An excerpt from What’s wrong with Daguerre? – by Hans Rooseboom.
In 2008 the photohistoric community witnessed a remarkable affair involving a major auction house, an eminent photohistorian and an early photograph. Sotheby’s New York office announced the auction of a photograph that, if the attribution was correct, would amount to “one of the most important discoveries in the history of photography.” Sotheby’s implied that the picture, known simply as “Leaf”, may be the oldest existing photograph in the world. The auction house attributed the picture to Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805), who is known to have made – but not been able to preserve – photographs before 1802. Should this prove to be true, the implication was the dethronement of Frenchman Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) as the creator of the oldest preserved photograph, made in 1826 or 1827. Larry J. Schaaf, the renowned American authority on early British photography, sanctioned the Wedgwood attribution and penned the picture’s entry in Sotheby’s catalogue. However, following an outcry from the photohistoric community concerning the authenticity of the attribution, the photograph was ultimately withdrawn from auction.
This affair cannot be dismissed as a single unfortunate incident, as it continues a long tradition dating back more than 150 years. Ever since the introduction of photography in 1839, the merits of each would-be claimant to the title of ‘inventor of photography’ have periodically been overemphasized by either themselves or excessively enthusiastic photohistorians. Their arguments are more often based on the nationalities of the inventors, or influenced by other factors that will be discussed in this essay (What’s wrong with Daguerre?), than on any concrete evidence. Wishful thinking and intentional short-sightedness have played a significant role in this priority dispute and continue to do so, as demonstrated by the Sotheby’s/Wedgwood case in 2008. The implicit question is: has photohistory reached the level of maturity and balance necessary to relate an unbiased and non-judgemental account of the invention of photography?
What’s wrong with Daguerre?
by Hans Rooseboom