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June 24, 2021

Self Portrait as a Drowned Man: The First Hoax Photograph Ever Shot in 1840

The first hoax photograph was taken in 1840 by Hippolyte Bayard. Both Bayard and Louis Daguerre fought to claim the title “Father of Photography.” Bayard had supposedly developed his photography process before Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype. However, the announcement of the invention was held off, and Daguerre claimed the moment. In a rebellious move, Bayard produced this photograph of a drowned man claiming that he killed himself because of the feud.

François Arago, a friend of Daguerre, encouraged Bayard to delay the announcement of his photographic invention. Consequently, Bayard’s invention and contributions to photography were ignored, eclipsed by the celebrations surrounding the daguerreotype. In response to his alleged injustice, Bayard staged a portrait entitled Le Noyé (Self Portrait as a Drowned Man) in 1840. The portrait depicts the artist shirtless, slumped in a chair, his eyes closed to signal his recent demise. It was the first faked, staged portrait and was accompanied by a statement indicating Bayard’s turn to suicide because of the lack of recognition he received by the French government for his role in the invention of photography. And written on the image verso is a strange note:
“The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you, or the wonderful results of which you will soon see. As far as I know, this inventive and indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with the perfection of his discovery. The Academy, the King, and all those who have seen his pictures admired them as you do at this very moment, although he himself considers them still imperfect. This has brought him much honor but not a single sou. The government, which has supported M. Daguerre more than is necessary, declared itself unable to do anything for M. Bayard, and the unhappy man threw himself into the water in despair. Oh, human fickleness! For a long time, artists, scientists, and the press took interest in him, but now that he has been lying in the morgue for days, no-one has recognized him or claimed him! Ladies and gentlemen, let’s talk of something else so that your sense of smell is not upset, for as you have probably noticed, the face and hands have already started to decompose.”
The note is signed by none other than the drowned man himself: “H.B. 18 October, 1840.”

Bayard’s contributions to photography remain largely unrecognized, but this early portrait is significant, showing the possibility to play with and manipulate the photographic portrait despite the apparent inherent truth presented in the medium.

As the first known example of a faked photograph, this image illustrates two qualities of photographs: first, that they can depict the world in a manner that closely mimics the way we see it. Second, that since their invention, they have been staged or altered in ways that remain consistent with the way we see. This consistency makes them all the more believable.


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