After a century of dispute, historians credit Joseph Nicephore Niepce with taking the world's first photograph. Rediscovered by Helmut Gernsheim in 1952, this pewter shadow of shade and sunlight is the source of all photography.

Some argue that exactly who took the first photographic portrait of the human face is not so important an area of investigation, yet man has ever been entranced with his own image. From first magical appearance amid Ice Age cave paintings--throughout the art of all civilizations--to our present massive surround--and into the visual reality of a high tech future, the human countenance forever defines our passage.

On 19 August 1839 French scientist Dominique Francois Arago revealed Louis J. M. Daguerre's eagerly anticipated photographic procedure. The process spread rapidly around the world, finding important new applications. One application universally desired was to capture life portraits of the human face. Who made the first portraits? Where and of whom were they made?

America has substantial chauvinistic conceit invested in the question. Lacking entries for the "first photograph," she fields nearly all claimants to the "first portrait." Accomplishing the first portrait has historically exemplified fabled American innovation and practical improvement on foreign invention.

After Arago's announcement of Daguerre's fabulous process America anxiously awaited arrival of steamships conveying specific information across the Atlantic Ocean. On 10 and 20 September 1839 the first ships docked in New York City. A few ingenious Americans immediately mastered and even improved the difficult procedure. Their most significant achievements probably constituted the first successful portraits.

On 7 October Alexander S. Wolcott took a tiny three-eighth-inch profile of his partner John Johnson. Lost since 1858, this image nevertheless has gained acceptance as the first photograph of the human face.

European writers counter that during heady days of late August and early September, practitioners must have attempted portraits as they tested Daguerre's miraculous process. Surely some early French experiment surpassed Wolcott's unimpressive product. Nevertheless, 14 October remains the earliest established European claim.[1]

Sometime in late October or November 1839 Robert Cornelius of Philadelphia sat before his camera and chanced to record a self portrait. This image has gained acceptance as the earliest extant portrait and a most aesthetically pleasing early portrait.

Samuel F. B. Morse made early attempts at portraiture. Engravings exist of daguerreotypes of his daughter with friends. Morse claimed he took these images in late September or early October.

For many years historians credited Dr. John William Draper with taking the world's first portrait. The currently accepted version of the history of photography strips him of this recognition. Inaccurate historical research obscured Draper's claim, along with the regrettable fact that no example of his earliest work survived. The earliest surviving image attributed to John Draper was the spring 1840 portrait of his sister Dorothy Catherine.

What really happened after news of Daguerre's process arrived in New York City?

Samuel Morse personally met Daguerre. He was the first American to view the Frenchman's exquisite daguerreotypes and to describe their appearance to his countrymen. In September 1839 Morse was a struggling art professor at the University of the City of New York. He contemplated Daguerre's invention with trained and experienced artistic perspective.

John Draper was America's foremost scientist in the experimental study of light. He arrived at the University of the City of New York from Virginia shortly before the details of Daguerre's process arrived in New York. In September 1839 he was the only man in the United States with years of proto-photographic chemical and optical experience.

Blending rich academic disciplines of science and art, both Morse and Draper channeled energy into the crucible of the university--energy potent enough to ignite the explosive potential within daguerreian photography. Exactly what they accomplished has remained tantalizingly beyond human sight and knowledge.


Twenty-nine years of unappreciated endeavor as dean of American art earned Samuel F. B. Morse little beyond poverty and frustration. Between 1836 and 1847 he suffered disappointment and bitter indignity from three rejected applications to paint a Rotunda panel in the National Capitol.[2]

On 2 September 1837 Morse first demonstrated his telegraph in his rooms at the University of the City of New York. He continued there as professor in the Literature of the Arts of Design, an unsalaried position compensated only through a percentage of student fees. His interest in the potential of his telegraph increasingly replaced unrewarded dedication to his art. Not until 21 February 1843 would Congress approve a bill appropriating $30,000 for a series of experiments testing the merits of the telegraph.[3]

In 1838, discouraged by American disinterest, Morse traveled to Europe hoping to secure patents and the attention of foreign governments to his invention. He failed. England refused to grant a patent and France gave him a useless "brevet d' invention."[4]

Excited by the 6 January 1839 announcement of Daguerre's discovery, Morse consulted Robert Walsh, the American Consul in Paris, for advice about approaching Daguerre. Walsh suggested Morse invite Daguerre in turn to view the telegraph. This strategy ultimately enabled Morse and the son of Edward Delevan to spend an hour with M. Daguerre, examining his miraculous daguerreotypes.[5] The full story of Morse's visit and the Frenchman's return visit to Morse during which fire destroyed his house and Diorama has often been told.[6]

On 20 April 1839 Morse's brother's newspaper, the New York Observer, published a letter from the artist describing the daguerreotype. Newspapers across America reprinted this account.[7] Morse returned to New York on the ship that carried his letter. He evidently did not know enough about the process to make a daguerreotype, but he may have known something more than he wrote in his published letter. Editor Sidney Morse mentioned, "From him we have received some additional information respecting this very interesting discovery, which we cannot at present communicate."[8*]

In a letter written 20 May 1839 Morse informed Daguerre of his election as honorary member to the National Academy of Design. He offered help if Daguerre would consider exhibiting plates in New York and other American cities. Capitalizing on "great interest" excited in America might aid Daguerre financially if the French government took a long time in advancing "proper remuneration."[9] In a second letter Morse elaborated the same proposal to Arago.[10]

Daguerre's 26 July reply thanked Morse for honorary membership, but declined Morse's offer of exhibition, because the discovery was about to be made public and because of logistical difficulties. Morse did not reply until 16 November 1839, two months after information on Daguerre's process had reached America.[11]

In his May letter Morse discussed English attempts to publicize the discovery of Henry Fox Talbot. Morse assured Daguerre that in America, only his name would be "associated with the brilliant discovery which justly bears your name . . . Should any attempts be made here to give to any other than yourself the honor of this discovery, my pen is ever ready in your defense."[12] Unknown to Morse at least one man in the United States had already experimented with Talbot's Photogenic Drawing process.


In January 1839 John William Draper held the position of professor of chemistry at Hampden Sydney College in Virginia. For most of the previous decade Draper had experimented with the chemical effects of light. In 1834-35 he published results of his earliest series of experiments in the Journal of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia. For the next five years he was about the only person in America occupied with this subject. He published his work in the scientific journals of America and England.

In an 1858 letter Draper detailed the work he accomplished before Daguerre's and after Talbot's announcement:
For years before either Daguerre or Talbot had published any thing on the subject I had been in the habit of using sensitive paper for investigations of this kind. . . . When Mr. Talbots experiments appeared in the spring of 1839, they of course interested me greatly as having been at work on the action of light for so many years. I repeated what he published & varied it. This was whilst I was Prof at Hampden Sidney College in VA, and before anything had been published by Daguerre. I tried to shorten the long time then required for getting the picture of a house or a tree, by using lenses of larger aperture & short focus and this was the germ from which the art of portraiture eventually arose. . . . I could get images of any brightly illuminated object, though too large and too faint. There was no difficulty in getting the outline of a part of a person standing against a window, but then it was of a silhouette and not a portrait, like those spoken of in Mr. Talbot's paper.

It was during my repetitions of Mr. Talbot's exps that I recognized the practical value of the experiments I had made in 1835, and published in 1837 respecting the chemical focus of a non achromatic lens, and saw that the camera must be shortened to obtain a sharp picture. It is the exp of passing a cone of light through a known aperture on sensitive paper. It was from considering the difficulty of getting an impression from colored surfaces as red and green, that I saw the necessity of enlarging the aperture of the lens & diminishing its focus, so as to have the image as bright as possible; for it was plain that in no other way could landscapes be taken or silhouettes replaced by portraits. And when I had failed altogether in these particulars, I knew it was owing to an insufficient sensitiveness in the Bromine paper, and waited anxiously for the divulging of Daguerre's process, respecting which statements were beginning to be made in the Newspapers.[13*]


In September 1839 Draper assumed the position of chemistry professor at the University of the City of New York. Draper brought William Henry Goode, his student at Hampden Sydney College as his chemistry assistant. Draper's sister Dorothy Catherine probably preceded her brother to set up housekeeping on Charles Street in New York City. Draper's wife Antonia remained in Virginia with at least one of his other sisters, to await December childbirth.

