Home > Art History, Photography, Uncategorized > Hippolyte Bayard’s “Self-Portrait of a Drowned Man”

Hippolyte Bayard’s “Self-Portrait of a Drowned Man”

Self-Portrait of a Drowned Man by Hippolyte Bayard, 1840

This little known photograph was meant as both a self-portrait and an outlet for anger.  I am reading a book titled The Body: Photographs of the Human Form by William A. Ewing [c] 1994 which explains the work on page 294:

When photographs first appeared a century and a half ago, people were astonished by their mirror-like fidelity.  Early reports often referred to the ‘mirror of nature’ and ‘the mirror with a memory.’  Although today the ubiquity of photgraphic imagery has largely drained it of this awesome, magical aspect, some photographers have remained enthralled.  So much so that they have turned their own bodies to the camera and found that, far from being confined to dumb reflections of surface realities, the photograph has offered a means with which to penetrate the deepest recesses of the self.

The earliest photographer to stage such an image was the Frenchman Hippolyte Bayard.  He called the image, which featured himself as a half-naked corpse, ‘portrait of a drowned man’, thereby voicing his bitterness at not having been acknowledged as one of the inventors of photography.  As early as 1840, therefore, there is a precursor to the theatrical stagings of the self so prevalent in photography of the late twentieth century.

The Wikipedia states that Hippolyte Bayard was the first person to hold a public exhibition of photographic work in June 24, 1839 and gives details specific to the ‘drowned’ self-portrait:

Bayard was persuaded to postpone announcing his process to the French Academy of Sciences by François Arago, a friend of Louis Daguerre, who invented the rival daguerreotype process. Arago’s conflict of interest cost Bayard the recognition as one of the principal inventors of photography. He eventually gave details of the process to the French Academy of Sciences on 24 February 1840 in return for money to buy better equipment.

As a reaction to the injustice he felt he had been subjected to, Bayard created the first staged photograph entitled, Self Portrait as a Drowned Man. In the image, he pretends to have committed suicide, sitting and leaning to the right. Bayard wrote on the back of his most notable photograph:

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.

Despite his initial hardships in photography, Bayard continued to be a productive member of the photographic society. He was a founding member of the French Society of Photography. Bayard was also one of the first photographers to be commissioned to document and preserve architecture and historical sites in France for the Missions Héliographiques in 1851 by the Historic Monument Commission. He used a paper photographic process similar to the one he developed to take pictures for the Commission. Additionally, he suggested combining two negatives to properly expose the sky and then the landscape or building, an idea known as combination printing which began being used in the 1850s.  [source]
I do not know if anyone’s conscience was pricked by the image.  I can imagine this photograph having been sent to someone much like a rage-filled letter.  The well-time protest of this work has kept the story of its creator alive.
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  1. July 11, 2012 at 8:09 am

    This is the earliest emo self-portrait. 🙂

    • July 12, 2012 at 11:32 am

      I think he could have totally thrown down on Facebook. 😀

      • July 12, 2012 at 12:26 pm

        Or myspace, since this is pretty old school.

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