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.