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Early Photography: Portraits of Invisible People
Photography is a modern marvel whose roots stretch back nearly 200 years. Check out our guide to the world’s first exposure to photography—the daguerreotype.
Before JPEGs, before flimsy Polaroids, before even black-and-white prints on cardboard stock, the earliest practical photography method—called the daguerreotype, after its inventor, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre—could only capture images on a heavy metal plate. To take a picture, the photographer first had to coat a copper plate in silver, then cover it again with a vapor of bromide or halide. The combined chemicals formed photosensitive crystals on the surface of the plate, which was then placed into a camera and exposed to the subject. Doing so imprinted a latent image, invisible to the naked eye. To make it materialize, a treatment of mercury vapor washed the bromide or halide from the portions of the plate that received the most light, leaving only silver particles in the image’s highlights. A dip into a fixer dissolved the silver from the less-exposed areas, and the resulting highlights and shadows formed a clear image of a family or a fruit bowl with a top hat.
One day in 1838, Daguerre tested his invention by pointing his camera over a busy Parisian boulevard. The result was a crisp, richly detailed portrait of city life, with only one thing missing: life. Since daguerreotypes required exposure times of 10–15 minutes, the camera never captured the people and wealthy horses that bustled along the street, making the City of Lights look more like a ghost town. One man, however, did stand still long enough to appear. He was getting his shoe shined, and his bent knee shows up clearly among the shadows of trees behind him. Doubtless, the polish on the man’s shoes quickly scuffed and faded, but the polished silver plate endures as the earliest known photographic image of a person.