One of my side projects is a blog called Sunday Magazine where I reprint articles from the New York Times Sunday Magazine exactly 100 years ago each week. One of the articles from this weekend in 1911 is especially relevant to me as a photographer, so I thought I’d write about it here.
This weekend in 1911, the magazine ran an article celebrating the 100th Birthday of John William Draper, who took the first portrait photograph, an image of his sister Dorothy. Here is how the article appeared:
To read the whole thing, you can download the article as a PDF.
In Draper’s day, all photos required long exposures, so the subjects needed to sit extremely still. Draper experimented with putting white powder on people’s faces to lighten them up a bit for the picture. And he also realized that if a person sits still for a 30 second exposure, they can feel free to blink during that time without worrying about ruining the image. But any other movement must be considered and eliminated:
“The hands should never rest upon the chest, for the motion of respiration disturbs them so much as to make them have a thick, clumsy appearance, destroying also the representation of the veins on the back, which, if they are held motionless, are copied with surprising beauty.”
Here’s some more of Draper’s advice for a portrait sitting:
“It has already been stated that pictorial advantages attend an arrangement in which the light is thrown upon the face at a small angle. This also allows us to get rid entirely of the shadow on the background or to compose it more gracefully in the picture. For this it is well that the chair should be brought forward from the background from three to six feet. Those who undertake daguerreotype portraiture will, of course, arrange the background of their pictures according to their own tastes. When one that is quite uniform is desired, a blanket or a cloth of drab color, properly suspended, will be found to answer very well.”
While Draper took the first formal portrait, Louis Daguerre actually took the first photo of a person. He captured a photo looking out over a street in Paris. It was a long exposure, so people moving through the frame were not captured. But one person stood still long enough to register in the image while he was getting his shoe shined.
Note: The Times actually celebrated Draper’s birthday a few days early. He was born on May 5.