Very early photo of a human being

 Assets Img 2010 10 22 Cincinnati-River-Image
Last month at the excellent Krulwich Wonders blog, Robert Krulwich examined a set of astoundingly-sharp 1842 daguerreotypes of Cincinnati along the Ohio River. According to the University of Rochester, it's "the oldest photograph of an urban area in existence." Zooming way in, one could barely make out what appeared to be two people at the edge of the river, collecting what looked like a bucket of water. Inspired, one of Krulwich's readers did a bit of photo forensics and provided us a much better glimpse of those two folks. He blogged about his findings at Hokumburg Goombah. Krulwich followed up with another post and asks if this is the "first photo of a human being ever?" (No, it actually isn't.) From Hokumburg Goombah:
Cincinnatidague (Krulwich) thinks this detail shows a short man and a tall man with a bucket between them. I have lightened it up a bit and messed with the contrast a little, and I think the man on the left is standing behind the wooden beam wall (wharf? dock?) with his left leg up on the wall and his left hand resting on his knee, while the man on the right is standing on top of that wall. What do you think?
Remarkable Picture of the Past from NPR (Hokumburg Goombah, thanks Bob Pescovitz!)

"First Photo Of A Human Being?" (Krulwich Wonders)

"Once In a Lifetime River Tour Starts Here! Unfortunately, Everybody’s Dead" (Krulwich Wonders)


  1. I am an amateur photographer and I can tell you with some authority that those are bigfoots. Bigfeet.

  2. I’m guessing that, because you can see features through them, that they moved during a relatively long exposure? I wondered if it could be one person who repositioned during a long exposure, because they couldn’t communicate over that long distance to coordinate the picture. Or maybe they were both wearing similar clothing – their posture suggests it was two people adjacent to each other. Neat find either way.

    1. The ‘person’ on the left and the one on the right are probably the same person who moved during the long exposure. The outline of the shirts are the same and you can easily see the transparency of both figures, especially the one on the left.

  3. I would definitely say that the guy on the left is kneeling in the classic “proposal” pose: one knee on the ground and the other knee forward with his foot on the ground.

      1. I’m not sure about that, the guy on the left seems to be wearing long pants and the guy on the right, short.
        Also, I kind of get the impression that they’re young boys. Maybe 10 or 12-ish.

    1. One dude is definitely kneeling, not doing the captain morgan pose as the author suggests, however is it the first photo of human life ever recorded or the first photo of an alien life form on earth….hmmmmmm

  4. There are people scattered throughout the photo, some wearing top hats… some chatting… these aren’t the only people in the shot.

    1. Yeah the Krulwich blog linked to here has the Daguerre photo in it as well… so I’m not sure why BB is parroting this headline. That Daguerre photo is super well known and any high school art student has probably seen it by the time they graduate.

    2. Thanks. Exactly. I remember a discussion in class where we debated whether that was even a genuine occurrence … that perhaps Daguerre had paid someone to stand still so as to add something to his image.

  5. Question: Is it possible that there is only one person in the photo, but there are two images of this person?

    Notice how the figures seem transparent, is this a clue that, perhaps, the exposure was a long one (how long?) and that the person, over time, occupied two positions long enough to be captured twice?
    Or, is it more likely, there were two people both moving slightly, but continuously, over time cause the background to be exposed simultaneously along with the bodies of the two people more to the foreground?

    Notice the white shapes(hot spots) under the chins of each person. Not sure whether these support the multiple exposure thought I had, but; if not, it seems clear from these spots — both figures appear to be wearing similar clothing or a uniform of some sort.

    Perhaps they are staff from the Paddle Boat (doing a little laundry during a stopover?)

