Tuesday, 9 February 2010

THE BRINGING OF HISTORY TO LIFE...


This is one of the earliest known photographs of a human. A self portrait taken in 1839, it shows a young Robert Cornelius (1809-1893) standing outside his family's lamp-making shop in Philadelphia.

Cornelius was an American of Dutch descent whose knowledge of metallurgical chemistry was to help in perfecting the process of silver-plating, then employed in the production of daguerreotypes.

It had previously been assumed that the time necessary for a photograph to be exposed was simply too long for portaiture to be considered. But, by making this striking image, Cornelius proved the concensus wrong and then went on to develop a chemical means of accelerating the process.

So - an extraordinary and historically important image - but the VV finds it startling for quite another reason.

This photograph was made well over 150 years ago, and yet Robert Cornelius looks as contemporary and 'immediate' as any young man you might happen to pass on the streets today. He might be in a fashion publicity shot, or some moody modern musician. But, the most poignant thing is that what you see is a real man - a man you could reach out and almost touch, a man you could talk to, or even desire.

This daguerreotype did not only change the way we see photography now. It works some kind of alchemy. One glance and it drags us back into the past. It is bringing history to life.

Robert Cornelius at work in 1843


The VV would like to thank Lucy Inglis, the creator of Georgian London for drawing her attention to this incredible photograph. And finally, in Lucy's own words - 'Cornelius isn't some styled dandy approving every brushstroke of a portrait or a miniature: he's just a bloke standing in the street trying out his new camera.'

15 comments:

  1. A very striking portrait- Cornelius eventually went back to working for his family's lamp company (doubtless more profitable than photography.) Unfortunately he died comparatively young after falling from a latter while installing a chandelier.

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    1. Cornelius lived to a ripe old age - google image search his name or go here for the full story: http://americanenterprise.si.edu/2012/07/a-tour-through-storage-brings-an-innovator-to-light/

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  2. What a handsome man. The image could indeed be that of a contemporary shot.

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  3. You're absolutely right about the modernity of the individual in the shot and the immediacy of his aura. It's a wonderful image. Where can we get copies?

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  4. Bill, I found this site online and it offers prints of the Robert Cornelius image, but I must stress that I have no prior knowledge or its authenticity or connection with it whatsoever.

    http://www.shorpy.com/Robert-Cornelius

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  5. Hi VV. Thanks for that - and I loved the disclaimer. I was interested because I'm researching the 1840s at the moment and anything connected with the period fascinates me.

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  6. Ha ha...thought I'd better put something - glad you took in good spirit. And, good luck with the research, Bill.

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  7. The young man does look amazingly contemporary. I'm thinking of how different from modern youths the lads pictured going off to war in 1914 looked-generally so much smaller & less healthy looking. However, maybe as C. was an American, he'd've had a healthier lifestyle in the early 19th C. than the average Brit.???

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  8. Striking photo! I remember going to a daguerrotype exhibit at the Oakland Museum (California) and seeing someone in an image who just reached out and tugged at me through hundreds of years...it was a really wierd experience. This image kind of reminds me of the shock of that moment.

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  9. What a wonderful picture - and I agree, it is strikingly modern in appearance.

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  10. Essie, it's wonderful! And what is particularly odd is that I came across it after searching for 'earliest known picture of a penguin' AND I am currently writing a book set in 1878 that has an antagonist called Cornelius and I was looking for an image to base him on (not with the penguin search!). He's got the gig. Serendipity delivers again!

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  11. He also took the first known male nude - a topless self-portrait - so indeed he was/is very contemporary!

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  12. Ooh - where can I see that, Mel? I could become quite a fan - albeit in a slightly creepy way. There is a very funny website called My Daguerreotype Boyfriend, but I still think Robert Cornelius is the most handsome - of the dead on show there.

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