DISCUSSED: Stereotypical Salon Scenes, Belt Buckles, The Whim of Photons,Circumstances under which Everyone Looks Like the Queen of England, Men of Normal Foreheads, The U.S. as the Center of Bolshevik Propaganda, The British Paleoanthropologists and the Famous Elephant Dung Fight, Goat’s-Bladder Bags, The Underappreciation of Unphotographable Movement, Ancient Sumerian City-States, Prehistoric Cubicles, Where the Universe Is Going


There is no photograph commemorating the birth of photography. There is, however, a painting. Titled Le Salon de M. Irisson (10, Rue d’Antin) le 19 Aout 1839 au soir, le jour de l’annonce du daguerrotype par Arago, it was painted by M. Prosper Lafaye and is currently housed in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris. It depicts a stereotypical salon scene—ladies with glowing skin and flowing gowns, gentlemen appearing reflective and holding good posture in tight pants—which transpired on the evening following the announcement to the French Chamber of Deputies of Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre’s invention. The painting is an insignificant contribution to the history of art. Its force lies merely in a historical irony: photography, the ultimate witness, was unable to witness its own birth.

I have not been to the Musée Carnavalet, so I have not seen the painting itself. But I have seen a photograph of it.

As a matter of fact, a photograph was taken on the day that photography was born (or at least baptized). But it is not of the Chamber of Deputies itself. It is not of the moment when the patent, presented by Deputy François Arago, head of the observatory and himself an avid observer of light and movement, was awarded to Daguerre. To commemorate the moment, Daguerre turned his camera outward and took a now-famous shot of the scene outside: the bridge, the Tuileries, a tiny and blurry policeman in the distance, with a shine on his buckle.

The kind of commemorative picture that became the norm later on—the family portrait, the class picture, the dignitaries at the UN or in parliament, the team photo—was impossible back then. It would’ve been ridiculous for Daguerre to attempt a photograph of the deputies in the way that M. Prosper Lafaye painted the salon participants later that night. When it came to portraying humans, painting was still a more accurate medium. If I were to meet Lafaye’s salon participants today I’d probably recognize them. But the long exposure time of those early cameras made it impossible to take pictures of human beings that resembled human beings. They came out all blurry or almost invisible. People did not remain still long enough to be captured by Daguerre’s camera. Sitting for a painted portrait was surely a long and grueling process, but when a painter asked a subject to sit still, it meant something else altogether. A painter assembles different details of a person’s face over time into one portrait in his head. The camera does not assemble; it indifferently records the vectors of movement over time, without any concern for what is an eyelid and what a cornea, or what is a face and what an elbow.

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Abou Farman’s writing has appeared in Maisonneuve, Arc, Green Mountains Review, History and Anthropology, Transitions, and elsewhere. His film credits include screenwriter on Sound Barrier and producer on Vegas: Based on a True Story. As part of the duo caraballo-farman, he has exhibited installation and video art at the Tate Modern, UK, and PS1, NY, amongst other places.

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