The first faked photograph


This is the first staged photo. It depicts a suicide. But it also tells a story. Of an ambitious amateur inventor who found
a way to achieve the incredible. But was pushed aside by a powerful, meddling
politician with his own agenda. And doomed to obscurity. Hippolyte Bayard was an artist. A gardener. A collector. And an experimenter. And in 1839, he invented photography – sort
of. People knew for centuries how to create an
image with light, but they didn’t have a way to permanently fix it onto a surface. Until several people actually figured it out
all at once. They invented their own methods, building
on years of individual experimentation and failed attempts. Bayard, in France, was one of them. He was experimenting with photography in his
free time while working a day job in a government office. He found a way to fix images by dipping paper
into photosensitive chemicals and exposing it to light inside a camera obscura, which
is essentially a dark room with a tiny hole in it. You can actually see stains from excess chemicals
in his earliest successful attempts. His photographs prominently featured his home
and garden, where he would arrange tools, statues,
and vases into loaded still lifes. Also windmills. He loved windmills. Often he included himself in the scenes, eyes
closed because of the long exposure time his process required. But he’s not the photo pioneer you might
have heard of. That would be this guy: fellow Frenchman Louis
Daguerre. Daguerre had already made a name for himself
and captured the public’s attention in the 1820s with popular interactive art shows,
called “dioramas.” Fixing an image to a surface was his next
big ambition. And by the late 1830s, he’d had his own
breakthrough with photography, successfully creating a process to fix an image to a metal
plate. He called his invention the Daguerreotype. He kept his discovery mostly under wraps,
showing the Daguerreotypes to just a few influential members of society, who would then spread
rumors of his success to the press. Bayard, on the other hand, worked alone, but
he was eager to share his work. In June 1839 he held a photo exhibition, becoming
the first photographer to show his work in public. One attendee later wrote, “they were like
nothing I’d ever seen… they unite the impression of reality with the fantasy of
dreams.” Bayard was prepared to demonstrate his process
to the Academy of Sciences, the highest scientific authority in France. And that’s where Francois Arago steps in. A prominent French politician and astronomer,
and Chair of the Academy of Sciences. He was also a supporter of Daguerre’s, and
after being shown successful Daguerreotypes in late 1838, he set out to arrange a deal
with the French government to purchase the rights to the invention. He wanted photography to be France’s gift
to the world, and Daguerre was going to be the man to deliver it. So when Bayard showed Arago his successful
prints, the politician persuaded him to hold off on announcing the details of his method
until the Daguerre deal was finished. And on August 19th, 1839, standing before
the Academy of Sciences with Daguerre seated right next to him, Francois Arago revealed
the exact process for creating a Daguerreotype. That moment is considered the birth of photography. And once the French government made the details
of the process public, Daguerreotyping spread like wildfire, becoming the first practical,
widespread method of making pictures. Daguerre was awarded a lifetime government
pension, and the principle credit for inventing photography — sealing his place in the history
books. A couple months later, Bayard finally got
his chance with the Academy and demonstrated his own process. But it was too late. Daguerreotyping was already established, and
the Academy wasn’t interested in pursuing his alternative technique. And as a response, Bayard killed himself. Well, metaphorically. The tongue-in-cheek caption he wrote on the
back of this self-portrait reads: “The corpse which you see here is that of
Monsieur Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you.” “The government which has been only too
generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the
poor wretch has drowned himself.” The image itself is rich with symbols that
Bayard included to hint at his perceived injustice. First, he posed nude, partially covered in
a shroud, a symbol people would have recognized
from iconic paintings depicting martyrs. Another important detail that would have resonated
with 19th century Parisians is in the caption: “He has been at the morgue for several days,
and no-one has recognized or claimed him.” The Paris Morgue at this time was open every
day to the public, in hopes that people would claim unidentified bodies — many of them
anonymous suicides. Bayard’s protest is all about recognition
– or lack thereof – so the morgue is a fitting metaphor. Just like morgue victims, he’s on display
– propped up and surrounded by personal effects that might give a clue to the corpse’s
identity. In Bayard’s case, a broad-brimmed straw
hat and, as a second attempt at the photo shows
more clearly, a floral vase and a statue. Objects that, along with the inventor himself,
were recurring visual themes in his work and would have been strong indicators of
the identity of the drowned man, should anyone recognize them, or him, at
all. Bayard went on experimenting with photography
in the years following his “suicide” and even became a founding member of the
French Society of Photography. But of the many photographs taken over his
long career, it’s this one that is the most talked about and analyzed. And that’s because this isn’t just the
first staged photo – it’s an early example of photography showing something non-literal
and symbolic. Laying the groundwork for exploring the medium’s
potential for creative expression and establishing from the very beginning
that a photograph doesn’t always show the truth. If you want to check out more of Bayard’s photographs, or see some of the research that informed this video, there’s links to that in the description. I’ll also be sharing some sources that I used for inspiration and story ideas in the Video Lab, our membership program. Head on over to vox.com/join or click the link in the description to find out more about that. Thanks for watching.

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