FLESH-AND-BLOOD PHANTOMS

The following is from Destiny: From Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story,  by Paul Aurandt:

The Ghosts of the Paris Boulevard

IN THE PHOTOGRAPHIC COLLECTION of the Bavarian National Museum in Munich, Germany, is a daguerreotype dated 1839.  It was taken by Louis Daguerre himself, apparently from the highest window of a Paris building.

The scene is one of a beautiful boulevard stretching into the distance.  On the sidewalk below, a man stands with one foot up on a bootblack’s platform.  A tiny, blurry image.

This is the first human figure ever photographed.

There is something else intriguing about this Paris cityscape.  Something almost unearthly.  Looking at the picture, one slowly becomes aware of it.  Then one is haunted by the desire to learn THE REST OF THE STORY.

Louis Daguerre was an opera scenery painter with an unquenchable scientific curiosity.  For many years he worked with photographic pioneer Niepce toward the perfection of so-called “heliographic” reproduction.  After Neipce’s death Daguerre continued to experiment, ultimately discovering the process that was to bear his name.

The early daguerreotype we’ve been discussing is entitled “Paris Boulevard”.

One appreciates the exquisite detail in the picture from that distance, even the brickwork in the buildings, the tilework on the roofs, the individual cobblestones in the street.  In the windows across the way one sees the wooden mullions and muntins clearly defined.  The pleats in the curtains are easily counted.

Yet, with the exception of that one tiny, lonely figure on the corner, the entire boulevard, a half-mile or more plainly visible in the gleaming sunshine, is utterly devoid of life!

The shadows cast by the slender trees suggest that it is neither early morning nor late afternoon.  The boulevard should be bustling with strollers and shoppers and horse-drawn carriages, delivery wagons, perhaps even romping dogs and children.

But no one, save that one man on the corner, is anywhere in this downtown Paris scene.

Pervading the ancient daguerreotype is an eerie calm, as though someone had just dropped the neutron bomb.

The glorious Paris daylight, praised as unique by generations of artists, shimmers everywhere, illuminating the intricacies of the ubiquitous lifeless objects.  As we observe, we are convinced if there were life to be seen, we would see it.

Down through the ages it has been said in various ways that all around us is an unseen world.  Many say they feel its presence; others claim to have parted the curtain and peered inside.  The skeptics cling to a claim of their own:  no camera ever lied.

So now it ought to be told.

That Paris boulevard photographed by Louis Daguerre was, during the moments the daguerreotype was taken, teaming with flesh-and-blood phantoms, people roaming the sidewalks, horses pulling carriages.  And yet that early daguerreotype process was so slow that only stationary objects could be captured on the plate, like that one man patiently waiting for his boots to be brushed.

History honors him as the first man ever photographed, only because he was standing still!

Daguerreotype1839

2 Responses to “FLESH-AND-BLOOD PHANTOMS”


  1. 1 thegumbodiaries December 26, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    Interesting article. I taught photography for years and wish I had used this article — but then my students might have used it to stand still — not a good thing for a sports photographer.


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