Pioneering Photographer Robert Cornelius Credited With World’s First Selfie c. 1839


Selfie, schmelfie! How self-absorbed do you really have to be to spend all of 20 seconds pointing a phone at yourself and tapping a few buttons? But a process that requires up to 15 minutes of statue-still posing, exposure to hazardous chemicals and construction of custom camera? Now that’s something worth bragging about.

So all hail pioneering American photographer Robert Cornelius, whose rough but certainly recognizable image, taken mere months after Louis Daugerre revealed his daguerrotype process in 1839, is undoubtedly the world’s first photographic self-portrait and may even be the first photographic portrait of any kind.

Cornelius learned about the new medium while working at his father’s lamp shop, where he specialized in silver-plating, among other tasks. A client hired him to produce a silver plate for a daguerrotype, and Cornelius became curious about the process.


He worked on experiments to improve the process, and one of the first fruits of his research was his self-portrait, taken outside to ensure adequate light and with a “camera” that basically consisted of a box outfitted with a lens from an opera glass.

No remote shutter release, either, so Cornelius simply ran in front of the camera after taking the cover off the lens… apparently didn’t think to comb his beforehand hair either.

The image helped disprove Daguerre critics who said the process was too cumbersome to ever work for portraits. And it encouraged Cornelius enough to open one of the first photographic studios in the U.S., which he ran for a couple of years before deciding the family business promised steadier income.

The dauguerrotype now resides at the Library of Congress, complete with Cornelius’ scribbled note on the back describing it as “The first light picture ever taken.” Suggested hashtags for anyone who cares to Instragram it: #howlongdoihavetositlikethis?, #feelingwoozyfromallthat silveriodide and #sweetvignetting!.

(via Lost at E Minor)

  • captaindogcock

    So we’ve gone from concise, enjoyable reading about cameras and photography, to something that barely seperates itself from other trash sites on the internet such as buzzfeed and digg?

    Please drop it with the “Incredible! You’ll never guess what! Selfies! Instagram! Dogs! 10 things that will not improve your photography because you’re too stupid!” posts. This site is a joke. I’ll be back in 6 months to see if it’s improved. I doubt it will have.

  • OllieOh

    Self portrait with iPhone: narcissistic
    Self portrait on silver-plate: art

  • That70sShirt

    What, no duck-face? Doesn’t count.

  • R O

    Actually, his hair may have been appropriately tussled. This was the fashion among many young men of the Romantic Era.

  • Bill H

    Enough with the selfie stories!

  • Nate Parker


  • DLCade

    There have been a lot the past few days haven’t there? No worries, those are all the ones in our queue for now :)

  • Matias Gonua

    I’ve had it with the monkeyfighting selfies on the monday-to-friday iphones!

  • Kris Ilich

    iphone selfies arent exploratory; did you know the daguerrotype was made obsolete by the positive/negative process because the daguerrotype took 8 hours to produce just the exposure. Try not moving for 8 hours.

    Instead of judging right away how about trying to use the biggest search engine in the world to educate yourself just a little bit, because right now, you look like an idiot.

  • Michael Andrew Broughton

    8 hours?!?! you really shouldn’t be telling others to educate themselves and calling them idiots when you’re so pathetically ignorant yourself.

  • Verity

    Agreed I wish people would be a bit nicer to each other and stop trying to shame and embarrass each other, However overall their point is right. The gentleman in the Dagguerotype was pioneering and exploring a brand new and hugely revolutionary process/material, and for that reason his self portrait is fascinating. And yes, art, and science, and a good study in anthropology. It is brilliant!

  • Verity

    This is fascinating! As was the last one. It is a wonderful exploration into technology and human behaviour and the cultural shift in photography. Keep it coming!

  • OllieOh

    I’m confused, are you saying self portraits on silver plate isn’t art or that iPhone selfies aren’t narcissistic?