait, taken in 1837 by Daguerre himself.

The website (www.etudes.photographie.com) provides the following introduction about the discovery of this portrait: "The review Etudes Photographiques has published in its issue number 5 (November 1998) the oldest photographic portrait known to date and recently found by Marc Pagneux. It is a daguerreotype representing the naturalist painter Nicolas Huet, made by Daguerre and dated by him in 1837, which is two years before the official announcement of the daguerreotype. Based on many concurring factors, the authenticity of the document was established by Jacques Roquencourt, the leading French expert on Daguerre.
"Printed as an illustration for an article by André Gunthert, entitled 'Daguerre or the promptitude', this exceptional testimony leads to a new fundamental approach in the interpretation of the Daguerreian process - until now all the histories of photography having agreed that it would have been impossible to make such a photographic portrait before 1839 or 1840. Contrary to most of the recognized defects of early portraits (distorted and grimacing faces with unbearably long exposures, etc.), the portrait of Nicolas Huet presents some astonishing technical features, suggesting that the exposure time did not exceed two to three minutes, and clearly indicates a remarkable mastery of the process by its inventor. Attested to by a private correspondence of 1838, the realization of Daguerre's experiments with portraiture had been, however, kept secret: at the time of the disclosure of the Daguerreotype, Arago himself had declared that "we are not inclined to admit that such an instrument will ever be used to make portraits." The analysis of this concealment reveals a particular strategy on behalf of Daguerre and leads to a new reading of the invention of photography."

Further elucidating this find, Gunthert relates the story of its discovery: "The daguerreotype (5.8 x 4.5 cm) was found by the expert Marc Pagneux (one of the most respected French dealers of historical photographs) at a flea market. The plate was, as usual, contained within a frame, which only bore the name of Daguerre. This in itself is not significant, as there are a lot of plates of this type on the market.
"As a member of the Societé française de photographie, M. Pagneux asked another member, Jacques Roquencourt, one of the better known Daguerre specialists in France, to help him examine the plate further. The frame was opened: it contained another frame, invisible from the outside, with the mention: 'M. Huet/1837.'
"This inscription was already a triple proof: 1) J. Roquencourt established that it was Daguerre's own handwriting. 2) Huet is known as a friend of Daguerre, who lent him his collection of fossils for another well-known daguerreotype (now at the CNAM). 3) The year itself gives another clue, because the fact that Daguerre made some portrait experiments before the announcement of 1839 was not known during the entire 19th century (the letter of 1837 to Isidore Niépce, in which Daguerre mentions this kind of experiment was first published in 1949).
"But that wasn't enough: the plate was compared to another portrait, signed by Daguerre, preserved at the Bibliothèque Nationale (undated but probably a later one, on account of its better technical qualities). Besides an identical format, J. Roquencourt could confirm, through computerized optical simulations, that both pictures were made with the same lens: the first "photographic" lens invented by Daguerre in 1832, similar to the one sold with Giroux's Daguerreotype outfit in 1839, but with a shorter focal length (6 inches or 162 mm, see J. Roquencourt's paper in Études photographiques #5). All these elements, carefully established and verified over a period of several months, seem to attest to the authenticity of the plate, which could be the one about which Daguerre wrote on the 17th February 1838: 'J'ai fait aussi quelques essais de portraits, dont un est assez bien réussi pour me donner le désir d'en avoir un ou deux dans notre exposition' ['I have made also several attempts at portraits, of which one is successful enough for me to want to present one or two in our exhibition.'] (Kravets, 1949, p. 457)."

Naturally, there have been numerous questions about this portrait and experts have weighed in with theories on both sides. Geoff Batchen of the University of New Mexico questioned the dating, "given that both Daguerre and Arago report in 1838 and 1839 that portraits are not yet possible, and may even never be possible. Why would they say such things if Daguerre had already produced one?"
And William Becker amplified Batchen's questions, writing, "The Gernsheims' LJM Daguerre (Dover edition) cites very clear records of early portrait experiments in France, culminating in Daguerre's Royal command performance taking the portrait of King Louis-Philippe at 11 a.m., March 6, 1841. The Gernsheims, citing Erich Stenger, report the exposure was five minutes in bright sunlight and the result was 'disastrous'Éa failure. (p. 120).
"And this was one full year after Cornelius opened a commercial daguerreotype portrait studio in Philadelphia.
"If Daguerre made a successful portrait in 1837 - even if he could not repeat his results - it would certainly have been among the specimens he showed to win the support of the French government. At a time when silhouettes and physiognotraces were a thriving industry, everyone would have been aware of the commercial implications of photographic portraiture. And that would have added enormous value to Daguerre's invention. Yet, there is no mention of it.
"It would seem out of character for M. Daguerre to forego both the additional glory - and the additional stipend - to which he would have been entitled.
"Of course, nothing is impossible, but the implication here is that in his moment of triumph Daguerre kept a great accomplishment secret, and did such a good job of hiding it from view that nobody suspected the truth for 161 years. Can anyone posit a convincing motivation for that?"

