Trending: How Hippolyte Bayard Created the First Staged Photo

By David Schonauer   Thursday May 16, 2019

Hippolyte Bayard is back among the living.

At least, the 19th-century French photography pioneer is getting lots of attention lately, with the release of the latest video from the Vox Darkroom series, which shares “stories of the past, one photograph at a time.”

The story of Bayard has both historical and artistic resonance today. It is, noted the video, the story of an ambitious 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.”

It’s also the story of the world’s first staged photo.

Born in 1801, Bayard was working as a civil servant when he began experimenting with photography. He ended up developing a process that produced direct positive paper prints. According to Monovisions magazine, the process “involved exposing silver chloride paper to light, which turned the paper completely black. It was then soaked in potassium iodide before being exposed in a camera. After the exposure, it was washed in a bath of hyposulfite of soda and dried.”

“The resulting image was a unique photograph that could not be reproduced,” adds the magazine. “Due to the paper’s poor light sensitivity, an exposure of approximately twelve minutes was required. Using this method of photography, still subject matter, such as buildings, were favoured. When used for photographing people, sitters were told to close their eyes so as to eliminate the eerie, ‘dead’ quality produced due to blinking and moving one’s eyes during such a long exposure.”

Bayard is also noted for presenting the world’s first photo exhibition, in June 1939.

Today, when people talk about the invention of photography, the two names that usually come up are another Frenchman, Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre, and an Englishman, William Henry Fox Talbot. Bayard, however, claimed to have invented photography before either of them. Why he didn’t get the credit he deserved, and how that led him to created a photo of himself as a suicide victim, is detailed in the Vox video.

In short, Bayard was persuaded to delay the announcement of his photographic invention by François Arago, a friend of Daguerre and chair of the French Academy of Sciences. “Arago’s conflict of interest cost Bayard the recognition as one of the principal inventors of photography,” notes Monovision.

“As a response,” notes the video, Bayard killed himself. Sort of. In protest for being overlooked as an inventor of photography, Bayard created a photograph called “Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man,” in which he pretends to have committed suicide.

“The image itself is rich in symbols that Bayard included to hint at his perceived injustice,” notes the video. Bayard’s photo, adds the video, is “an early example of photography showing something non-literal and symbolic.”

In that sense, Bayard not only invented photography as a process, but also lay the groundwork for “exploring the medium’s potential for creative expression.”

Want more history as told in photographs? Below are other videos from the Vox Darkroom series:

Why the Soviets Doctored This Iconic Photo

2. The Deadly Race to the South Pole

3. How the Hindenburg Killed an Entire Industry

4. Why a Car Always Lands on It’s Feet


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