Trusting a photograph

Photographs are staged, selected, manipulated, and modified, and are in no way a useful guide to reality. We know that. But when we see a photograph, particularly an old one, we feel we’re seeing something. James K. Polk was not a handsome man, but it is fascinating to see this image of a him (I gather there was a photo of William Henry Harrison, so it's not actually the first of a sitting President, which I had long thought). That’s what he looked like, we say to ourselves. Amazing

And it is. That is, kind of, what he looked like.  Is this steely eyed man John Brown, or this somewhat more ingratiating version?  At least we're pretty sure about the hair.  

But back then, you were conscious of being photographed. The speed of the emulsion meant you had to sit still for a long time for your image to be clear—or be dead, the reason dead soldiers and dead babies make up a large proportion of early figure photographs.

So think about the first-ever photograph ever taken, Louis Daguerre’s image of the Boulevard du Temple.

Standing there, getting his shoes shined, is the first person to be photographed, and it’s a candid shot. That long-legged guy there was one person who didn’t pose, because he didn’t know there was anything to pose for.

But now we’re suspicious. Everything is staged, selected, etc. Did Daguerre put his buddy Jacques up to it?

Daguerre: Hey, Jacques, I’ll show you something fun. See that shoeshine guy out there? He’s not getting much business. Why don’t you go out there and get your shoes shined?

Jacques: What’s wrong with my shoes?

D: Nothing. But if you go out there—

J: They’re old, sure. But if I’d known you would make a comment, I’d have worn my other pair.

D: There’s nothing wrong with your shoes, Jacques. Great shoes. From around here?  There's a great place on the Place Vendome....

J: I picked them up on a business trip to Mulhouse.

D: Well, see? But, anyway, if you’d just go out there to that shoeshine guy, I’ll show you something amazing....

J: Again with the shine. The shoes are clean, Louis. I'm careful about stuff like that.  Why should I go out and get my shoes cleaned?

D: Here. I’ll pay for it. And enough for a tip, too.

J: Do you think I can’t afford to have my shoes shined? I’ll have you know, things have been going pretty well. Pretty well, indeed. I don’t have the free time for fancy chemical experiments, but I got enough to get by.

D: I didn’t mean—

J: You didn’t used to be like this, Louis.  Is it those chemicals you’ve been smelling?

D: For God’s sake, go out there! You’ll see why. You’ll think it’s great. I swear.

J: Fine. I’ll do it. Just don’t expect me to come back.

Poor Jacques. He never knew that generations yet unborn would be looking at him. But if he hadn’t been there, would it have been as interesting a picture? We’ll never really know how it happened.....