What is it about being first? The first. The one who thought of it before anyone else.
Claims of ownership surround the early years of photography. Starting with the discovery of the photographic process itself in the early 1800s. The result of many years of meticulous, and often failed, chemistry experiments by Thomas Wedgwood, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Daguerre, and Henry Fox Talbot. Ultimately, leading to the first lasting photograph and the daguerrotype process.
The first photograph is not a subject without controversy or strong opinions. Many attribute the first photograph to Niépce. Yet, there is evidence of people studying and using the photographic process in experiments as early as the 6th century.
Even so, Niépce was the first to document it successfully by way of a “fixed” image. That was not a small feat at the time. Fixing an image, or keeping it in a permanent physical state without deterioration, was a fundamental obstacle to perfecting the art form and took more than 25 years to achieve.
Despite the pivotal impact of Le Gras in the 1820s, Niépce’s work was not published or widely known until 1839. During that time, Talbot was working towards perfecting his own process unaware of Niépce’s discoveries or his intention to publish his work. In the end, Talbot lost the race by a matter of months.
His response to Niépce’s work was understandably heavyhearted:
…at the close of 1838, I discovered a remarkable fact of quite a new kind. Having spread a piece of silver leaf on a pane of glass, and thrown particle of iodine upon it, I observed that coloured rings formed themselves around the central particle, especially if the glass was slightly warmed. …I laid the specimens by, for a time, to see whether they would preserve the same appearance, or would undergo any further alteration.
Such was the progress which I had made in this inquiry at the close of the year 1838, when an event occurred in the scientific world, which in some degree frustrated the hope with which I had pursued, during nearly five years, this long and complicated, but interesting series of experiments – the hope, namely, of being the first to announce to the world the existence of the New Art – which has been since named Photography.
(The Pencil of Nature, 1844-1846)
Why did Niépce’s announcement seem to stifle Talbot’s work in such a monumental way? It didn’t make his efforts any less innovative or unique. Does it, in fact, come down to public recognition?
It’s fair to say for most artists there is an innate drive not only to create original work but to be commended for an incomparable vision. And, yes, there are clear exceptions when we examine the life and work of someone like Vivian Maier. A woman who seemed to have no real interest in recognition – much less artistic praise. But overall, originality is literally everything. It is what drives us. Our very motivation to keep doing what we do.
Today, almost two hundred years later, we are faced with a very different creative landscape. Arguably, there are very few firsts left. “It’s been done.”
In 2012, I attended a lecture by a photography historian who piggybacked on this rather gloomy point of view. In her opinion, we live in a time of copycat art. There are no boundaries which have not been pushed to their very limits. Nothing left to explore. Only future generations left to produce knockoff after knockoff – oftentimes without even knowing it.
I beg to differ.
Consider something as old as it gets, time. Time is constant. A constant variable. And, photography is very much a document of time as well as the intricate details of a specific moment in time. Moments that cannot be replicated. As a result, regardless of the content, every photograph is, by its very nature, original.
In 1955, Audrey Hepburn was photographed by Norman Parkinson for Glamour magazine. Hepburn was 26 years old. Imagine, for a minute, Parkinson’s film was destroyed and he had to re-shoot the entire spread. Would it be the same? How could it be?
That is my point. Whether it was her mood that day, the position of the sun, additional lighting set in a particular way, the wind, a slight wilting of the flowers, or something else, the image cannot be replicated.
Perhaps it was Maier who understood this distinction better than anyone. She certainly did not invent street photography or voyeurism. But, this did not seem to curb her motivation or interest. Nor did it make her work any less extraordinary. There is innovation in her work because it was her work. An individual and unparalleled frame of reference at a singular instant in time. I would say there are infinite firsts to come.