Oddity of the Week: The View Through the Lens

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How far could this invention go?

The View Through the Lens, 1839

Robert Cornelius, self portrait, 1839.

In August, 1839, Daguerre announced his invention of a photographic method to the French Academy of Sciences. In October of the same year, Robert Cornelius (1809-1894) made this self-portrait in the Philadelphia backyard of his family's shop.

Where did he get the camera? He made it himself. He used an opera glass for the lens.

What was his F-stop setting? Are you kidding? This was a pinhole camera, jury-rigged. He had to stand still for a long time – maybe as long as fifteen minutes. This may account for the goofy expression. And the excitement of making the first-ever photograph of a human-type person in the US – the first 'selfie', too – might explain why he forgot to comb his hair. We bet his mom fussed about that for years. 'Honestly, Bob, couldn't you look presentable on Picture Day?'

Cornelius didn't make a big splash in the photography business. Eventually, he went back to producing light fixtures for Philadelphia homes. More money in it, and less competition. He fathered eight children, and was an elder in the Presbyterian church.

Cornelius' photograph, though a small step for a man, was, in fact, a giant leap for humankind. Think about it: where have cameras gone? Up the highest mountains and into the depths of the sea. Into outer space, that's where. On the surface of strange new worlds, like the moon, Mars, and a passing comet. Sure, the new cameras use different technology. They can send their digital imagery across vast distances in a short time. They can even help us preserve this delicate artefact.

But it all goes back to those pioneers who first stuck a lens in a board, coated some glass, and stood very still for fifteen minutes. Hi, mom. Sorry I forgot to comb my hair. But hey, someday, they'll be waving at you from Mars.

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