Luis Nadeau responded, "Didn't you see the portrait? Compared to professional portraits it must have been considered a disaster. This reminds me of the days not so long ago when some people thought they were 'typesetting' documents because they used justified text produced on a dot matrix printer.
"Professionally done portraits were large, sharp, in full colors and could be done while the sitter was allowed to breathe. The 1837 portrait(s?), while a technological tour de force, must have been considered disastrous compared to color paintings. Remember that the daguerréotypomanie was the subject of contempt long after it was introduced and improved."

Gunthert has provided explanations for many of these points. First, as to this image seeming to be technically much better than the first attempted daguerreotype portraits in late 1839 and early 1840, he says, "The daguerreotype is very weak, and is a small picture. I don't think that it is reasonable to compare that portrait to a picture's subjective description. I think Luis' arguments are correct: the contemporary judgment about photographic portraits is in itself an important historical problem."

And as to the question of its dating, he writes: "It is quite understandable that a new historical document causes some trouble in our usual comprehension of photohistory. As an historian as well as an editor, I was not the last to be skeptical when I was told about this daguerreotype. One is sure: I couldn't have published this document without being myself fully convinced of its authenticity... What is certain is that our usual description from Daguerre's work suffers from important lacunae, but also from a lot of false interpretations. As William Becker quoted the story of Louis-Philippe's portrait, let's just take this example: Gernsheim quoted Stenger, who quoted a German newspaper, but French contemporary sources which mention this episode (see Alophe, 1861) didn't evoke the name of Daguerre: his name was obviously added posteriorly by the German newspaper. Gernsheim himself was not so sure of this attribution (see his note 135), but repeated nevertheless this legend."

Lastly, as to Batchen's questioning why both Daguerre and Arago would assert the impossibility of portraiture if Daguerre had already produced one, Gunthert replies: "As we have now evidence that it was the case, this question is of course the most interesting one, which brings us to some new interpretations of the very first history of photography. To mention only one point that seems to me decisive: as I already said, the 1837 portrait was obtained with another lens than the one sold in 1839 with Giroux's Daguerreotype outfit (380 mm). That first lens, with a shorter focal length (162 mm), is quite well adapted to portraiture, while the other one is, on the contrary, totally unadapted to that aim. It wouldn't have been difficult for Daguerre to propose his camera with both lenses (as it was the case for many other outfits after 1840). But it seems that Daguerre did not want other photographers to explore the field of portraiture - at least before he himself could present an improved device dedicated to that aim. In that case, 'giving the daguerreotype to the world,' as Arago said, would only have been a first step, in Daguerre's mind: a strategy that failed because of the unexpected success of his process, and of the great number of experiments, which rapidly overtook Daguerre's standard."

Daguerreotype experts Bates and Isabel Lowry concur: "The discovery and exact dating of a portrait daguerreotype by Daguerre himself is an exciting discovery with a great impact on the history of the daguerreotype's development. In our recent book, The Silver Canvas (p. 45) we have drawn attention to Daguerre's early concern and involvement with portraiture by noting several sources between January and August 1839 in which the possibility of portraiture is referred to. We also discuss Daguerre's earliest comments about his hopes and experiments with portraiture in his letters to Niépce beginning in 1835... These descriptions by Daguerre and his hopes for portraiture provide a setting for the recent incredible discovery made by Marc Pagneux and verified by Jacques Roquencourt. Thanks to the Société française de photographie for spreading the news."

No doubt further examination will be required to satisfy the questions raised about this portrait. But it is likely that in some way it will require us to rethink the very earliest history of the medium.

Stephen PERLOFF