    Cool stuff, love it,


    1. where IS that other video of that lady that looks like she’s talking on a cell phone? I saw that video yesterday when I first looked at this picture of the one guy standing on the dock (long exposure, changed postitions) it was supposed to be a lady walking on a sidewalk in New York(?) in the early 1900’s that appeared that she was talking and laughing using a cell phone,, that was a hell of a lot more interesting than this still photo! Sure it was a hoax,, it did somehow involve Barnum & Bailey

  6. So there are two pictures on the original NPR article. Both being of sides of the river it seems. I can’t exactly tell the referent, but the author mentions the second picture, quoted by the University of Rochester, as “the oldest photograph of an urban area in existence.” If so, the second picture obviously has people in it. So which picture was taken first on that fine Sunday in 1848?

    I guess it doesn’t matter anyways if skink74 is correct.

  7. It looks to me like the one on the right is kind of standing there and leaning over the dock, and looking into the river, while the guy on the left is “taking a knee” and his leg that is down is just behind him. But depending on the length of the exposure it could very well be the same damn person. I read about this in Wired and they talked about how they could not figure out what time of year or day it was shot, but then they used forensic stuff, like the length of shadows and such to pin it down. They then found the town clock – which was very sharp in the photo – and they were accurate to a couple of hours. I don’t remember if they were able to tell how long the exposure was though.

    My money is on the guy being the same guy, maybe fishing in the river, standing looking into the river, holding the same pose, and then suddenly moving and leaning down – moving very quickly as to not cause blur in the picture – and staying in that pose for a while. The “two” men have the same outfit on, after all.

    1. Yes, I just posted the same thing, not seeing your post. I am 100% sure this is the case. I also pointed to the “2” carriages (much further apart because it’s moving faster than the people). There are two of everyone actually.

    1. Proposal, it is being said? Between two men perhaps! ;) A woman would have had a much wider shape with even a narrow dress of the time.

  8. Not enough detail to be sure if those are people, shadow patterns, artifacts in the image, or gods know what. It would be nice if they were people, but that’s not the way I’d bet. As has been noted on BB before, humans are entirely too good at pattern-matching, and will see recognizable objects in random noise.

  9. First photo of human? No. I think it has to be the first photographic evidence of ghosts! It’s the ghostly apparitions of two souls haunting the river banks after they drowned! (It is really close to Halloween after all…)

  10. Looks more like a Tom Sawyer scene to me. Looking at the size of the boards behind them, I tink it is actually two younger boys, and they are hanging out , waiting for the ferry.
    Ferry docks have not changed much in 150 years. Here is the one I wait at a few times a year:
    Lytton Reaction Ferry (no engine)
    The line through the shot may be the cable for the ferry.

    1. I was thinking two children as well, which would make sense if they’d been sent to fetch a pail of water. I’m even willing to guess that the taller one might be a Jill, not a Jack.

      1. Can’t be children. There’s no way two children could hold still long enough to be captured in that type of photograph.

  11. It looks to me like the standing figure is wearing a space helmet, so I’m not assuming either figure is human.

  12. 1826 trumps.

    “1826, Niépce was ready. In the window of his upper-story workroom at his Saint-Loup-de-Varennes country house, Le Gras, he set up a camera obscura, placed within it a polished pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea (an asphalt derivative of petroleum), and uncapped the lens. […] The result was the permanent direct positive picture”

    Not sure if the courtyard of an estate in Gras, France is considered urban, but several structures are in the image- but no figures. Perhaps the image of the river is the oldest image of an urban area in North America?


  13. This reminds me of the first ever photo (from 1826) which is on display at the Ransom Center in Austin @ the University of Texas.

    Outstanding stuff–and I wonder if they had an earlier photo of man. Hmmm…I’d have imagined someone would have taken a nudie pic within the first few days of the invention of photography.

  14. My two cents is that the standing man on the right is wearing long-sleeved coat with tails and a waistcoat, with a ruffled shirt and fairly tight pants. The one kneeling with arm resting on his leg appears to me to have only a waistcoat or vest on over his ruffled shirt. The arms seem lighter, as if he is not wearing a sleeved jacket and the pants seem looser and much darker. I think it’s two men, one bald and looking into the water and the other looking almost directly at the camera.

