The Poignant Story of the World’s First Staged Photograph

Learn about the unexpected story behind the first staged photograph and its creator, Hippolyte Bayard.

The staged photograph has long been part of photographers’ tools for creative expression, but how far back it goes is probably not known to many. Thankfully, Vox producer Coleman Lowndes has the answer for us, as well as the dismal story behind what is now called the world’s first staged photograph. In a Darkroom episode, he shares the events that led to its creation by a French artist and experimenter named Hippolyte Bayard.

In an episode of Vox’s The Darkroom series, Lowndes shows us the first staged photograph: from 1840 a dramatic self-portrait of Hippolyte Bayard depicting his “death”. It may not be listed alongside the most outstanding work in photography history, but it’s definitely the work of a pioneer as you’ll learn in the video below.

Following the story, Bayard could have been credited with the invention of the first photographic process instead of fellow Frenchman Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre. But, because of politics — and according to Getty, having been convinced by a friend of Daguerre to postpone the announcement of his process — it’s Daguerre that we now laud as the inventor (or one of many) of the first practical and widespread method of creating photos. Bayard, meanwhile, was chucked into obscurity.

This makes Bayard’s staged self-portrait, titled The Drowned, a highly creative and fitting response to the injustice he suffered. As was explained in the Vox Darkroom episode, he may not have officially pioneered the first viable photographic process, but he’s definitely the first to photography as a tool for creative self-expression. Going beyond the usual still life snaps he took while developing his own process, The Drowned was made with metaphor and symbolism in mind to deliver his protest — and perhaps inadvertently, demonstrate the creative possibilities that photography made available to artists.

Part of his caption reads:

“The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you. As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. The Government, which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life…!”

Bayard didn’t actually drown himself but continued to take photos until he passed away nearly 50 years later. Of all the photos he took, The Drowned remains the most poignant and talked about to this day.