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HomeContentsThemes > Early examples of photo reportage

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The early history of photojournalism consists of a small number of newsworthy incidents of which photographs were taken. Until the halftone printing process became commonly used towards the end of the nineteenth century it was not possible to print photographs and therefore they had to be converted into woodcuts or engravings. To simplify the early examples of photojournalism they can be divided into several categories:
  • Catastrophes
     
    The Hamburg Fire (5-8th May 1842) with Daguerreotypes by Carl Ferdinand Stelzner (1805-1894) and Hermann Biow (?-1850) is currently thought to be the first news event captured on a photographic plate. In 1853 George N. Barnard took two photographs of the fires at the Ames and Doolittle mills, Oswego, New York and he went on to record the American Civil War (1861-1865).
     
    There are 1843 Daguerreotypes by an unknown photographer of the floods at the French port of Nantes and in 1864 James Mudd recorded the devastation of the Great Flood when the Dale Dyke Dam burst to the west of Sheffield in Northern England.
  • Social upheavals
     
    1848 is called the Year of Revolutions in Europe with two Daguerreotypes of the Chartist meeting on Kennington Common in Britain taken by William Kilburn and others of the street barricades of Paris recorded by M. Thibault.
  • The individual in peril
     
    The plight of a single individual is something that the public can sympathize with. One of the earliest such tragedies photographically recorded was at Niagara Falls by Platt D. Babbitt (1823-1879) in July 1853. Joseph Avery clung to a rock for hours before losing his grip and being drowned.
  • Extended reports on an event
     
    The photographs by Alois Löcherer (1815-1862) documented the construction of the sixty foot tall bronze statue of Bavaria by Ludwig von Schwanthaler (1802-48). This is the first known example of photo reportage over an extended period.
  • Wars
     
    War photography is such a key part of photojournalism that it is discussed at considerable length elsewhere on this website but a few relevant points can be repeated here.
     
    The photographs of Roger Fenton and James Robertson during Crimean War (1854-1856) are amongst the first of any conflict. In America Adrian J. Ebell photographed the refugees from the Indian attacks on the Northern Plains that led to the First Indian War and they were published as copied illustrations for the article 'The Indian Massacres and the War of 1862' that appeared in 'Harper's New Monthly Magazine' (1863).
     
    The large number of photographs taken by the associates of Mathew Brady (1823-1896), Alexander Gardner (1821-1882) and Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-1882) of the American Civil War (1861-1865) are also key works in early photojournalism.
Although catastrophes and war provided some of the most dramatic images photography was being used in other fields of photojournalism because of its ability to provide a social commentary to abuses of the poor.
1.   Catastrophes
The Hamburg Fire - 5-8 May 1842
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Unidentified photographer/creator
View of the Conflagration of the City of Hamburg 
1842
   
On 5th May 1842 a fire ripped through the German city of Hamburg and was only extinguished on 8th May. The first edition of "The Illustrated London News" came out on 14th May and the event was included on the front page illustrated with an old print of the city borrowed from the British Museum. The print was enhanced to be more melodramatic with flames and smoke but what was not appreciated was that Carl Ferdinand Stelzner (1805-1894), a painter of miniatures, and Hermann Biow (?-1850) took Daguerreotypes of the ruins and these are probably the first photographs taken of a news event.
 
The Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte (Museum of Hamburg History) has the original Daguerreotype by Carl-Ferdinand Stelzner.
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The fires at the Ames and Doolittle mills, Oswego, New York (5 July 1853)
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George N. Barnard
Fire in the Ames Mills, Oswego, New York 
1853, July 5
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George N. Barnard
Burning Mills at Oswego, New York 
1853, July 5
  
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Sheffield Flood - 11 March 1864
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Unidentified photographer/creator
Sheffield Flood, Bachelor Joseph Chapman, tailor of Hillsbrough survived by getting in this box 
1864
   
In Northern England on Friday 11 March 1864 the Dale Dyke Dam of the Sheffield Waterworks Company at Low Bradfield burst sending a raging torrent through the communities to the west of Sheffield and then into the heart of the city. It remains one of the worst floods in British history with 270 people dead and over 800 houses destroyed.
 
The aftermath was photographed by a Manchester based portrait photographer with the strangely appropriate name of James Mudd. The event was widely published in the press along with the enquiry into the engineering failure that followed the catastrophe. Illustrations, some based on known photographs, were included in the Illustrated London News and a special supplementary issue that was issued on 2 April 1864.
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2.   Social upheavals
First news engravings from an original photograph
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M. Thibault
The Barricade in rue Saint-Maur-Popincourt after the attack by General Lamoricière's troops 
1848, 26 June
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M. Thibault
Barricades Before the Attack, Rue Saint-Maur (French: Barricades avant l'attaque, Rue Saint-Maur) 
1848
  
Credit for the first published engraving of a news event copied from an original photograph goes to M. Thibault for his two photographs of the barricades on Rue Saint-Maur-Popincourt during the 1848 revolution in Paris. The engraving was published in L‘Illustration on 1 July 1848 (nos 279-280, 1er-8 juillet 1848, p. 276.) with the title "La barricade de la rue Saint-Maur-Popincourt le lundi après l'attaque, d'après une planche daguerréotypée par M. Thibault".
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3.   The individual in peril
Niagara Falls - July 1853
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Platt D. Babbitt
[Joseph Avery stranded on rocks in the Niagara River] 
1853, July
   
Platt D. Babbitt (1823-1879) had the license to take photographs at Niagara Falls and took this photograph in July 1853. Three men above the falls lost control of their boat and crashed into a rock. Two were swept away over the falls whilst the third, Joseph Avery, was stranded on a log that was jammed between rocks. There was no chance of a rescue and he remained in this terrifying situation for eighteen hours before being washed away.
 
This event is a part of the traditions of Niagara Falls and immortalized by the local place name Avery's Rock and the 1853 poem Avery by William Dean Howells.
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4.   Extended reports on an event
The Bronze Statue of Bavaria - Alois Löcherer
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Alois Löcherer
Transporting the Bavaria Statue to Theresienwiese [Die Bearbeitung der BAVARIA nach dem Guss, München] 
1850
   
Between 1845 and 1850 Alois Löcherer (1815-1862) used paper negatives to photograph the fabrication, moving and installation of Ludwig von Schwanthaler's bronze statue of Bavaria. This extended sequence of photographs documented the entire process and is one of the earliest examples of a photo-essay.
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