Editor's Note: This is a blog I first posted in 2010. I thought it was worth rerunning, since nobody seems to have read it!
A PICTURE WORTH THOUSANDS OF DUMB WORDS
And I thought I was dense.
A recent Yahoo story about early pictures of humans proved to be a testament to just how clueless many people are when it comes to the history of photography.
The article is about a photo taken in 1848 by two men standing on one side of the Ohio River, and shows what appear to be two humans on the dock across the river. Known as a daguerreotype, the figures are blurry and look “see-through” due to the long exposure time it took to chemically treat the metal plates. As the article clearly explains, “If someone or something was moving within the frame, it wouldn’t show up in a daguerreotype photo.” I already knew this from looking at old family photos as a child, where the subjects were often blurry, and I have come across these kinds of pictures while doing genealogy research as well. The story also includes a link to an 1838 picture of a man on a busy Paris street, getting his shoes shined. Since he was standing still long enough, he appeared in the photo while moving objects did not. This is thought to be the first photo of a human and was taken by Louise Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype process, the article explains.
I admit the headline of this story is a bit misleading: “Very Early Photographic Images of Humans Discovered.” It almost sounds as if the photo across the river is a picture of the earliest human beings in the world. But one would think that most people would realize this could not possibly be the case, and that they would read the story further to clarify the facts. However, after spending time on the article’s accompanying message board, it is obvious that LOTS of people jump to conclusions, don’t take time to read, and are totally ignorant of how pictures work.
I remember seeing that article when it first came online, and I was one of the first to comment, saying that I thought it was a very interesting story—and I meant it! I didn’t think anything of it again until the next day when I decided to check the board and saw that it was really jumping. I was so flabbergasted by many of the comments, I couldn’t pull myself away.
The most common misconception was that the photo had to be a fake because you could see through the people. One poster named Daniel commented:
“Hello?!? Do you guys honestly think those people are real? It’s kinda odd how EVERYTHING around them is well defined and distinguishable…and then the “people” look like two stick figures with round heads. See them through the boards? Get real, those look like planks…stacked up on top of each other laying in a pile on the bank. This photo is fake, at least some of it is anyways.”
“Airforcewife” said that “If these are real people, why can you still see the lines of the boards thru the bodies? Are they going to change the story and say they are ghosts now?? I think it’s a fake! May be a really old pic, but the people dont belong there.”
In the words of Cody: “Wait, this isn’t real…If you look very closely, they are transparent, suggesting, as someone said earlier, “painted on”. But you can be sure if they are real figures, that they aren’t part of a dock or something? I think everyone’s too quick to assume and not look at the fine minor details…”
Caitlin: “Why are they transparent? If I had to take a wild guess I would say this is a hoax.”
MacGyver: “I don’t know if this is just me, or do the “people” look see through? Just something I noticed.”
Honest: “if you look real close you will see that these guys were painted after. You can see threw this guys like they are transparent.”
Nonbeliever: “It isn’t people at all…am I the only one that can see through both of these “people” to the steps they are in front of??!!! Don’t believe everything you see..this photo may be old, but in fact the people in it are non existent!!”
Anthony: “Clearly a fake. I mean, you can actually see THROUGH the ‘person’ on the left. Some fact checking should be done before you post an article like this, shouldn’t it?”
Karen: “This looks like it was touched up or added at a later time.”
Kevin: “Anyone noticed you can see through them. These are the first ghosts to ever be photographed.”
JaclynB: “Am I the only one that sees that the two men are TRANSPARENT? Could someone clear this up for me? Or is this something paranormal?”
Kay: “They look like two ghosts to me – Can you say PHOTOSHOPPED!”
Keep in mind that these are actual quotes from real people, misspellings and grammatical errors included, that I copied and pasted into a Word document. I have not changed them in any way. I was so amazed, I had to save some of these as proof! Shortly after I had joined the board that second day, one man who had spent a considerable amount of time trying to help people understand how early photos worked decided to give up and leave. “You can’t fix stupid!” he declared.
But there were others who stayed on, myself included, determined to try. Take the “how can these be the first humans” misconception, for instance. Someone whose name I missed said, “I don’t get it, why is this so rare? Who else do they think built the buildings and the big ol ship that is floating there? Oh! And WHO took the picture!!!??? I honestly cannot understand ‘news’ somedays…good greif…”
There were many others who had the same thoughts. Here are just a few of them:
LadyD: “I’m still confused. Who wrote this article again? Of course there were humans!! HELLO!! Did you figure that out ALL BY YOURSELF or did you need help? 1848? Yeah there were humans then and WAY before then TOO!!”
