The First Photograph

By Paul Ellis (from Photofusion Education)

I saw the The Name of the Rose on DVD the other evening and thought about the new Ilford Obscura Pinhole Camera, as you do (we’ve just taken delivery of these for a Pinhole Workshop that we are running). The film made me realise that photography is not a Victorian invention but actually a Medieval one (in fact probably Mesolithic). Everything needed to make a photograph was available to the medieval scientist/artist and we know that they used Camera Obscuras but what they couldn’t do was fix the image, or could they?

So when did photography begin? It’s a simple question yet difficult to answer. We know that Daguerre and Fox Talbot released their photographic inventions to the world in 1839 but we also know that they were both making photographic images several years before this. We know that Daguerre’s predecessor Niepce made a photographic image in 1824 (it had an eight hour exposure) and we know that Thomas Wedgewood made photographic images in the 1790’s but they faded after several days (although one image attributed to Fox Talbot may actually be proved to be a surviving Wedgewood). We also know that German polymath Shulze made photographic images in 1727 but they too faded very quickly.

William Henry Fox Talbot

William Henry Fox Talbot

So the question really is when was the first fixed photographic image made? Then the answer is 1824 by Niepce but it might one day be around 1790 if the Wedgewood image is proved true. But there is another possible image. One that predates these by several hundred years or more. It’s a very controversial one but an absolutely fascinating one. The Turin Shroud. Christ’s burial cloth. Now I can’t prove this but please hear me out…

The Turin Shroud shows an image of a man with a beard with wounds consistent with crucifixion. The image of the man is 6’ 10” (which possibly suggests that the image was projected). The image is in negative (this was only realised in 1898 when it was first photographed). A piece of the edge of the cloth, not containing any part of the image, was carbon dated to around 1300. The head in the image is not connected to the body. So the theory goes something like this… it is a form of proto-photography made by Leonardo Da Vinci for the Church (as a relic for pilgrim worship).

A South African Professor of Photography Nicholas Allen used a Camera Obscura with basic lens and a plaster cast of a human recreated a near identical image. The exposure was a couple of days (so more Solargraph than photograph). The cloth was stretched and covered with silver salts and fixed with urine.

But it gets weirder. The conspiracy theorists argue that the head is actually the image of Da Vinci himself (it is remarkably similar to a late Da Vinci self-portrait). Its get even weirder still… They argue that Da Vinci was a Baptist and that the head not being connected to the body was Da Vinci’s in-joke on the Church (John the Baptist was beheaded and many regard John and not Jesus as the Messiah).

Turin Shroud

Turin Shroud

Anyways, it’s a remarkable image and one that may yet still re-write the photography history books but if it is indeed a form of early photography then it was made by something not dissimilar to the Ilford Obscura camera.