  15. My money would be on this being pareidolia.

    Paranerd: I doubt this exposure was that long. The detail in the water is too crisp. Moving water on a long exposure always comes out very smooth.

    TBH, I don’t even think we’re looking at two distinct objects. The two very bright spots are merely the same kind of noise that is all over the entire photo. The black circle to the top of the figure on the left is not a head, but a divot in the earth at the back of the dock. The “knee(s)” on the same figure are just small posts used for tying a boat to the dock.

  16. That’s definitely one shoddy dock.

    My initial reaction was that these were two african-american boys, one kneeling as stated. The standing one has his left leg up on something and his hand on his knee. They are posed and aware someone across from them has a camera. But I believe they are self posed, seeing a new fangled camera and they frooze, striking poses common for the day (in painting), but not posed on instruction from the photog.

    Also, the standing one has a coat with tails. And may possibly be a juvenile Predator.

  17. I know Krulwich isn’t a historian or anything, and I don’t wish to appear to be a nob, but anyone wondering about stuff in the US in 1842 being the earliest example of ANYTHING has to have a rather warped sense of history. It took the US another 30 years to catch up with (and of course overtake) Europe, technologically. Until then, it was basically at the same stage that China or India are today. Of course, that’s not to say that nobody in Europe thought to take a photo of somebody, but it’s still extremely unlikely.

  18. zoomed in a bit more
    Looks like the man on the left has a left leg on a wood dock, but in front of him, not to his left. He is leaning with his left hand on a dock cleat (not bucket), maybe has a hat on and almost facing the camera.
    The man on the right is standing on that same beam, left hand in his pocket.
    They both look black to me and very free …
    daguerreotype is by Charles Fontayne and William Porter

  19. There is also a third person in the photograph, directly above the two by the river. The person is in the street next to the building that says “Painter”. Right along the light from the rear alleyway. If you compare the size of the 3 people and consider the distance, the two near the river could very well be children. I’m surprised that nobody else has noticed this.

  20. There is also a third person in the photograph, directly above the two by the river. The person is in the street next to the building that says “Painter”. Right along the light from the rear alleyway. If you compare the size of the 3 people and consider the distance, the two near the river could very well be children. I’m surprised that nobody else has noticed this.

  21. Another person in the photo: just to the left of the steamship smokestacks is a small house with a second-story porch, well lit, built lower than the row of houses just behind it. Zoom in on the left side of the house, where there are some stairs and a landing on the first floor. I see what I think is the ghost image of a woman in a long dress, standing facing to the right.

    1. “Another person in the photo: just to the left of the steamship smokestacks is a small house with a second-story porch, well lit, built lower than the row of houses just behind it. Zoom in on the left side of the house, where there are some stairs and a landing on the first floor. I see what I think is the ghost image of a woman in a long dress, standing facing to the right.”

      Yep. That’s definitely a woman.

      So, how many people in the photo are we up to now? Five?

      -Wharf man kneeling
      -Wharf man standing
      -Person walking into the Lath Factory at the very right-hand side
      -Person sitting on the log at the front right of the Lath factory
      -Woman standing outside the well-lit house to the left of the steamship smokestacks

  22. There also appears to be someone sitting on a log in front of the building between the sheet iron shop and the lath factory directly above the building to the left of the 2 people standing on the wharf. See “” to zoom in.

  23. If these are two different people then I think they work or socialize together because they both have on white bibs or napkins on the front of them. I don’t see any bucket between them. Maybe they are taking a break or fishing or just talking between them.s It is fascinating to see whatever is going on.

  24. I think that the fellow on the left is actually sitting on these steps that lead down to the river. He is neither knelling or on one knee but he is actually sitting on the stone steps.

  25. Both of them are a bit transparent, and they are both wearing the exact same thing and have the same head shape/hair.

  26. I think it is only ONE person…left picture shows a man climbing (left foot up on the log). Man on right is that same person after ascending.

  27. I think the real mystery is what you don’t see. Who is taking the picture, from where and for what?
    Oh, and I hope people in the future have as much fun looking at all of our pictures too.