Julio: “what? Of course I can see a boat it got be people around, what is the deal whit this report,sounds stupid,if they took picture of the city it has to b some people in it lol”
Meme: “why is hs even news??? Hate to break it to you folks but PEOPLE EXISTED IN 1848. Big deal that the photogs didn’t realize THEN that there were humans in the photo. This article makes it seem like it’s so mysterious that human beings would be in early photographs when humans CREATED PHOTOGRAPHY EQUIPMENT. DUH!!!!”
Michael: “sooo the camera was invented before they thought humans were around…sweet…this is a stupid ass post”
Bourre: “The headline is ridiculous. Did an alien write this article? You reckon a human took the picture?”
Testa: “I had to laugh a lot about this one..!!Who do you think took this picture ?? A dog,, a cat,, No a Human.!! Boy that took some real smarts..lol”
Holly: “tHIS IS IMPOSSIBLE or a painting because i f it was first sighting of humans or whatever, who took the photo??!!!!”
Jonas: “wait how’s the guys take the pic if there were no humans?”
J: “what’s the big deal about people in the picture ? who built that ship and who took the picture ? animals? Give me a break”
Mizz Attitude: “Wow I dont understand why people r getting so excited or amazed about two people in an old picture..there’s a steamboat in the background if people didn’t already exist then who controlled the boat and I;m sure the buildings didn’t magically just appear and made a town out of the blue…come on people something like this isn’t really amazing..there were people way before 1848 and everyone knows this..the things that just amaze some people makes me laugh.”
And then there were the endless comments that these were “ghosts” because you could see right through them. Or, for the people who understood the see-through image, many said over and over that it looked like a marriage proposal, because one of the human images is on his knees. And people explained over and over that they aren’t ghosts and that it could not be a proposal because women wore long dresses then. (Many also rightfully mentioned that it could be one person rather than two, and that he just moved during the course of the photographic process.)
This kept going on throughout the day. Every time I checked the board, people were saying the same things, blindly posting their opinion without reading the story or the many comments before. And most of them thought they were the first one to notice that you could see through the people or that it looked like a marriage proposal or that someone had to take the picture of these “first humans.” Many of the same people continued trying to educate to no avail. Someone named “Dave and Sarah” said they were having “too much fun” updating the page and reading everyone’s comments. “Clearly most people don’t understand the process of the photograph or reprographics,” they said.
Oh, and then there were the “Why is this a big deal?” comments. Someone said how “it’s only natural that someone had to take the very first picture of a human but what’s that mean…It’s not like they took a picture of something extraordinary or anything. It’s a human being and last time I looked there are plenty of us around. Now, show me a picture of big foot, the loch ness monster or something that’s rare and hard to prove exists.”
Chava malka cooper: “if you can take a picture of a boat you can take a picture of people. Don’t know why they are so amazed at this ‘photographic image of humans’.”
Sirmaster2: “I dont get it. Who cares about the photos. Humans created those cities and towns in those pics. And they have been around for many years before cams were invented. So whats the point here? If this is exciting then you have seen nothing compared to what I can show you that no cam has ever photographed. Geesh. Wanna see a pic of the 1st maple leaf on a ‘man or woman’?? LOL.”
Lane: “what you mean there were people in that lil ol’ town holy s@*t you dont say…how strange???? this is dumb.”
Angelique: “I still don’t understand what the big deal is about the picture. Is it that is ‘humans’ are ghosts or what?”
And here is a sample of some of the attempts to enlighten:
Lonesilverwolf96: “The reason this is a big deal those of you treating this like its nothing, if it wasn’t for Daguerre and his talent we wouldn’t have the digital cameras and video cameras we all love to use on a daily basis. He was like the inventor of the “Wheel” in photography. It’s not earth shattering no, but have a little respect, no, gratitude for the things we have today. These pictures sometimes took hours to take and even longer to develop. We have come a long way to the half second click we have today. And besides, if art history doesn’t interest you, why are you looking?”
Robert: “To all of you who are incredibly stupid to say this is fake, these are ghosts, this is stupid or what is the big deal, please keep your ridiculous comments to yourselves and comment on articles that require less intelligence to appreciate. Anyone with a basic understanding of history, especially history of technology or history of photography, would appreciate this article. First and foremost, the picture’s authenticity is not in question. It is legit and accepted as such, so move on. Ghosts? Really? If you paid attention in school instead of playing your stupid video games and watching reality TV, you would know that photography is a new invention, going back to the early 19th century in France with cameras with such slow shutter speeds, that capturing the image of a mammal would be almost impossible since they move. That is why Daguerre’s original Paris photo, which most people should have seen at least once in their life, captures nothing but blurs where people and horses moved slowly, and one blurry man, captured on film only because he was standing still getting his shoes shined. It would not be until many years later that moving people would be captured on film, and at the time of this photo, there were no still photos of people yet produced. The fact that this is the first photo to capture a person in the United States is very impressive to those who appreciate history. If you have no clue about history or just don’t care, then go read a worthless article on a celebrity and comment on that instead.”
