Hippolyte Bayard

Dates1801 - 1887
BornBreteuil-sur-Noye, France

Frenchman Hippolyte Bayard was one of the earliest experimenters in photography, though few will recognize his name today. While working as a civil servant in the Ministry of Finance in the late 1830s and early 1840s, he devoted much of his free time to inventing processes that captured and fixed images from nature on paper using a basic camera, chemicals, and light. The announcement of the inventions of his fellow countryman Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre’s daguerreotype on January 7, 1839, and Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot’s photogenic drawing soon after greatly diminished opportunities for recognition of Bayard’s contributions. He was most likely persuaded by François Arago, the head of the French Academy of Sciences, to keep quiet about his own distinct process until after the announcement of Daguerre’s process and subsequent celebration in August of 1839.

Bayard nonetheless continued his investigations and submitted letters detailing three photographic recipes to the Academy of Sciences. Though he exhibited examples of his work in what has been recognized as the first public exhibition of photography in July 1839 and presented his direct positive process at the Academy of Fine Arts in November of 1839, where it was lauded as an important tool for artists, he remained in the shadows of Daguerre and Talbot.

Bayard is best known today for his 1840 self-portrait as a drowned man, to which he added text protesting the lack of recognition for his invention. The humorous, yet biting text read:

The corpse of the gentleman you see here . . . is that of Monsieur Bayard, inventor of the process that you have just seen. . . . As far as I know this ingenious and indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with perfecting his discovery. . . . The Government, who gave much 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! . . .

In reality, of the three inventors, it was Bayard who actively continued to photograph the longest. He was a founding member in the 1850s of the Société héliographique and its successor, the Société française de photographie. He kept up with the latest developments in the world of photography and integrated new processes into his practice. He was one of only five photographers selected to be part of the Missions héliographiques in 1851, charged with the task of documenting France’s historic architecture for the Commission des Monuments historiques. He exhibited regularly in the universal expositions and, in the 1860s after his retirement from the Ministry of Finance, opened a photographic portrait studio in Paris with Charles Albert d'Arnoux, known as Bertall (1820-1882). During his lifetime, Bayard was described as the “Grandfather of Photography” by several commentators. The Légion d’honneur (still considered today the highest order of military and civil decoration in France) awarded him the first level of merit—Chevalier— in 1863. In the late 1860s he left Paris and moved to Nemours near his lifelong friend, the actor and painter Edmond Geffroy (1804-1895). Bayard died there in 1887.