The daguerreotype process, invented by pioneering French photographer Louis Daguerre, came into widespread use from the early 1840s to the late 1850s.
The long exposure times required for these early photographs meant that they were not suitable for commercial portraits. The first subjects tended to be street scenes and cityscapes.
Some scenes of even the most bustling cities are eerily devoid of humans, except for the odd few who were still for a few minutes, to pose as a group, to sit on a step, to or have their shoes shined. Most people passed by the tripod-mounted wooden boxes without leaving a trace.
Two views of Athens in 1845, before its modern urban sprawl. In the left-hand image the hill in the center is the current site of the marble stadium built for the 1896 Olympic Games. The right-hand image features the Acropolis and, at its base, the houses of workers involved in building what became modern Athens.
A view of Berlin’s Leipziger Strasse, with the spire of the Marienkirche in the background.
This photograph, taken when the British East India Company still ruled the Indian subcontinent, is entitled, “Scotch Church, Court-House, and entrance to the Dock-Yard (Bombay)”. The domed building beside the Scotch Church was the Ice House (used for storing ice imported from North America).
Copenhagen’s Ulfeldts Plads, a public square named after 17th century Danish statesman Corfitz Ulfeldt who built his mansion there. The mansion was demolished after his impeachment in 1663 and a pillar of shame was erected in its place, intended for people to spit on when passing it by. A year after this image was taken it was renamed the Gråbrødretorv, taking its name from a Franciscan friary which stood on the site from 1238 to 1530.
A group pose in front St. George’s Church, a former Church of Ireland parish church located in Hardwicke Street Dublin. The building still stands and is used today as office space.
The former Assembly Hall and Talbooth Church on Castlehill, Edinburgh.
These earliest pictures of Jerusalem, showing the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, were taken when it was a small town on the edge of the Ottoman Empire with a population of just 15,000 people (there are now over 800,000 inhabitants).
The first known photograph of London shows Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square, with the statue of Charles I in the foreground. Lingering traces of the people who stayed still long enough to register on the exposure include two sat on the kerb at the foot of the statue and a man sitting in a Hackney carriage over the road.
New York 1848 and 1850
This image of Broadway and Franklin Street in Manhattan taken in 1850 was originally thought to have been the earliest photograph of New York.
However, its claim was taken by the 1848 image below. The road in the foreground of this seemingly rural scene is actually Broadway in New York City’s Upper West Side. A note found in the frame of the photograph reads:
“This view was taken at too great a distance & from ground 60 or 70 feet lower than the building, rendering the lower Story of the House & the front Portico entirely invisible (the handsomest part of the House). The main road, passes between the two Post & rail fences (called a continuation of Broadway 60 feet wide). It requires a magnifying glass to clearly distinguish the Evergreens within the circular enclosure, taken the last of October when nearly half of the leaves were off the trees. May 1849 L. B.”
This image of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris was taken by Louis Daguerre himself on a spring morning in 1838 from the window of the Diorama, where he lived and worked (its caption reads ‘huit heure du matin’ (8 am)) It is the earliest photograph to show human beings, but, although the boulevard was a busy thoroughfare, only a boot shiner and his customer were still for long enough to be visible.
This sweeping panoramic view of Rome, with the Coliseum, as its focus was taken from a vantage point on the 125 feet high Trajan’s Column.
This image of Singapore was taken by Alphonse-Eugene-Jules Itier, a French Customs Service officer, from the vantage point of Government Hill (present-day Fort Canning).
Sydney 1855 and 1858
This 1855 image of St James Parsonage in Macquarie St, Sydney, taken by photography pioneer Robert Hunt from the Sydney Mint is one of the earliest surviving outdoor photographs of New South Wales.
The street scene of George Street, Sydney, was taken by William Hetzer in 1858. In the foreground the London Hat shop is visible on the corner.
This image of King Street East was one if a series of the earliest photographs ever taken of Toronto as part of its bid to the Colonial Office to become the capital of Canada. It lost to Ottawa.
Washington, D.C. 1846
This image of the Old Patent Office in Washington, D.C. is among the oldest known photographs taken of the city. The building is now known as the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian Museum of American Art.