Photography’s first artists: Bayard and Cornelius

Zahid Parvez
3 min readJan 30, 2023

The late 1830’s saw the invention of photography as a new artform when Louis Daguerre publicised the daguerreotype process. When his work of Boulevard du Temple went on display it caused excitement amongst artists and observers alike as the picture was said to be free of errors and demonstrated the “advantages and wonder of the [daguerreotype] invention”. Hippolyte Bayard and Robert Cornelius became some of the notable photographers of this initial period of photography!

Hippolyte Bayard

Hippolyte Bayard was another pioneer in the history of photography, also a fellow Frenchman, he had also created a process (before or at the same time as Daguerre) to take photographs, known as the direct positive process. The process involved exposing a sheet of silver chloride paper to light, which darkened the paper entirely. The paper was then treated with potassium iodide and placed in a camera for exposure for roughly twelve minutes. After being exposed, the paper was washed in hyposulfite of soda and dried.

“Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man” by Hyppolyte Bayard(1940)

One of the most famous photographs using this method is known as the “Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man”, this was arguably one of the first instances of using photography to convey a message. On the back of the photograph he wrote a message that reflected his feelings of neglect from the French government at the time:

“The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you. As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. 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. Oh the vagaries of human life….! … He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognized or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay”

Robert Cornelius’s selfie

Even though it was the early days of photography, “Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man” isn't the first self-portrait (selfie if you will) using the medium. In 1839 Robert Cornelius, an American chemist, was interested in the new medium of photography when he was introduced to the daguerreotype process. Inspired by the growing popularity of photography, specifically portrait photography, he decided to take a self-portrait using the process. While it might not seem unusual today, this practice was virtually unheard of in the 1830s and the photo is considered to be first portrait photograph taken in America!

“The first photographic portrait image of a human ever produced” by Robert Cornelius (1839)

If you would like to learn more about the history of photography, check out the story behind the invention of the Daguerreotype or how Niépce captured the first ever recorded photograph.

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Zahid Parvez

I am an analyst with a passion for data, software, and integration. In my free time, I also like to dabble in design, photography, and philosophy.