University of the City of New York building
[Fig. 2 credits]

On 20 September 1839 shortly after his arrival in New York City, Draper received news of Daguerre's process. Other interested parties in the city had already obtained details of the secret process. The historical record is unclear, incomplete, and even contradictory on exactly how news of Daguerre's process first reached America. Careful scholarship may eventually uncover complete answers.[14] Apparently knowledge of the process came first to two men, Samuel Morse and D. W. Seager, though exactly how each man obtained the information is controversial.

A French printing of Daguerre's manual--or at least a French newspaper report of the process--was likely brought to or brought by Seager on 10 September, when the steamship Great Western docked in New York City. On 24 August the ship had sailed from Bristol. If Seager was aboard (he does not appear on the passenger list), then a story related in 1882 by A. Prosch (brother of scientific instrument maker George W. Prosch) may possibly have some basis in fact. According to Prosch, an English friend threw Seager Daguerre's manual as his ship left the dock.[15]

However he received the information, Seager claimed 16 September 1839 as the date he made his first daguerreotype. If this date is correct, Daguerre's process must have somehow arrived via the Great Western. Seager claimed the 16 September date in a 7 November letter to the manager of the American Institute. In this letter which accompanied a specimen daguerreotype, Seager stated only that he produced the image enclosed in the month of September and thus it served "to mark the progress of the art."[16] He was not necessarily declaring the enclosed daguerreotype, which had been exhibited at the American Institute's fair, to be his 16 September first result. His earliest plates would have been experimental and likely very primitive.[17]

Seager's first specimen historically recorded as exhibitable was a view of Broadway showing "a part of St. Paul's Church, and the surrounding shrubbery and houses, with a corner of the Astor House." He exhibited this image at the Broadway shop of chemist James R. Chilton. The 30 September edition of the Morning Herald announced that "Mr. Segur" had taken this daguerreotype about three days previous. It was on a small piece of copper "equal in size to a miniature painting" and "imprisoned in a morocco case with golden clasps."[18]

Exactly how and when Samuel Morse obtained Daguerre's process is even less clear. Prosch's 1882 account states that Seager brought his pamphlet to Morse and his claim is somewhat substantiated by an 1883 letter of Professor Charles E. West in the New York Times (to be discussed later in this text). Perhaps West took his information from Prosch's earlier letter.[19] In 1855 Morse, himself, stated that "An English gentleman, . . . obtained a copy of Daguerre's book about the same time with myself."[20] In his 16 November 1839 letter to Daguerre Morse stated, "the first brochure which was opened in America at the bookseller's, containing your expose of your process, I possess."[21] Although these two statements do not positively rule out Morse obtaining the daguerreian process from Seager, they make it appear unlikely. Morse's November letter implies that he only obtained the process after the 20 September arrival of the steamship British Queen, the evidence excludes any bookseller in New York City from disseminating the information before this date.[22] On the other hand, Morse's claim to own the first brochure made available by an American bookseller does not preclude the possibility he had previously used less complete accounts to produce his first daguerreotypes.

Whether he obtained Daguerre's process before or after 20 September, Morse evidently commissioned his telegraphic instrument maker, George W. Prosch, to build a camera meeting the exact specifications in Daguerre's pamphlet. Prosch rented space in Morse's brother's building, where Morse also lived. The camera apparently took somewhere between a few days and one week to complete.[23] As soon as Prosch completed the camera he began to experiment with the help of Morse, Chilton, and possibly West. A. Prosch's account and West's letter both describe one of the first daguerreotypes taken with this camera.

According to these witnesses, the view was made directly out Prosch's shop door. The men placed the camera on the steps leading to the basement. The resulting image pictured "the old Brick Church (Dr. Spring's) and the City Hall." Horse and carriage hacks with at least one driver asleep in his carriage box waited for customers along the curb stones and iron fence surrounding the park, horses so still that they appeared clearly in the daguerreotype. This picture was "a great curiosity" and hung with others by the door "so that the passers-by could see them."[24]

West remembered that this event occurred in October but it may have been late in September. If the camera was the one Prosch constructed for Morse and if the City Hall photo was one of the first made with it, then it probably predated 27 September, the apparent date Morse made his first successful (solo?) daguerreotype. In 1855 Morse remembered:
The first experiment crowned with any success was a view of the Unitarian church from the window on the stair case from the third story of the N York city University. This was of course before the building of the N York Hotel. It was in Sept. 1839. The time if I recollect in which the plate was exposed to the action of light in the camera was about 15 minutes. The instruments, chemicals &c. were strictly in accordance with the directions in Daguerre's first book.[25]
In an 1871 letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Photographer Morse described this image as on a plate the size of a playing card. In an 1873 Scribner's magazine article, historian Benjamin J. Lossing claimed the image could still be seen in a collection of earlier daguerreotypes Morse gave to Vassar College shortly before his death. Lossing could have mistaken a later daguerreotype (possibly taken in February 1840) for Morse's first effort. Vasser College cannot locate the collection of daguerreotypes Lossing described.[26]

The exact date Morse made his first daguerreotype is revealed in an exchange published in the New York Journal of Commerce. On 28 September this newspaper announced:
Prof. Morse showed us yesterday the first fruits of Daguerre's invention, as put in practice in this country. It was a perfect and beautiful view, on a small scale, of the new Unitarian church, and the buildings in the vicinity. The colors are not so strong as they might be, but we understand this defect may be easily remedied.[27]
On 30 September the Journal of Commerce published a letter of clarification by Morse:
Gentlemen, In your mention this morning of the specimen of Photographic drawing by the Daguerrotype which I showed you, you use the phrase, "first fruits of Daguerre's invention in this country", this may convey the meaning that I am the first to produce these results from the process just revealed by Mr. Daguerre to the Institute of France. If there is any merit in first producing these results in this country, that merit I believe belongs to Mr. D. W. Seager of this city, who has for several days had some results at Mr. Chilton's in Broadway. The specimen I showed you was my first result.[28]
Therefore, by 27 September 1839, three exhibitable American daguerreotypes existed, although by Morse's word Seager's was the first accomplished.

Probably because he made his living as a portrait artist, Morse immediately began to experiment with taking portraits. In 1855 he wrote:
I have now the results of these experiments taken in September or beginning of October 1839. They are full length portraits of my daughter, single, and also in group with some of her young friends. They were taken out doors on the roof of a building in the full sunlight and with the eyes closed. The time was from ten to 20 minutes.[29]
Seager moved quickly into the public role of resident expert. The 3 October issue of the Morning Herald carried an advertisement announcing that he would lecture on the daguerreotype at the Stuyvesant Institute. In this advertisement Seager wrote:
The following scientific gentlemen have given permission to be referred to as being familiar with the process and its extraordinary results: President Duer, Columbia College; Professor Morse; James R. Chilton, Esq.; Jno. L. Stephens, Esq.[30]
When suspected practitioners Prosch and West are added to this list of illustrious men knowledgeable concerning the process, historians should gain a fair idea of which men in New York City investigated the process during the month of September.

It is significant that one important name does not appear in Seager's advertisement. After 20 September Professor John William Draper was also experimenting with the daguerreotype process. Although he worked in the University of the City of New York, his experimentation may well have initially gone unnoticed by Seager, Morse, Chilton and others in their group. If Draper's work was known to Morse, et. al., before 3 October, his name would possibly have appeared in Seager's advertisement.

