Is this 1840 portrait New York’s oldest photo?

Dorothycatherinedraper18402Meet Dorothy Catherine Draper. This image of the young woman’s face, her dark hair framed by a light bonnet, was created in 1840.

Made by Dorothy’s brother, John William Draper, a professor of chemistry at New York University, it might be the oldest known portrait photo of a New Yorker.

John William Draper’s specialty was photochemistry. In 1834, impressed by the advancements in photography by Louis Daguerre, he tried to improve Daguerre’s process.

Collaborating with Samuel Morse, also an NYU professor and inventor of the telegraph, he set up a studio on the roof of NYU’s main building (below) in the late 1830s.

“Draper produced the first photograph of the moon, taken from the roof of University Building in March 1840,” writes Thomas J. Frusciano, author of New York University in the City.


“That spring or summer he produced one of the earliest daguerreotype portraits of his devoted sister, Dorothy Catherine Draper.”

It wasn’t the first daguerreotype portrait in the country; that was taken a year earlier in Philadelphia.

But it just might be the first portrait photo created in New York City—an image that helped usher in the Daguerreotype craze of the 1840s and 1850s, thanks in part to one of Draper’s students, Mathew Brady.

This 1848 photo of an Upper West Side estate is currently considered New York’s oldest daguerreotype. Dorothy Draper’s image appears to predate it.

[Photo of NYU building, demolished in 1894:]

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19 Responses to “Is this 1840 portrait New York’s oldest photo?”

  1. carolegill Says:

    Yes, thanks for posting.
    i read about this somewhere. It’s amazing. And the photo of the building is excellent.
    I love looking at these old photos, they’re haunting.

  2. ronfrankl Says:

    Interesting post. Digging a little further, I learned that Ms. Draper lived to the age of 94, dying in 1907. Here is a link to Find A Grave’s entry for her gravesite:

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Wow, thanks for the info. So she was 33 when the portrait was done.

  4. petey Says:

    i haven’t been to washington square in a while, and can’t picture it clearly. does that building still stand?

  5. carolegill Says:

    Does anyone know what the building was?
    It was quite a remarkable looking building. Such a shame that it was demolished.
    There is an excellent book I read many years ago, I think it was called, Lost New York. One of the things I learned from it was Park Avenue was actually one long park. There was no traffic on it. I remember the photo.

  6. Joe Bauman Says:

    This is ludicrous. The daguerreotype was announced n 1839, not 1834. The view of the estate was never considered New York’s first photograph; it is believed to be the first outdoor photograph taken in New York. By 1848, the date given here for the outdoor view, many daguerreotype studios had been operating in New York, and a huge number of dags from that period survive.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      The post doesn’t claim that the daguerreotype was announced in 1834. And outside sources providing background on the 1848 photo, including The New York Times, reported that it may be New York’s oldest surviving photograph.

      • Joe Bauman Says:

        Almost nothing was known publicly about Daguerre’s work until it was announced in 1839. He had not even produced a daguerreotype in 1834 and could not have made progress in it at that time. It’s absolutely crazy to claim the 1848 photo is NY’s oldest surviving photograph. There are probably thousands of earlier NY photographs in collections. Just look at any history of photography. Here is a quote from the site “” — “By 1850, there were over 70 daguerreotype studios in New York City alone.” So there were NONE before 1848 and by 1850 more than 70? NYC daguerreotype portraits from before 1848 are numerous.

  7. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    As the post says, daguerreotypes were popular in New York City in the 1840s and 1850s.

    I added a mention of the 1848 daguerreotype because a recent New York Times article questioned if it was the oldest surviving photo taken in New York. As the post implies, the Draper daguerreotype predates it, so it can’t be.

    The information about Draper’s fascination with Daguerre’s work in 1834 comes from a book cited as a source. This information, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also explains that Daguerre had been working on a way to capture photographic images since the 1820s.

    The post never claimed he made a Daguerreotype, simply that he had been working on the process.

    • Joe Bauman Says:

      The post claimed Draper was inspired by Daguerre’s work in 1834. Daguerre kept his work secret until much later. The important factor is that a great many portraits were taken in New York prior to 1848 and everybody interested in the history of photography knows it. The post stated, “This 1848 photo of an Upper West Side estate is currently considered New York’s oldest daguerreotype.” Nobody who knows anything about the history of photography would agree. It is considered the first OUTDOOR photograph taken in New York.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        You are welcome to take it up with the sources.

      • Joe Bauman Says:

        No need to. It’s beyond any possible argument. Why don’t you check for some Brady NY dags pre-1848?

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        Can you read? I am not disagreeing with you that daguerreotype studios, including Mathew Brady’s, were all over New York in the 1840s. I included this in the original post. I don’t know why you keep belaboring a point we both agree on.

  8. carolegill Says:

    Thank you, Ephemeral. Interesting about the founders’ monument.
    Very interesting post.

  9. carolegill Says:

    very welcome!
    pinning my fav posts to Pinterest!

  10. The oldest street scene photos of New York City | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] and John Draper, who worked together at New York University. (Draper also took what might be the first daguerreotype portrait in 1840—of his sister, […]

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