This photograph, shot in 1840 and titled Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, is not of a drowned man, and if it had been it would be far less interesting or important. This humble image, so far as anyone knows, can claim all of the following honorifics- First instance of intentional photographic fakery. First photographic practical joke. First use of a photograph as propaganda / protest. And, quite possibly, a result of the world’s first reliable photographic process, direct positive or otherwise.
The image was shot by (and pictures) one Hippolyte Bayard. He was a French civil servant who, in his spare time, happened to invent his own method of reliably capturing photographic images on paper; an interesting fact considering, at the time, none other was known to exist, anywhere.
Hippolyte Bayard is not exactly a household name is it? More of a “buried in an unknown ditch on the other side of the Earth, who knows when or why, and basically forgotten” kind of name. It might have been otherwise, and during his lifetime, Mr. Bayard was well aware of that fact.
As it happens, after inventing his direct positive photographic process, Hippolyte was visited by one François Arago, who convinced him, using who knows what logic, to postpone making an announcement of his find to the French Academy of Sciences. As it turns out François Arago was a close personal pal of another fellow, who shortly thereafter made his own presentation to the members of the Académie des Sciences, by the name of Louis Daguerre. Ever heard of him? Yeah, thought so.
By the time Mr. Bayard finally did present to the Académie they’d already made a substantial investment in Daguerre and his process. In as much their reaction was to pay Bayard a piddling sum for his troubles and assure him his process was so inferior as to be essentially useless. Nice guys.
So basically poor ol’ Hippolyte got shafted, hard, and he knew it.
Which brings us to Self Portrait as a Drowned Man.
Self Portrait as a Drowned Man (more specifically, the series of “Drowned Man” photographs he shot) was Bayard’s protest. It wasn’t as metaphorically subtle a protest as it would seem at first glance either. On the back, written in third person, is Hippolyte’s suicide note in which states his grievance rather explicitly.
Quote: “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…! He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognized or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay.”
Ha. Stick it to ‘em Hippolyte!
So, evidently, among it’s other distinctions Self Portrait as a Drowned Man also represents the worlds first photographic “fuck you.”
Bayard continued to take photographs for 47 more years until his death in 1887, but so far as his place on the great big list of history’s firsts he would have to make due with the rather miniscule honor of having held the world’s first public exhibition of photographs in June of 1839.
To the Académie and their endless ilk from time immemorial to present day, I offer, on Hippolyte’s behalf, a hearty “Je deteste, Ptuu!”
One last thought:
Squashed by the interests of the establishment? Disgruntled? Resistant? Resultantly sarcastic and innovative by necessity? Seems a pretty common pedigree by today’s standards. Could it be Hippolyte was actually the first bonafide “artist” working with the photographic process?