The man in one of New York’s oldest photos

He’s young, handsome, and decked out in a formal suit coat with what looks like a tie. This daguerrotype portrait of him dates back to 1840, just as daguerrotype photography was introduced to America.

Who is he? His identity may be lost to the ages.

But we do know who took the photo: Samuel F.B. Morse (below, years later as an older man), who would be credited with inventing the telegraph in 1844.

Before sending the first telegraph message, Morse was a painter and professor of art at the new University of the City of New York—later to be renamed New York University.

While studying in Europe, he met Louis Daguerre and learned his process for capturing images.

After returning to the US in 1839, Morse set up a studio on the roof of the Old University Building on Washington Square with John William Draper, a chemistry professor also interested in Daguerre’s process. (Draper created this portrait of his sister in the studio in 1840.)

In this studio, Morse “received many students who paid him to teach them the new daguerreotype process,” states the Library of Congress. (Mathew Brady, the famed Civil War photographer who would launch his first studio on Broadway in 1844, was one.)

Perhaps the young man in the image was an earnest daguerrotype student. Maybe he’s the scion of an old money family and wanted a selfie. Or he could be an NYU kid recruited as a model because of his good looks.

Whoever he is, he’s the subject of one of the earliest photographic images ever taken in New York City.

“This simple portrait of an unknown sitter, who clearly strains to keep his eyes open during the long, twenty-to-thirty minute exposure, is the only extant daguerreotype by Morse and one of the earliest photographs made in America,” states the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has it in its collection.

“The strength of the portrait is in the young man’s rapt expression, which seems to reflect a subtle awareness of his participation in a grand endeavor. The mindful sitter is one of the first in photography to return the gaze of the viewer.”

[Top and middle images:]

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15 Responses to “The man in one of New York’s oldest photos”

  1. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    What a handsome devil!!!

  2. beth Says:

    how cool

  3. alaspooryorick Says:

    will check if it is on view at the Met. they have an amazing website with everything in the collection.

  4. alaspooryorick Says:

    unfortunately it is not on view. too bad.

  5. greg chown Says:

    I think it’s Christopher Walken

  6. ironrailsironweights Says:

    This 1838 daguerreotype of a Paris street by Louis Daguerre himself is the first known photo of a person. While there certainly were many people in view the long exposure time meant that they’re not visible. Except for the man in the lower left with one leg raised, who is having his shoes shined. By being in one spot without moving much for several minutes, his image appears.


  7. mitzanna Says:

    It does say “made in America”…

  8. Shayne Davidson Says:

    The exposure time would have been 1-2 minutes, depending on available light. I’m shocked that the Met got that so wrong. Nice post!

  9. David H Lippman Says:

    Great artist, mediocre engineer (he stole stuff from Joseph Henry for Morse Code and the Telegraph), and first-class nutball. He hated Jews, Catholics, and blacks, and said so. Loudly. He also helped found New York University, which named their broad-based education program in his honor. If he knew they were trying to do that, he’d go nuts…he was an utter elitist.

  10. The ghost photographer who became a sensation in Gilded Age New York City | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] photography a relatively new and mysterious practice, people were even more willing to believe Mumler’s claims. […]

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