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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

NPR's Robert Krulwich May Have Started Urban Myth With 1848 Cincinnati Photo: There's An Older Picture In Columbus

The Parkers, 1840-1845
CINCINNATI (TDB) --  The September 1848 photo of two people standing on the Cincinnati riverfront has been making worldwide headlines. The claim to fame: NPR's Robert Krulwich suggested it could be the "First Photo of a Human Being Ever." But it's not, and a little research would have quickly shown Krulwich he was off base. The Ohio Historical Society has several photos in its collection of the same vintage.  And one is at least 3 years older than the 162-year-old Cincinnati daguerreotype -- it could be 8 years older.  It took The Daily Bellwether less than 30 minutes to find the photos by searching the historical society's online portal called OhioPix. It's a pretty fascinating spot to peruse.  The oldest photo of people in the collection is a daguerreotype of John and Persis Parker with three children -- it was taken between 1840 and 1845.  Unfortunately, there is no information about the Parkers; what they did, where they lived, what became of them.  The children could be two sons and a daughter -- but the details are absent.  All we know is that they gathered, put on what looks to be their Sunday best, and had their picture taken.

There are two really famous John Parkers in American history -- neither is involved with the oldest photos of humans in Ohio.  Capt. John Parker led the American militiamen on Lexington Green in April 1775 against the British.  His famous words before the shooting started:  "Stand your ground, don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here."   Parker died of tuberculosis before the Revolutionary War concluded.  The other famous Parker is John P. Parker, an abolitionist who lived in Ripley, Ohio near Cincinnati.  His father was a free white man; his mother was a slave.  By the 1840s he owned a foundry and became active in the Underground Railroad.  He would cross the Ohio River into Kentucky and lead runaways slaves to freedom in Ohio -- some would escape to Canada and start new lives.  As for Persis Parker -- the woman in the photo -- all we know is that it was not an unusual name for a female in the early 19th Century. Persis as a name for a woman seems to be taken from Persia, the ancient name for Iran.

There are at least a half-dozen daguerreotypes in the state collection that are dated between 1845 and 1850.  Louis Daguerre, a Frenchman, invented the process that involved exposing chemically treated metal plates to capture an image.  It was wildly popular.  NPR's Krulwich now says the earlier photo could be from 1838 in Paris, where a man seems to be getting his shoes shined on a street corner.

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