Morse's first attempts were probably performed in Prosch's workshop on Nassau Street. On or about 27 September he made his first exhibitable solo-daguerreotype of the Unitarian Church tower. By this time he was operating his camera from the window of the third floor staircase of New York University. It must have been after this date that Morse learned that a new chemistry professor from Virginia and his assistant were also experimenting successfully with the daguerreotype process in the same New York University building. Morse later stated: "About the same time Prof. Draper was successful in taking portraits, whether he took successfully the first or myself, I cannot say."[31] Evidently Morse was unfamiliar with Draper's work before the beginning of October. Morse had probably already accomplished his version of portraiture by the time he learned of Draper's work.

Draper and his assistant William Henry Goode arrived in New York City from Virginia, superbly prepared to accomplish amazing things with Daguerre's published process. Their spring 1839 work with the Talbotype process at Hampden Sydney College in Virginia, as well as Draper's ten years experience in all sorts of experimentation with radiant energy afforded him the potential to be the best photographer in America.

Unlike Seager, Morse, Chilton and others, Draper and Goode worked quietly by themselves without public exhibition or announcement. This may have explained why their work was not discovered by other practitioners or the press for several weeks.

University of the City of New York building and the Dutch Reformed Church
[Fig. 3 credits]


In his 1858 letter to an investigative committee from the Mechanic's Club of the American Institute, Draper described in detail his first introduction to Daguerre's process. Illuminating portions crossed out in Draper's rough draft are here included within parentheses. In this letter Draper explained:
(I removed to New York in Sept 1839, and) The first that I knew of the particulars of Daguerre's process was the publication of it in the London (news sheet I saw? at the Astor House on the day of its arrival?) Literary Gazette which contained Arago's report of the (proceedings) meeting of the Academy of Sciences on Aug 19th and this I saw at the time of its arrival in New York. I do not recollect the date, but it strikes me it must have been in (October) September, however it would be very easy to ascertain by looking in the newspapers of that time.[32]
It is generally accepted that the London Literary Gazette containing Arago's description of Daguerre's process arrived in New York on 20 September 1839 aboard the British Queen. In contrast to the case for Morse and Seager, the historical record evinces exactly when and from what source Draper first obtained Daguerre's process. Added to Draper's precise description of the resulting sequence of events, this information disputes Robert Taft's statement: "Draper maintained with vigor during his later life that he took the first portrait, but nowhere does he state the time when he first succeeded."[33] Draper explained precisely (in comparison to other early practitioners such as Morse and Cornelius) his sequence and date of experimentation:
(Before returning home) I bought at once some of the common silver-plated copper, and the next day tried Daguerre's (method) process. I believe I was at that moment, the only person in America who had any practical skill in (this kind) experiments with light but then I had had ten years experience in such matters. (I succeeded without any) Those of you who know the failures and disappointments incident to photographic experiments, can appreciate thoroughly the value of such a schooling in a delicate operation like Daguerre's. I succeeded with no other difficulty than the imperfection of the silver plates in copying the brick buildings, church, and other objects seen from my laboratory windows.[34]
In another source Draper elaborated on the details of his first experiments with Daguerre's process. "Putting an ordinary spectacle lens in a cigar box I began to experiment and succeeded easily in obtaining views from the east windows of the University Chapel. From those windows with my cigar-box camera I took many and many a view."[35]

Rear (east) side of the New York University building. John Draper took his first daguerreotype from the bottom of the large rear chapel window (shown covered over in this photo c. 1880). Samuel Morse took his first daguerreotype from a third floor stairway window approximately at the location of the X.
[Fig. 4 credits]

The information contained within these two quotations clarified that on 21 September 1839 (one day after getting the process), Draper easily (except for inadequate plating) took his first daguerreotype views out the east windows of the New York University Chapel. Unlike Morse and possibly Seager, who had to wait to construct a camera according to Daguerre's specifications, Draper's previous experience with radiant energy and Talbot's photogenic drawing enabled him to immediately substitute simpler materials.

In yet another source Draper described his simple apparatus in detail: "Some of the finest proofs were procured with a common spectacle lens, of fourteen inches focus, arranged at the end of a cigar-box as a camera; a lens of this diameter [one inch] answers very well for plates four inches by three."[36*]

The cigar boxes in this c. 1870 carte de visite may approximate the 1840s box
Draper used as his first daguerreian camera.

[Fig. 5 credits]

Draper was among the first practitioners of photography in the world to immediately utilize his scientific knowledge of the important difference between the visual and chemical focus. From their previous experiments Draper and Goode understood that light rays toward the violet end of the spectrum had most intensity of photographic effect. This knowledge allowed Draper to both speed up the process and utilize lenses that were not achromatic (achromatic lenses contained a combination of crown and flint glass that focused light of all wavelengths upon the single focus of best visual effect.) Even though light of most wavelengths affected the daguerreotype plate, blue-violet light worked with the greatest intensity and speed. Draper could thus use an uncorrected lens of pure flint glass in which light of each wavelength came to a slightly different focus. Draper manually moved the sensitive plate to the precise focus of the blue or violet light. According to Draper:
if the plate be withdrawn at a certain period, when the rays that have maximum energy have just completed their action, those that are more dispersed but of slower effect, will not have had time to leave any stain. We work, in fact, with temporary monochromatic light.[37]
Draper utilized this technique with uncorrected chromatic lenses as early as his spring 1839 work with Talbot's photogenic drawing process. Other optical scientists around the world understood these principles but few put them into photographic practice as early as Draper. These optical principles were clearly stated by John T. Towson in the November 1839 issue of the Philosophical Magazine, but months earlier (21 September) Draper utilized the technique with the daguerreotype by simply extrapolating methodology he developed with photogenic drawing in Virginia.[38*]

Draper evidently mastered and simplified Daguerre's process one day after its arrival on the British Queen. He lost no time returning to his attempts at portraiture initiated six months earlier using Talbot's process. In Virginia Draper had:
tried to shorten the long time then required (by) . . . enlarging the aperture of the lens & diminishing its focus, so as to have the image as (brilliant) bright as possible; for it was plain that in no other way could landscapes be taken or silhouettes replaced by portraits.[39]
On either 22 or 23 September 1839 Draper and Goode attempted portraiture. Following the lens principles outlined above, they used a combination of a pair of convex lenses of five-inches aperture and seven-inches focal length to have as much light as possible fall on the image. Draper posed Goode inside the chapel of the University of the City of New York and instructed him to hold very still for a long period. To further maximize light passing through the lens, Draper dusted Goode's face with white flour. After carefully focusing Goode's image visually Draper pushed the back of the camera to the violet focus of his chromatic lenses and made his exposure.[40]

The resulting picture was possibly the first experimental daguerreotype of the human face.[41*] In writing about this first attempt, Draper noted that Goode's dark clothing was recorded in the photograph. Obviously it was unnecessary to whiten the face with flour because, "even when the sun was only dimly shining, there was no difficulty in delineating the features."[42] Draper further stated that "the forehead, cheeks and chin on which the light fell most favorably, would come out first."[43]

Draper continued the trials. Later that day, by increasing the intensity of illumination and prolonging the exposure time, he secured Goode's whole countenance. In later years when confronted with claims of rival's experimental portraits, both Draper and Goode considered this final image capturing Goode's whole countenance to be the first daguerreotype of the human face. At the time of the experiments however, Draper considered the results to be experimental, unsatisfactory, and incomplete. He stated: "But as you will gather from the size of the lens I used, though it was a combination of a pair of convexes, nothing like a good picture was possible."[44]