  28. Sorry folks, but this is ONE MAN. Since it took so long for the plates to burn in back then, the shutter had do remain open. THe man simply moved from one position to another within the open shutter time frame. This is also why he appears to be ghosted.

    If you notice in the other pictures in this set you will also find a ghostly pair for each person–and even the horse drawn carriage (but those images are further apart, since it is moving faster).

  29. upon examining with the link to the one that you can see the close ups and move it around…I believe I see another person,in front of the Lath factory, sitting on a big log.
    I had to look because the chances of a photographer taking a shot and only having just two people show up in a town that big with the possibilities of people that ‘could’ be out and about have the odds in the favor that some others are there somewhere..

  30. I immediately thought it looked like two black folks. Looks like a work related sitiation. Just goes to show you black folks are Americana from the start..

  31. I am not sure about this photo and its comments with 1848, … but “I” have in my families’ genealogical archive the oldest identified persons photograph of my ancestors from New Haven, CT to Iowa territory.

    This is before any/all President, Vice President, Governor, Lt. Governor of the 1860s.

    As the family historian/genealogist, we can identify, using the census records of the time, that my (paternal) Great Grandmother’s mother is the teenage daughter sitting in front of her parents. The father is born 1798. The mother is born 1799.

    The time-lapsed picture shows these sitting/standing covered wagon train settlers as the Fords, Bishops, and others, in Cedar Rapids, Linn County, Iowa.

    The photo is a large Matthew Brady type of photograph put on thick brown backing paper.

    John Robert Lord
    Fremont, CA

  32. Ok evrybody Ur all have great comments BUT these r ALIENS dressed up 2 fit that eara,& because 1 of them has a bigger 4head than the other, but DeepNorth Urs mite have came close but where is the blur??. Anyway the guy has a good eye…

  33. those are just two kids carrying piece of mirrors (any reflectional surface), trying to upset those who are on the next bank of the river carrying a Camera, which will not be a difficult for curious children to notice and keen to make some fun.
    and not as the American Propaganda, from a piece of simple thing that one can convert it into a very huge mountain, and claim that he is the first who climbed it in the whale universe. and i agree with another notion, that said, ” two are carrying bans to take some water from the river, one has finished and waited for his friend and the other trying to get up”
    easy easy easy with those who do not know, they may miss lead and get all of us lost behind them

  34. The first portrait known was by Robert Cornelius in 1839.. this is 9 yrs later. While interesting, I fail to see the grand significance here.

  35. The man with his foot up on the dock is holding a bottle in his left hand which looks like a old wine bottle and in his right hand is some kind of light. He is also in overalls and is wearing a hat that looks like straw. The other man is well dressed and looks like he is in a suit. He is also bald and has both hands in his pockets. I think that both men are off the riverboat; one is a worker and the well-dressed man is a business man or a gambler. One more thing, the well-dressed man is wearing glasses.

  36. It is amazing that they had the technology back then to superimpose images upon another image, remarkable, similiar to our photoshopee in the CS formats. Great work, we could learn a lot from their ability without the modern technology. – tmc

  37. Hypothesis: It is 2 african american children. The size of those kind of planks for that kind of dock were big during that time period. And the outfits those 2 children were wearing match with what would be worn in the Midwest during mid 19th century. The long exposure with the color intact while they moved a little, yes a boy with a hat on, and a taller girl with a dress on. They obviously were not down there to pose for the picture considering the distance. They were in poverty and even when I was young and much poorer than middle class going to the river was fun. So yes, kind of a date, it looks like the boy is confident as if he just kissed the tall girl and her head is blurry from shaking her head as if smiling and disbelief of him “actin the fool” after he just kissed her. She is not bald, her hair is pulled back almost skin tight. Also, how african american female children wore their hair. :)

  38. The black man on the left is kneeling to hold on to the rope tied around the bucket to get some water, while his son stands beside him.

  39. I believe those are images of two ghostly entities from a long time ago that have been captured is this photograph.

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