Rockngold: “Seriously are the people commenting here really this ignorant?! I’ve read stupid comments about of course there were people before this picture because where did the boats and buildings come from…other comments about why is this news worthy when we can do so much more with photos now…and countless comments with misspelled words. OMG! This article is of interest because it was in the earliest developments of photography when it was rare to photograph a busy town or street and have people show up in the pictures because non-stationary subjects could not be captured. Of course there were pictures of people prior to this when they were stationary, the interest is in the fact that these figures showed up in this particular TYPE of photograph. It is historical because of the development in technology of photography and the beauty of this early time in the art of photography, Its newsworthy and interesting for the same reason that many intelligent cultured people enjoy museums and art galleries…People PLEASE get a clue!! If you are really this ignorant keep your comments to yourselves.”
Robert (another one): “Still ?? wow..no wonder this country is going down the drain..dumb people. Right after I explained the process people are saying things like, Why are they transparent and Why aren’t there more people in a busy town? I am just a regular guy who works on cars for a living and I get it. Don’t you???? 20 minut exposure times burn an image onto a silver plate..equalls---nothing can move or it will not be in the photo. If you were there for half the time you would be half transparent….Got it now????”
But unfortunately many DIDN’T get it. I’d go away for a few hours, come back, and the crazy comments were still coming. A woman named Lyn attempted to get the more intelligent posters to throw in the towel.
“To the literate folks out there, please stop wasting your time in trying to logically explain anything about these photos to the numbskulls posting about ‘ghosts’ and ‘fake photo’,” she said. “You’ll just wear yourself out for nothing!”
I laughed and told her that I agreed, “But I can’t tear myself away!” to which Lyn replied “It’s like a train wreck isn’t it!!! LOL!!!”
By this time I also began to get rather snarky. I usually try to be considerate of people’s feelings and don’t make fun of them for personal matters like looks, weight, or intellect, but these posts were just sooo off-base I couldn’t help myself. On a few comments where people would say something like, “Am I the only one who notices that you can see through them?” I would reply that yes, they were the ONLY person to mention this, and that “wow, it really must be a hoax then!” Or I’d say that nobody has mentioned that before and they should get their vision checked. I know, I’m mean—what can I tell ya.
I did try to make some informative posts, but when it became apparent that trying to educate was fruitless—you just couldn’t keep up with the vast number of “numbskulls” coming in—at one point I made a tongue-in-cheek comment that this picture had to be fake because you can see through them, and if they are the first humans then who took the picture, and that of course humans were here in the 1800’s. “I mean, I bet they were around in the 1600’s even! Boy are you people dumb,” I added. I’m sure the intelligent people who had seen my earlier posts knew I was joking and got a laugh, but of course there were some who just joined and took me seriously. What’s scary, though, is that it sounded like one person partially agreed with my fake post. As Becca said, “You are so correct its takes a dumb person to think its real ,,I mean unless its ghost,,and besides there were people around before 600bc hello God created the heavens and the earth,,people get serious without God there was no history!!!!” The other person who replied to my comment asked if I was serious, and then gave me a stern lecture about how long people have been on the earth and how photography works. She also told me to not be a hypocrite. “You’re probably the dumbest person to comment so far,” she said. (I did go back and tell her that I was just poking fun at all the silly comments, but who knows if she ever saw my post. Oh well, I tried.)
Speaking of humor, or attempts at it, there were some comments that made me laugh:
Jon M: “It’s too blurry, couldn’t they afford a better digital camera?”
Art Vandelay: “It’s a shame this came out…the one didn’t want his wife to know where he was that day…”
RS: “You people disgust me with all your hair-brained theories. Those aren’t humans. They are the first water Martians to come out of from under the water in an attempt to populate the earth.”
Harry P: “My question is: did they get releases from these individuals to publish their image?”
And finally, Gary summed it up well: “I was going to leave a comment. Luckily I read some of the others and was instantly reminded that the comment rules at Yahoo specifically state that one must be committed to a state operated mental institution to be eligible to make comments. Wow, that was close.”
Let’s hope at least some of these people read the story and comments after they posted, and came to understand the true significance of the photo. I’d like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I did not see any evidence of that, however. Nobody coming back to apologize or say “my bad—I understand now, I should have read more,” etc. And the scary part is that these were just the people who posted on the board—think of all the other thousands out there who thought the same things but just didn’t bother to type it on the Internet! Whether it is because people are too young to know, just plain ignorant, or both—who knows. But after being on that board, I not only feel a little better about myself but I also see how truly uneducated many people are. My conclusion is that in order for them to “see the light” perhaps they should go into the dark—in the form of a darkroom—and develop some pictures the old-fashioned way!