Draper's exact meaning in this final statement is obscure. A lens with such small difference in ratio of focal length (seven inches) to diameter (five inches), would have maximized light falling upon the daguerreian plate. It would, however, have been impossible to achieve any degree of sharpness in the image (in other words there would have been no depth of field) owing to the degree of spherical aberration in a lens with such a ratio of diameter to focal length (f stop would have been only about 1.4). A "good" picture with everything in focus was impossible because owing to the sperical aberration of this lens, nothing could be in clear focus. Although Draper achieved a daguerreotype showing all the features of Goode's face, it was out of focus, or as he called it "an imperfect proof."[45]

Once Draper went on to capture "the whole countenance" with this lens, even if out of focus, he possibly accomplished the first true (if highly experimental) likeness of a human face. Probably only two other men can be considered historical competitors for this accomplishment:

1) Alexander S. Wolcott, who on 7 October (two weeks after Draper's achievement), succeeded in taking a tiny three-eighths-inch (it measured less than one-quarter inch square) profile daguerreotype of his partner John Johnson. Wolcott himself describes this image as a "profile of a person standing opposite a window." His words may be interpreted to imply, and no other extant description rules out, the possibility that the daguerreotype depicted Johnson standing full figure. If so, Wolcott's minute product would not even qualify as a close portrait of the human face, which was the "portrait" desired in 1839.[46]

2) Samuel Morse probably made his first daguerreotype on 27 September. Soon after this accomplishment he took portraits of his daughter and her friends. Morse could only have used an achromatic lens of the type recommended in Daguerre's pamphlet. Such a lens had an f stop of about f15 and would only have taken distant, full length, outdoor photographs of people sitting very still. Distance and time required for such "portraits" meant poor resolution of facial detail.

The resulting picture style can best be observed in an early Philadelphia example most likely taken with a similar lens. The daguerreotype is of John McAllister, Jr., sitting on a rooftop. It is reproduced on page thirty-five of William Welling's book, Photography in America: The Formative Years, 1839-1889.[47]

[Fig. 6 credits]

Marcus Root included an engraving after one of Morse's early portraits in The Camera and the Pencil but the engraver "opened" the girl's eyes and probably also enlarged their presence in the picture by ignoring (and thus effectively cropping) the background as nonessential.[48]

[Fig. 7 credits]

The March 1873 Scribners Monthly Magazine published another Morse daguerreotype that has often been overlooked. It most likely was taken with the same standard daguerreian lens as the McAllister daguerreotype.[49*] According to the Scribner's article, the original image depicted three sitters, but the engraver cropped out one figure (and likely all background) and thus also enlarged the presence of the two remaining sitters.

[Fig. 8 credits]

Both original daguerreotypes by Morse would have likely resembled the McAllister daguerreotype in distance from the camera. Early attempts made in France after Daguerre's announcement were probably similar full-length figures at a distance from the camera. This writer suggests that all such figures captured in a daguerreotype plate were no more the "portrait" desired in 1839 than Wolcott's three-eights inch profile.

Plate "H" is discussed below.
[Fig. 9 credits]


As discussed above, Draper and Goode were unsatisfied with results of their five-inch lens. To sharpen the focus but still allow the lens to pass a great deal of light, Draper exchanged his first lens pair for a biconvex lens of four inches aperture and 14 inches focal length. The wide diameter still passed much light. The longer focal length allowed greater depth of field (area of sharpness in the picture). The f stop of such a lens would have been approximately f3.5 (Petzal's later portrait lens was f3.6).

Draper used chromatic (non-achromatic) lenses. Chromatic dispersion became very noticeable in these lenses but Draper made good plates by his knowledge, experience, and careful utilization of the principles of chemical focus. The chief difficulty he then faced arose from spherical aberration and narrow depth of field. Draper admitted: "The risk of failure by employing an uncorrected [chromatic] lens, is greater than the risk by a good achromatic, or a reflector".[50]

Draper developed an outdoor and an indoor system of portraiture using this new lens of four inches aperture and 14 inches focal length and described both in detail. Based on the evidence, it appears that his work was probably limited to the period between 23 September and 7 October, after which he appears to have temporarily dropped his work with the daguerreotype. The most likely explanation for the cessation of his experiments is found in the dates of the school session at the University of the City of New York. Classes began on 7 October. On the verge of beginning his professorship at a new university, Draper probably accomplished all this portrait work before classes began, then put aside his experiments until the end of session on 21 December[51*] No evidence has been found thus far to indicate that Draper experimented during the fall session.

Only fragmentary and circumstantial information survives concerning the relationship between Morse and Draper in late September and early October 1839, but it appears that their contact with each other was limited. In later years both men mentioned collaboration, but virtually everything they wrote concerned their partnership during the late winter and spring of 1840, six months after the birth of American photography. It was not until the spring of 1840 that they constructed a gallery made partly from glass on the roof of the University of the City of New York.

The most compelling evidence of little interaction or collaboration between Morse and Draper in the fall of 1839 comes from the journal Morse kept of his daguerreian experiments during January and February 1840. In this journal, which is examined in more detail below, Morse recorded a moment on 18 January 1840 when Draper taught him to use the chemical focus. From that point forward in his record of daguerreian exposures Morse mentioned focusing to the chemical rays.[52]

Morse's unfamiliarity with chemical focus before 18 January implies he had no close photographic interaction with Draper before that date. From the spring of 1839 Draper's versatile technique depended upon utilizing the difference between the visual and chemical focus in chromatic lenses. Morse could never exactly say whether he or Draper successfully took the first portrait because he was unfamiliar with Draper's work before the beginning of October. One can imagine the surprise of both men when they discovered each other working on the same project within the same building.

As mentioned above, it is significant that Seager's 3 October Morning Herald lecture advertisement omitted Draper's name, although it mentioned Morse, Chilton, Stephens, and Duer. If, indeed, Draper's work initially went unnoticed by Seager, Morse, and Chilton, it is possible that Seager's advertisement inspired Draper and Goode to contact the other experimenters. In this scenario Morse and Draper might have briefly met in the first days of October and observed each others instruments and product.

To summarize, between late September and 7 October, Draper perfected methods to take portraits indoors or outdoors with the second lens he used in his experiments to take portraits--his single, bi-convex lens of four inches aperture and 14 inches focal length (approximately f 3.5). In late September and early October Morse used only a standard achromatic daguerreian lens of about f 15. His lens produced distant, rooftop photographs of his daughter and friends. Their eyes were closed, through an exposure time of ten to twenty minutes.[53*]


A ninth-size plate box with 12 extremely early daguerreotypes
survives from the dawn of photography.

The plate box and 12 ninth-size daguerreotype plates.
[Fig. 10 credits]

There is enough circumstantial evidence within the box to convince the writer that the contents may represent a remnant of lost daguerreian experiments performed during 1839 and 1840 by Draper and Morse at the University of the City of New York. Each image may represent an example of a different stage or technique in their experimentation. All plates were exposed although only six still show discernable images. Each image is a portrait.

Three of these daguerreotypes could shed further light upon the apparently brief interaction between Draper and Morse in fall 1839. Plates H, I, and J within the box possibly record the exact moments Morse and Draper displayed for each other their relative degrees of experimental success.

At least one other observer may have been present. As newly appointed Chancellor of the University of the City of New York, Theodore Frelinghuysen would have predictably taken interest in, and been a logical subject for, novel experiments unfolding in the university building. Frelinghuysen likely had leisure time for such visitation because students were not in attendance for two weeks after the 20 September arrival of Daguerre's procedure.

The juxtaposition of all three men at the university during September and October 1839, and the circumstantial sequence of events during these crucial days in the birth of American photography, constitute the theoretical groundwork necessary to postulate an explanation for three of the most interesting images within the plate box.

