Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, the First Staged Photograph in 1840

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When photographs first appeared a century and a half ago, people were astonished by their mirror-like fidelity. Early reports often referred to the “mirror of nature” and “the mirror with a memory.” Although today the ubiquity of photographic imagery has largely drained it of this awesome, magical aspect, some photographers have remained enthralled. So much so that they have turned their own bodies to the camera and found that, far from being confined to dumb reflections of surface realities, the photograph has offered a means with which to penetrate the deepest recesses of the self.

The earliest photographer to stage such an image was the Frenchman Hippolyte Bayard. He called the image, which featured himself as a half-naked corpse, “portrait of a drowned man,” thereby voicing his bitterness at not having been acknowledged as one of the inventors of photography. As early as 1840, therefore, there is a precursor to the theatrical stagings of the self so prevalent in photography of the late twentieth century.

Bayard made, possibly in October 1840, the first staged photograph, Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, in which he pretends to have committed suicide, sitting and leaning to the right. Bayard wrote on the back of his most notable photograph:

“The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you, or the wonderful results of which you will soon see. As far as I know, this inventive and indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with the perfection of his discovery. The Academy, the King, and all those who have seen his pictures admired them as you do at this very moment, although he himself considers them still imperfect. This has brought him much honor but not a single sou. The government, which has supported M. Daguerre more than is necessary, declared itself unable to do anything for M. Bayard, and the unhappy man threw himself into the water in despair. Oh, human fickleness! For a long time, artists, scientists, and the press took interest in him, but now that he has been lying in the morgue for days, no-one has recognized him or claimed him! Ladies and gentlemen, let’s talk of something else so that your sense of smell is not upset, for as you have probably noticed, the face and hands have already started to decompose.”

The note is signed by none other than the drowned man himself: “H.B. 18 October, 1840.”

As the first known example of a faked photograph (more specifically, the series of “Drowned Man” photographs he shot), this image illustrates two qualities of photographs: first, that they can depict the world in a manner that closely mimics the way we see it. Second, that since their invention, they have been staged or altered in ways that remain consistent with the way we see. This consistency makes them all the more believable.
These contradictions persist today, and are heightened by the ubiquity of digital photography. While photography remains one of our principal forms of evidence, we are well aware of the existence of software like Photoshop–unlike early viewers of photography, who had more limited knowledge of tricks of the camera and printing process.

Hippolyte Bayard (1801–1887) was a French photographer and pioneer in the history of photography. He invented his own process that produced direct positive paper prints in the camera and presented the world’s first public exhibition of photographs on June 24, 1839. He claimed to have invented photography earlier than Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre in France and William Henry Fox Talbot in England, the men traditionally credited with its invention.
Bayard experimented with the new medium taking photos of plant specimens, statuary (including posing with them for self-portraits), street scenes, urban landscapes, architectural photos, and portraits. He photographed prominent figures and an ordinary worker. He also advocated combination printing and was one of the founders of a photo society.
Bayard’s self-portrait in the garden, 1847.
Despite his initial hardships in photography, Bayard continued to be a productive member of the photographic society. He was a founding member of the French Society of Photography. Bayard was also one of the first photographers to be commissioned to document and preserve architecture and historical sites in France for the Missions Héliographiques in 1851 by the Historic Monument Commission. He used a paper photographic process similar to the one he developed to take pictures for the Commission. Additionally, he suggested combining two negatives to properly expose the sky and then the landscape or building, an idea known as combination printing which began being used in the 1850s.

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