“I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight.”
LOUIS DAGUERRE, 1839
This picture, the earliest known photograph to include a recognizable human form, was taken in Paris, France, in 1838 by Louis Daguerre. The human in question is standing in the bottom-left of the photograph, on the pavement by the curve in the road. He is having his boots shined.
The exposure time for the image was around seven minutes, and although the street would have been busy with traffic and pedestrians, it appears deserted. Everything moving was too fast to register on the plate.
The exception is the man at the lower-left who sat still long enough to appear in the photograph. The person cleaning his boots is also visible, although not as distinctly.
It has been speculated that instead of a shoeshine boy, the man stood at a a pump. However, comparison with another image taken by Daguerre of the same spot at noon reveals boxes used to hold brushes and polishes. Like every Daguerreotype — the first publicly announced photographic process, and named after Daguerre — the photograph was a mirror image.
The street is the Boulevard du Temple, part of a fashionable area of shops, cafés and theaters. It was nicknamed the “Boulevard du Crime” because of the many crime melodramas playing in its theaters. It later lost many of these when Baron Haussmann, under the instructions of Napoleon III, remodeled and modernized Paris, removing the narrow, dark and dangerous streets of the medieval city and replacing them with parks and open spaces. This process began in 1853.
While the man having his boots shined and the person doing the shining are the most recognizable human figures, a very detailed examination of the photograph reveals other possible people:
These ephemeral figures are hard to see because the original image photographic plate itself measured only 6.5 inches by 8.5 inches.