Plate "H"
[Fig. 11 credits]
Plate H records a man holding a pen, sitting in a garden or greenhouse. The image is reversed left to right. A ten to twenty minute exposure with the lens specified in Daguerre's manual would take an exactly plate H style--distant, full length, outdoor photo which allowed only poor resolution of facial detail.

This lens was exactly the type used by Morse and most other early practitioners who lacked detailed knowledge of optics and lens systems. The early daguerreotype of McAllister in Welling's book is similar in composition to plate H, because such a pose was conducive to the operation of the standard daguerreian lens.

Detail of Plate "H"
[Fig. 11a credits]

Plate "H" could hypothetically be a portrait of Dr. John William Draper. It compares favorably with his face and figure as delineated in later photographs.

Detail of Plate "H" c. 1839, corrected, and detail of a carte de visite photograph of Draper c. 1860
[Fig. 12 credits]

Since it is a distant portrait, not enough visual evidence exists to make any real identification. Circumstantial evidence for such a supposition stems largely from the juxtaposition of Draper and the suspected subjects of the other plate-box images in the place and time of history that was New York University in fall 1839.

[To view Plate H compared
with other pictures of Draper,
follow this link.

It is quite conceivable that Samuel F. B. Morse took this photograph. As already explained, Morse's first attempts at portraiture were limited to exactly such a lens system. His presence during at least part of the production of these plate-box images can be inferred from visual evidence in another plate (plate J). It is rational that Morse and Draper might have demonstrated their photographic capabilities to each other during the first few weeks of daguerreian experimentation at New York University.


Plate "I"
[Fig. 13 credits]
Plate I depicts a man standing outdoors with eyes closed or squinting from sunlight almost directly overhead. The shape of a distant building (church?) is apparent behind the subject. The image is reversed left to right.

If John Draper took this image, it may have been with the second lens he described using to capture a likeness of the human face. Specifically, the lens of four inches aperture with focal length of 14 inches.[54] With an f stop of about 3.5, when used outdoors in bright sunlight, this lens might provide enough depth of field to capture sharp detail in an area as wide as the human figure.

It would be difficult to use such a lens in very bright light because clear delineation between the vast range of bright and shadowed portions of the photograph would prove difficult. Setting a modern camera with an exposure meter reading brightly lit portions of a scene would have similar result--shadowed portions would not be clearly delineated. It is exactly this result that is evident in plate I. Draper's article written in the spring of 1840 about his fall 1839 experiments, described the limitations of such a lens and appeared to exactly match visual evidence found in this photograph (highlights are mine):
[a] lens of four inches . . . in the open air, in a period varying . . . from 20 to 90 seconds. The dress also is admirably given, even if it should be black; the slight differences of illumination are sufficient to . . . show each button, button-hole, and every fold . . .

Detail of Plate "I". The cravat and coat collar in this phots were probably black, and button holes show distinctly on the lapel of the subject's coat.
[Fig. 14a credits]

Draper's discription continued:
the intensity of such light . . . cannot be endured without a distortion of the features, . . . the rays descend at too great an angle, such pictures have the disadvantage of not exhibiting the eyes with distinctness, the shadow from the eyebrows and forehead encroaching on them . . . and a slight shadow cast from the nose.[55]

Detail of Plate "I"
[Fig. 14b credits]

The plate in question may be a portrait of Theodore Frelinghuysen, president of the University of the City of New York. In 1844 Henry Clay and Theodore Frelinghuysen ran for President and Vice President of the United States. The features of the man in plate I compare favorably with Frelinghuysen's face as evinced in later photographs. They share distinctive features, especially around the chin and nose.

Detail of Plate "I" c. 1839, and detail of a Brady photograph of Frelinghuysen c. 1862, reversed.
[Fig. 15 credits]

Late in his life Draper described taking "a very good" portrait of Frelinghuysen.[56] Although he probably referred to a later product of the spring/summer 1840 gallery shared with Morse, there may easily have been earlier, less successful attempts. Besides the above quotation Draper recorded little information concerning his "first" experiments during early fall 1839. He considered this early work as flawed and unimportant.

[To view Plate I compared
with other pictures of Frelinghuysen,
follow this link.


Plate "J"
[Fig. 16 credits]
Plate J captured a man standing indoors in front of an open window partially filled with a rectangular blue stain of solarization. His eyes were open and clearly delineated though he squinted as if gazing into bright (but obviously somehow diffused) sunlight. A fulcrum of hand and elbow tightly braced the subject's chin. The image is reversed left to right.

Visual evidence in this powerful image appears to exactly match Draper's description of an alternate use of the same four-inch lens he used to photograph Frelinghuysen outdoors.[57] When used indoors in diffused light, even with a long exposure of five to seven minutes, such a lens provided only a narrow depth of field. The sharpness of this depth of field could be distorted further if the lens was uncorrected for chromatic aberration (in other words, a chromatic or non-achromatic lens).

Focusing enough intensity of light on the face to clearly delineate the eyes and yet not blind the sitter was a difficult problem. Few individuals in 1839 America could have surmounted such obstacles to accomplish this distinctive, eyes-open, indoor likeness of the human face. Just enough depth of field captured sharp detail from blurred nose tip to hazy ear.

Detail of Plate "J", corrected.
[Fig. 16a credits]

In his own words, Dr. Draper described the method he used to accomplish such a true portrait. Notice that his description of potential defects of operation exactly corresponds with visual evidence within this image (the blue stain). Highlights and brackets are mine.
portraits can be obtained in five or seven minutes, in the diffused daylight [indoors]. . . . But in the reflected sunshine, the eye cannot support the effulgence of rays. It is therefore absolutely necessary to pass them through some blue medium, which shall abstract from them their heat, and take away their offensive brilliancy.

Plate "J", and enlarged details of what appears to be the
"blue stain corresponding to the figure of the glass".

[Fig. 17 credits]
I have used for this purpose blue glass . . . to permit the eye to bear the light, and yet to intercept no more than was necessary. It is not requisite, when coloured glass is employed, to make use of a large surface; for if the camera operation be carried on until the proof almost solarizes, no traces can be seen in the portrait of its edges and boundaries; but if the process is stopped at an earlier interval, there will commonly be found a stain, corresponding to the figure of the glass. [In this daguerreotype a piece of "blue glass" may have been nailed up in the window opening with a triangular piece of wood at top and a rectangular piece of wood at bottom. What might be nail heads are even visible in the photo.][58]

Outdoors in direct sunlight uneven exposure flawed Draper's results (see plate I). If plate J was representative of Draper's indoor use of the four-inch lens, his work rivaled or exceeded the result of any other experimentation from the era. Draper was however unsatisfied, probably owing to the required five minute exposure and resulting tedium for the sitter. He was additionally dissatisfied in the fact that effective portraiture "requires [the lens] to be used in a piazza to have light enough."[59*] This statement provides an interesting perspective to later "gallery" operation.[60*]

Apparently to Draper's super-critical eye, all images in the plate box were flawed. He probably retained them, not as best products accomplished, but as examples of error. Draper's best portraits likely came out on his best plates. He would have reused such plates to save inconvenient delay and expense in the progress of experimentation.[61] Draper, Morse, and most other early daguerreian practitioners did not consider their very first experiments significant. Their documentation and memory concentrated upon achievement of the first fully successful and practical methods of portraiture perfected in spring 1840 gallery products.

Plate J is possibly a portrait of Professor Samuel Finley Breese Morse taken by Dr. John William Draper by the first week of October 1839. It compares favorably with Morse's face as evinced in later photographs.

Detail of Plate "J" c. 1839, corrected, and detail of a Brady photograph c. 1870.
[Fig. 18 credits]

Detail of Plate "J" c. 1839, corrected, and detail of a daguerreotype of the other side of Morse's face, c. 1845-55.
[Fig. 19 credits]

[To view other photos of Morse
and facial details that match the
individual recorded in Plate B,
follow this link.

