These days, with cameras on our phones always at the ready, we give little consideration to a time when picture-taking technology was in its infancy. In the late 1830s, methods were first being developed to capture light and shadows on film — the earliest version of photography. As the technology developed, however, one subject proved elusive to these image-capturing pioneers: the moon.
But in 1840, that feat was accomplished for the first time in Greenwich Village. From the roof of the NYU building which used to be on the east side of Washington Square Park, the first known photograph of the moon was taken, launching the age of astronomical photography.
John William Draper (May 5, 1811- January 4, 1882) was born in England and attended University College London, studying chemistry. Following his father’s death in 1831, he and his family moved to the United States, where he would continue his education at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. In 1839 he was appointed an undergraduate professor of chemistry and botany at New York University. Once there, he helped found NYU’s Medical School, where he would serve as a professor from 1840 to 1850. He was also president of the medical school from 1850 to 1873. He continued to serve as a professor of chemistry there until 1881, one year before he passed.
In September, 1839, the written accounts of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s new photographic process arrived in New York aboard the steam packet the British Queen. The process of daguerreotypy required a polished sheet of silver-plated copper which would be sensitized to light over iodine and bromine in a light-proof box. The plate would then be transferred into a camera, where it would be exposed to light. Then it would be developed over hot mercury until the image appeared.
Samuel F. B. Morse, another Greenwich Village resident and NYU professor who previewed the daguerreotype process while in Paris, had a Daguerreotype camera designed and built here.
Draper, Morse’s colleague at the University, also took interest in the public announcement of the daguerreotype process. Several years before accounts of Daguerre’s photographic work become public, Draper showed interest in the properties of light, and actually used silver iodide and bromide to record its action. He thus quickly realized the importance of the invention of the daguerreotype, becoming one of the first Americans to try the process. As colleagues at NYU, Draper and Morse naturally became associated in their daguerreotype experiments, using the glassed-roof studio atop the University’s main building to try their hands in daguerreotypy.
During the winter of 1839-1840, Draper continued experimenting with the new photographic process, capturing what was regarded as the first live photographs of a human face. Reportedly the first was of his female assistant, whose face he covered in flour to increase the contrast. Unfortunately, those photos were lost. However, he also photographed his sister, Dorothy Catherine Draper, copies of which survive.
During this time he was also attempting to photograph the moon. For his first effort, Draper made the moon’s rays pass by the reflection of a heliostat through a lens four inches in diameter and fifteen feet in focus. His allotted exposure time of 30 minutes, however, proved too long, resulting in a partially blackened, overexposed plate. Draper succeeded in capturing another image of a seventeen-day-old moon by using two lenses and exposing the plate for 45 minutes, resulting in a more distinct, detailed daguerreotype of the moon’s surface.
Draper’s continuing efforts with astrophotography from his rooftop observatory at NYU’s main building resulted in his announcement of March 23, 1840 to the New York Lyceum of Natural History of his success in capturing a detailed, realistic view of the moon. Draper then returned to his observatory at NYU to continue his experiments in lunar photography. On March 26, he captured a mirror-reversed image of the last quarter Moon resulting in a highly detailed lunar daguerreotype. Draper then exhibited his moon daguerreotype at the New York Lyceum of Natural History on April 13, to considerable acclaim.
Following this remarkable achievement, Greenwich Village and the area South of Union Square developed into a center of the photographic industry. Here are some of the buildings in that area associated with that history:
10 East 14th Street: The renowned American photographer Cranmer C. Langill, known for his photograph of the Blizzard of 1888, had his studio at 10 East 14th Street at the turn of the twentieth century.
24-26 East 13th Street: This building was constructed in 1892 by G. Gennert, a photographic materials company, formerly having occupied 54 East 10th Street (demolished). Gennert Brothers Photo Supply was founded in 1856 by German immigrant Gottlieb Gennert and his brother. It was one of the first photo supply houses in America, and became famous for its daguerreotype mats, cases and other supplies. By 1869 Gottlieb broke out to start his own firm, G. Gennert, and soon his business was the third largest photo supply business in the country.
30 East 13th Street: This structure was also home to G. Gennert Photography Suppliers.
835 Broadway: Photographer James Henry Wright, a popular 19th-century New York artist specializing in portraiture, still lifes, and landscapes, maintained a studio here.
Hotel Albert (on University Place between East 9th and East 10th Streets): Photographer Keith Carter lived in a room in the Albert after graduating from college in 1940. In 1948, members of the amateur photographer’s group the Photo League leased space in the basement of the hotel. Members at the time included Paul Strand, Sid Grossman, Walter Rosenblum, Arthur Leipzig, Nancy Newhall, Barbara Morgan, Ruth Orkin, and Berenice Abbott.
813 Broadway: According to the 1885 book New York’s Greatest Industries, 813 Broadway hosted one of New York’s premier photographers of the late 1800s, Mr. Macnabb. The book states that he was “a leading photographer of the metropolis, and one who is an authority on all matters pertaining to photographic art…No studio in the city is more eligibly or centrally located…he is considered to be one of the foremost in this artist profession today.”
And while the NYU building where Draper’s photographic achievement took place has long since been demolished and of course can no longer be saved, these other important sites listed above which are connected to the history of photography in our neighborhood can be. We are working to get them landmarked as part of a district south of Union Square, and you can help by sending a letter here.