Posts Tagged ‘Daguerreotypes of New York City’

This oldest photo of the moon was taken in 1840 on a Greenwich Village roof

December 19, 2021

The black and white image has deteriorated over the last 180 or so years, and it evokes something ghostly and supernatural. But this crescent shape amid light and shadow is considered the oldest surviving photo of the moon—taken in 1840 by an NYU professor who pioneered early photography.

The backstory of the photo begins in 1839. That’s when word reached New York City about the new photography process developed in France by Louis Daguerre.

John William Draper took a keen interest. Draper, 29, was a London-born chemistry and natural history professor and part of the faculty at the new college on Washington Square then known as the University of the City of New-York (now called NYU).

Draper too had experimented with capturing light, and he “quickly realized the importance of the invention of the daguerreotype, becoming one of the first Americans to try the process,” stated Off the Grid, the blog for the historic site Village Preservation.

The NYU building, since demolished, where the moon image was taken

Draper, as well as his NYU colleague Samuel Morse (a professor of painting before he invented the telegraph), began making daguerreotypes, according to Arthur Greenberg’s book, From Alchemy to Chemistry in Picture and Story, experimenting in the studio observatory on top of the university’s main building (above).

Draper’s first successful daguerreotype that survives is a copy of an image of his 33-year-old sister, Dorothy Catherine Draper, below. But set his sights on something more extraordinary: a daguerreotype showing the surface of the moon.

Dorothy Catherine Draper, at about age 33

Though he may not have been the first person to capture an image of the moon, Draper’s moon shot, so to speak, is the oldest that survives (top image).

The photo at top was likely the specific one Draper perfected on March 26, 1840. “The extensively-degraded plate shows part of a vertically ‘flipped’ last-quarter Moon—so lunar south is near the top—which would indicate his use of a device called a heliostat to keep light from the Moon focused on the plate during a long 20-minute exposure,” according to the site Lights in the Dark by Jason Major.

John William Draper, decades after his first moon photos

Throughout his life, Draper racked up numerous achievements as a scientist, writer, philosopher, and physician, even cofounding NYU’s medical school. His moon image, however, didn’t get the recognition it deserved.

“Despite his accomplishment, Draper’s efforts received only modest recognition from his contemporaries; until recently his lunar daguerreotypes were believed to be lost,” according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has one of his moon daguerreotypes in its collection.

Like so many other notable 19th century New Yorkers, both Draper and his sister are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery.

The oldest street scene photos of New York City

March 7, 2016

France’s Louis Daguerre perfected the earliest form of commercial photography in 1839. It didn’t take long for others to seize the new technology and create daguerreotypes of New York City street scenes.

Daguerreotypechurch

These surviving early photographs offer a fascinating (if faded) glimpse into the city during an era when images were generally recorded with paint or ink, not copper plates.

At top is the Unitarian Congregational Church of the Messiah, which once stood on the east side of Broadway at the end of Waverly Place, surrounded by small free-standing houses.

Daguerreotypechathamsquare

The photo was taken in 1839 or 1840 from the rooftop studio of Samuel F.B. Morse 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, Dorothy.)

The second daguerreotype captures Chatham Street (now Park Row) northeast of Chatham Square. It dates back to 1853-1855 and shows a commercial, working-class section of the city known for its shops, taverns, and dance halls.

nycoldestdaguerreotype

“Unlike the period’s printed views, which were generally designed for clarity and filled with drafting table anecdote, this photograph shows the city as an inelegant confusion of traffic, commercial signs, and pedestrians,” explains the link to the photo (which can be enlarged for careful study) on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.

And though it doesn’t necessarily count as a street scene because the street at the time was rural farmland, the third daguerreotype is an 1839 image of a lovely house and white fence on Bloomingdale Road, once a part of today’s Upper West Side.