As discussed above, students returned to the university on 7 October and Draper likely halted all experimentation. He had not yet accomplished a portrait he considered successful or practical. To Draper "successful" meant all details of the face were clearly visible. This was the scientific problem Draper set out to solve--getting a proper exposure across the entire picture (no black eye holes) along with adequate sharpness and depth of field. "Practical" meant a portrait reasonably easy to accomplish without extended exposure time or tedium for the sitter. Draper created his criteria before the concept of commercial photographic portraiture existed. He approached the challenge as a scientific experiment in optics.


Although it appears that Draper did not experiment after the October school session began, he must have turned the inherent problems over in his mind. Probably after the end of classes on 21 December, Draper resumed experimentation with a solution to his problem. In his December experiments Draper perfected the outdoor use of a one-inch lens: "The first portrait I obtained last December was with a common spectacle glass, only an inch in diameter, arranged at the end of a cigar box."[62] This lens had a focal length of 14 inches and was actually equivalent to the lens he used on his very first day of experimentation (21 September) to make successful landscape daguerreotypes outside the chapel window of the university. Of his December experiments Draper also wrote (words in parenthesis crossed out in rough draft): "I found that a common spectacle lens would answer if the sitter was in the open air and with such a one fastened into a cigar box I obtained many proofs but since it was necessary with such an aperture to use (open sunshine) too much light all the proofs I had obtained were defective about the eyes."[63]

Before the end of 1839 Draper accomplished portraits of the human face which met all his criteria. At that time he considered them his "first" portraits, by which he meant practical portraits easily produced.[64*] Ironically, though Draper considered these portraits to be his first fully successful, he apparently suggested sitters keep their eyes closed owing to intense sunlight. It was of little consequence to Draper that these portraits were "defective about the eyes"; he had accomplished his scientific goal of even exposure. In December 1839 Dr. Draper was not working toward the goal of a profit-oriented portrait "gallery". Such a concept existed only in the future. Only by exercising historical hindsight might we judge his December portraits aesthetically inferior to eyes-open portraits he accomplished months previous. As early as 1844, the nuances of exactly what Dr. Draper meant by his "first" portraits, eluded or confused historians of photography. Through the ensuing 150 years, misunderstanding compounded.[65]

No product of Draper's one-inch lens is included in the ninth-size plate box, probably because as he explained, "a lens of this diameter answers very well for plates four inches by three".[66] Such a quarter-size plate could not fit inside the tiny wooden box. Another extant early image however, intriguingly matches Draper's description of his one-inch spectacle lens portraits. Speculative hypotheses concerning this image (labeled plate M) are included at the end of appendix 1.

After these achievements Draper apparently dropped work on portraits and proceeded forward with a wide range of other daguerreian experimentation. Before spring he made the world's first photograph of the moon, took daguerreotypes by artificial light, perfected methods of enlarging and copying daguerreotypes, took daguerreotypes through his microscope, and continued important experiments in the effect of radiant energy upon daguerreian plates. Draper apparently did not renew work on portraiture until Morse approached him after viewing Wolcott's commercialized gallery product.


Morse's inability to match Draper's expertise with lenses could have explained some of the frustration evident in his 16 November letter to Daguerre.[67] Francois Gouraud's appearance in late November 1839 may have further discouraged Morse. Gouraud acted in New York City as the agent of Alphonse Giroux & Cie., a French company producing daguerreian manuals and apparatus personally endorsed by Daguerre. Exactly how and when Gouraud arrived in New York has become something of a mystery, but he claimed to arrive on the steamship British Queen.[68]

Gouraud set out to arouse public interest in Daguerre's process. He advertized viewings of daguerreotypes made in Paris by Daguerre and others.[69] Gouraud's impressive working knowledge of the process excited enthusiastic news coverage.[70] Gouraud evidently exhibited about thirty whole-plate pictures and took several more himself in New York.[71]

In January 1840 Professor Morse took several lessons with Francois Gouraud. Superior French products determined Morse to abandon his previous experimentation and attempt anew to master the difficult process.[72] From 14 January for one month, Morse detailed his lessons and additional personal experimentation. In addition to written descriptions, Morse drew sketches locating the sun, camera, and photographic subject in a notebook journal.[73]

On 17 January Morse recorded that "Mr. Seager quarrelled with M. Gouraud."[74] The quarrel possibly arose when Gouraud refused to sell Seager French daguerreotype plates.[75] The two men published accusatory articles in the New York newspapers. Seager delineated the Frenchman as a swindler and imposter. Gouraud assessed Seager as a buffoon.[76]

On 18 January Morse wrote in his notebook, "Mr. Gouraud and Dr. Chilton came to be present at a lesson of Mr. Gouraud." This entry does not appear to make much sense. Morse may have meant to write that Dr. Draper and Dr. Chilton came to be present at a lesson of Mr. Gouraud. A little further in his notes on the lesson Morse wrote and highlighted: "The chemical focus is 59/100 of an inch less than luminous focus, according to Professor Draper's successful experiment Jan'y 18th."[77]

Draper was thus present at Gouraud's lesson on 18 January and imparted important information to everyone. After 18 January when Morse described taking daguerreotypes in the journal, he focused to the chemical rays. On 25 January he recorded that in one result, "enough was indicated to show that the chemical focus was the right one."

Morse also recorded in his journal that his 18 January lesson was the last he took from Gouraud.[78] Morse later claimed that he broke off the lessons when he found Gouraud had nothing to teach him. It was rather to Daguerre through his published directions, and to Professor Draper and Dr. Chilton that Morse declared he was indebted.[79]

After 25 January Morse waited till 7 February to renew work with the daguerreotype. He experimented further on 11, 12, and 13 February, cleaning his plates for reuse as he proceeded. In his notebook Morse inventoried his plates and detailed methods of cleaning.[80] Few sources so vividly document the difficulties inherent for most practitioners struggling to master daguerreotypy during the first year.

Morse described attempts to photograph the Dutch Church, distant Brooklyn, still-life arrangements, and City Hall.[81] There is no mention of portraits. Morse was reconcentrating upon mastering basic daguerreotypy. He had possibly not attempted portraits since viewing Draper's superior product in late September or early October 1839.

On 7 February Morse described arranging still life objects on the roof. At one point, "A little wind agitates the drapery and prints after 5 minutes a gust of wind deranged all the prints. no result."[82] Possibly a more successful such attempt produced the still-life daguerreotype in the Draper collection at the Smithsonian Institution. Its artistic arrangement combined what were possibly Professor Morse's sculpture and sketches with Dr. Draper's scientific instruments.[83]

On 12 February Morse made a view of City Hall he described as "very fair in parts." He used a plate first cleaned on 8 February, exposed in a failed experiment on 11 February, and re-cleaned.[84] This may have been the same image that on 18 February drew high praise in the press as a well defined daguerreotype of City Hall--the equal of Daguerre's work.85]

On 21 February Gouraud responded in the New York Evening Star that he was pleased to hear of Morse's success as one of "the numerous amateurs who have attended my private or public instructions."[86] The label "amateur" incensed Morse. On 24 February after crediting only Draper and Chilton, Morse declared, "all the instruction professed to be imparted by M. Gouraud, I have felt it necessary to forget."[87]

These exchanges provoked the aptly named "Photogenic War" which has been thoroughly described elsewhere.[88] At its height Gouraud moved to Boston. In the spring or summer of 1840 he published a description of the daguerreotype process which included a method of taking portraits.[89*]

As professional portrait painter Morse had always understood the potential inherent in the daguerreotype if it could be utilized for portraiture. In February, if the sequence of events in most photographic history books can be relied upon as accurate, news of Wolcott's successful process galvanized Morse into renewing his interest in portraits. According to an 1846 account by John Johnson, Morse viewed Wolcott's product and proposed an unaccepted partnership.[90] Morse presumably knew that Draper had accomplished comparable portraits in the fall. He must have shown Wolcott's picture to Draper and encouraged him to adapt his technical ability in portraiture toward commercialization.


It is doubtful that before February 1840 Draper considered his ability to use optical principles to obtain portraits of the human face as anything other than a scientific method solving optical and chemical problems. Apparently in response to Morse's urging, he now agreed to adapt his earlier portrait technique into a commercial product suitable for a business like Wolcott's.[91] After the university term ended in April they opened a gallery.

Morse and Draper used a turret-room on the roof of the university building as a workshop, and built a "hastily-constructed shed, with a glass roof" as their operating room.[92] During this period of experimentation working with Morse on the roof of the university, Draper perfected his procedure with a final system of lenses incorporating technology and technique gleaned from his September experiments with four-inch lenses. At this later date, Draper fashioned his original pair of convex lenses into a more complex arrangement. The sophisticated new system maximized his stated objectives of wide aperture and short focal length. He described his final arrangement as: "Two double convex lenses, the united focus of which for parallel rays is only eight inches; they are four inches in diameter in the clear, and are mounted in a barrel, in front of which the aperture is narrowed to 3 1/2 inches."[93]

This was the lens system with which Draper took the famous portrait of his sister Dorothy Catherine: in his July 1840 letter to Herschel he described the same arrangement.[94*]

Plate "K"
[Fig. 20 credits]
Two of the visible plates in the recently discovered ninth-size plate box may have originated during Draper's spring 1840 experimentation. Plate K depicts a man sitting indoors. There is no squint to the expression and the lens system projects adequate depth of field for a portrait (especially in comparison to plate J). The image is reversed left to right. The subject's eyes are open and clearly delineated with a bright spot of (mirror) reflected light in the corneas. This large, pupil-obliterating spot of light is found in other portraits where it is known that the operator used an early system of mirror-reflected, filtered sunlight as illumination.[95]

Draper may have taken this image with at least a prototype of the lens he perfected for operation in his spring 1840 gallery. As mentioned, his final system used two double-convex, four-inch, nonachromatic lenses, and was apparently developed from his earlier 1839 experiments with one four-inch aperture biconvex lens of 14 inches focal length. If plate K was made with such a lens, it pre-dated standardization of posing and background that may have characterized Draper's gallery products after April 1840. Plate K possibly depicts Professor Martyn Paine, Dr. Draper's colleague at the University of the City of New York. There is some visual resemblance to a later lithograph of Paine.

Detail of Plate "K", corrected, and lithograph of Paine c. 1846.
[Fig. 21 credits]


Plate "L"
[Fig. 22 credits]
Plate L captured a man sitting indoors. His eyes were open and clearly delineated with the same bright spot of (mirror) reflected light in the corneas. There was no squint to his expression and the lens system projected adequate depth of field for a portrait. A few dark spots mar the image which is reversed left to right.

In plate L, the subject's hands are folded in front with elbows resting upon a shiny, rounded chair arm. There are distinctive aspects of the gallery setting visible in the image--a rounded object (chair rail?) behind the sitter and what appears to be the edge of a window sill. The subject looks out a window or opening.

Plate L may represent an example of the finished portrait technique John William Draper developed for his spring 1840 gallery operation. Details of plate L fit Draper's description of his work in this gallery, as does the Doctor's famous portrait of his sister Dorothy Catherine Draper. Both images have aspects in common. The arrangement of folded hands held in front of the body is similar [A in photos below]. Elbows in both images appear to rest upon a shiny, rounded chair arm [B in photos below]. The distinctively rounded object and window sill could represent aspects of the gallery setting also visible in the Dorothy Catherine image [C in photos below].

Plate "L", corrected, and the Dorothy Catherine Draper daguerreotype (c. 1840) in an 1893 Artotype copy.
[Fig. 23 credits]

Further evidence that both images may represent standardized products of Morse's and Draper's gallery comes from visual evidence within a portrait in the Draper collection at the Smithsonian Institution.[96] This outdoor image was probably taken with a completely different lens system from either plate L or the Dorothy Catherine daguerreotype; nevertheless, strong similarities of technique are visible. Clasped hands are held away from the body [A in photos below] ("the hands should never rest upon the chest, for the motion of respiration disturbs them").[97] Fully visible in the Smithsonian image may be the same chair or style of chair used to prop elbows in both Plate L and the Dorothy Catherine photograph [B in photos below].

Plate "L", corrected, the Dorothy Catherine Draper daguerreotype (c. 1840) in an 1893 Artotype copy, and detail of the quarter-plate portrait daguerreotype in the Draper collection.
[Fig. 24 credits]

Extant images in other collections may come to light to further substantiate the elements characterized a standardized product from Morse and Draper's spring 1840 gallery. The subject depicted in plate L is currently unidentified. Since the image was the only one encased, it may depict the "collector" of the plate-box images.[98*]


In their 1840 gallery, Morse "supplied the aesthetic part, posed the sitters and all that," while Draper took the pictures. Draper remembered that their "primitive" operation was:
a grand success. It was during the summer vacation, and we had all the business we could possibly attend to at $5 a picture. I remember we took a picture, and a very good one, for Mr. Frelinghuysen, who was the candidate for Vice-President on the Henry Clay ticket. On dark days we used to teach the art to would-be daguerreotypers, as they were then called. From April until the fall, when I was obliged to resume my duties of teaching, we kept our gallery open, and then Professor Morse, quite devoted to it, opened a gallery on his own account on top of the Observer building in Nassau street.[99]
All of the lens systems that Draper developed between September 1839 and early spring 1840 were nonachromatic. Later in the spring he began to use French achromatic lenses (most likely once they were of large enough diameter for portraiture).[100]

Draper's spring 1840 apparatus, as evinced by Dorothy Catherine's daguerreotype, allowed him to take as advanced a portrait as anyone in the world. Draper's accomplishments in lens technology, however, did not conclude with the famous image of his sister. Rather, he continued to evolve the complexity of his lens system and undoubtedly expanded his capacity for capturing excellent portraits. Although he terminated commercial portrait work with Morse in fall 1840, Draper continued to use the daguerreotype process for various scientific experiments.[101]

Morse, without the security of a full-time university position, desperately needed income to justify his daguerreian investment.[102] He continued in the portrait business, erecting for this purpose a new gallery on the roof of his brother's newspaper building. Morse continued to use the complex lens system Draper had evolved. Anxious to shave every possible second off time required for portraiture, he must have continued to draw from Draper's optical expertise to achieve further perfection.

On 20 November 1840 Morse wrote a letter to one of his daguerreian students as he prepared to reopen a gallery. The letter reveals both the extent of Draper's and his success and the amazing sophistication of their fully evolved lens system. Morse detailed to his student a system containing five lens elements which allowed him to take an indoor portrait in only five seconds:
I have put together 5 lenses, 2 large achromatic 4 inches diameter, a plano convex, a double convex each of 4 inches, and a large double convex, 6 inches in diameter; these give me a focus of about four and a half inches.[103]
The advanced lens system Draper and Morse developed must have overcome many problems of lens aberration and depth of field. The five lens elements described by Morse possibly even approached the optical sophistication of the revolutionary Petzval lens. It was Draper's knowledge of optics that made such accomplishments possible. With his superior lens system, he had little need for accelerator chemicals, such as bromide, to accomplish fine portraiture.

The portrait in the Draper Collection at the Smithsonian Institution was likely taken by one of Draper and Morse's advanced lenses. The excellent depth of field in the portrait suggests that it was not taken with a primitive five-minute exposure in the fall of 1839; it was more likely taken in the fall of 1840 with a lens system similar to the five elements mentioned in Morse's November 1840 letter.

This unidentified portrait could provide the most important missing-link of provenance between the plate-box images and John Draper. Distinctive facial lines appear similar to later daguerreotypes of Draper's academic colleague and business partner Samuel F. B. Morse. This portrait may well depict Professor Morse in fall 1840. If so, it would form a visual link between the plate-box image J and known portraits of Morse.

Plate "J", and detail of the quarter-plate portrait daguerreotype in the Draper collection.
[Fig. 25 credits]

Plate J in the plate box is hypothesized to be an indoor 1839 portrait of Samuel Morse with his hair still gray. All known photographs show Morse with hair completely white. The historical record shows that in autumn 1839 Morse's hair was still gray.[104] About a year later, in February 1841 (within a few months of the probable date of the Smithsonian Institution portrait), Morse recorded that his hair was turning white ("the snows are on my temples").[105] The hair of the man in the portrait is turning white.

On left, detail of Plate "J" (c. early October 1839). At right, is detail of the quarter-plate portrait daguerreotype in the Draper collection at the Smithsonian Institution (c. November 1840).
[Fig. 25a credits]
Although Morse's hair was gray in 1839, the tip of certain locks in plate J already show a touch of white. They appear to be the same locks that a year later have turned white in the Smithsonian Institution portrait.

The exposure for plate box image J would have lasted five to seven minutes and necessitated squinting into mirror reflected sunlight, face hard propped upon his hand. Even filtered through blue glass, such light would be painful to human eyes. The outdoor 1840 exposure in the Smithsonian Institution probably lasted ten seconds or less, and required only indirect sunlight. The subject held his unpropped face loose and natural, with little squinting.

On left is detail of Plate "J" (c. early October 1839), (reversal of the original daguerreotype corrected).
In middle is detail of the quarter-plate portrait daguerreotype in the Draper collection (c. November 1840), (reversal of the original daguerreotype corrected).
On right, is detail of Mathew Brady photo of Samuel Morse (c. 1870).

[Fig. 25b credits]

On top, detail of Plate "J" (c. early October 1839), (reversal of the original daguerreotype corrected). At bottom is detail of the quarter-plate portrait daguerreotype in the Draper collection (c. November 1840).
[Fig. 25c credits]
Morse (who was financially distressed during this time period) may have worn the identical coat with cleft cuffs in each daguerreotype.

[To view other photos of Morse
and facial details that match the
individual recorded in this Draper collection daguerreotype,
follow this link.


At the University of the City of New York, Samuel Morse and John Draper forged technology that helped create our modern world. They were certainly among the first to apply newly invented daguerreian procedure to capturing life portraits of the human face.

Draper contributed inspired technological skill and achieved a practical operating system. Morse brought artistic expertise from his rich heritage of portrait painting. Their collaboration created a product unexcelled in its era. From Morse and Draper flowed the genesis of portrait photography. They instructed many of the first generation of daguerreian operators.

During their lifetime, recognition and honor came to both men for their contribution to the history of portrait photography. As the years passed, most examples of their original works were lost to history. Exactly what they accomplished gradually receded beyond human sight and knowledge, and the primacy of their work came into dispute. New historical evidence and possible recovery of some images themselves may help to reaffirm their achievements.

The prevailing paradigm of the history of photography does not adequately explain the existence of the small plate box and dozen daguerreotypes. One possible solution for their existence emerges if the images are hypothetically accepted as lost work of Dr. Draper and Professor Morse at New York University. Examining the images from this perspective, and studying Draper's written articles in light of the images, eventually led the writer to an understanding of Draper's sequence of lenses in developing portraiture.

Draper's specific description of products from his second and fourth lens systems share an intriging correlation with visual details appearing in plates H, I, J, K, and L. Draper's third lens likely produced quarter-plate images, so the ninth-size plate box contained no such example.

Hypothesizing that a flawed plate from Draper's first lens system (convex lenses of five inches aperture and seven inches focal length) should logically be included in the plate box, each plate previously assumed to be blank was carefully scrutinized. One plate (later designated A) was in fact found to contain a shadowy human figure partially visible.

Plate "A"..
[Fig. 26 credits]
Judged in light of all other circumstancial evidence, Plate A could conceivably be one of the experimental series of daguerreotypes Dr. Draper took on 22 or 23 September 1839 of his assistant William Henry Goode in the university chapel. Defects of exposure and time's abrasion obscure the shadow within this plate. Indistinct portions of a human figure only partially emerge, yet the surviving image closely mirrors Draper's description of his first experimental results. This image may be a partially successful exposure leading up to Draper's first successful "whole countenance."

Part of a hand is visible propping up the sitter's head. Dark clothes and hairline, white-spots of the forehead, cheeks, and chin of the sitter are also visible, exactly as Draper described. Facial features are shadowy and confused however, apparently owing to a movement blurred or double exposure of the face.[106*]

Detail of Plate "A" with labels next to areas difficult to see.
[Fig. 26a credits]

Detail of Plate "A".
[Fig. 26b credits]
The lens system described by Draper would not have allowed anything "like a good picture" (in other words there would have been no depth of field, no clearness of focus). This appears to be the exact phenomena visible in plate-box image A.


Perhaps Draper saved the visible images in the plate box as examples of problems he experienced using each of his sequence of lenses. If this box indeed contains residual plates from Draper's experiments, it appears that one extant image survives from at least five of six distinct lens systems. In his September 1840 Philosophical Magazine article, Draper specifically detailed defects of the daguerreotypes each of his prototype lenses produced. His descriptions correspond to visible characteristics of daguerreotypes in the plate box. Draper wrote this article in the spring of 1840, possibly as he examined experimental samples made with each lens. Why else would Draper have described, in detail, the limiting defects of daguerreotypes taken six months earlier with an obsolete procedure, unless he happened to be viewing the plates before him? Why does each of the defects he mentioned in the article correspond to visual evidence in the plate box daguerreotypes unless they were the images that jogged his memory about pitfalls in his earliest experimentation?

Any autumn 1839 daguerreotypes Draper might have kept were probably defective examples (his best plates were reused). Since he considered them as defective examples of experiments, he likely retained them only to help him compose his article. After completion of his Philosophical Magazine article Draper moved quickly to other projects. He may have had a preconceived intention of disposing of the images or possibly did not really care what became of them since each was flawed and had served his intended use. Regardless, by the 1850s, when investigators demanded further specifics from his memory, Draper may no longer have possessed (or known the location of) examples of his earliest work. Perhaps Draper gave the images away as some sort of souvenir after using several to complete his article.[107*] Efforts to link the provenance of the plate box to someone around Draper in 1840 are uncompleted thus far.[108*]

If indeed Draper and Morse took these daguerreotypes at the University of the City of New York between September 1839 and the spring of 1840, then the contents of the plate box represent some of the world's first experimental photographic portraits of the human face and could revolutionize much that is known concerning the first American daguerreotypes and the world's first portraits. They would lift the veil of mystery that has always surrounded the earliest experiments of Draper and Morse. Their existence may preserve a fragile visual record of a moment in time and space where art and science merged in the invention of photography. Further exploration of these artifacts should include:

1) A forensic study of the materials/process in each plate.

2) A detailed lens analysis correlating historical description to the visual evidence in each image. Experts in optics and lens science should examine each plate to attempt determination of which lens took each image.

3) Additional study and reinterpretation of written sources for deeper understanding of the images and to correct published accounts of the history of photography.

It is hoped that this work may generate further discussion, interpretation, or discovery concerning the plate box images. The contents of this simple wooden box extend human vision back to the horizon of chemically recorded time. These faces reflect across 150 years. No earlier exact view of the human past may be possible.

to Appendix 1:
a recapituation and summary of the evidence for each plate.
Also, Hypotheses concerning Plate "M"

an essay on the SYNCHRONICITY
surrounding the plate box of early daguerreotypes