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Exhibition Not an Ostrich: & Other Images from America's Library

Robert Cornelius. [Self-portrait: believed to be the earliest extant American portrait photo]. [October or November], 1839. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (42.00.00)
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ROBERT CORNELIUS. Self-portrait. 1839

This image is believed to be the earliest extant American portrait photograph and therefore “the first selfie.” In October 1839, only two months after Louis Daguerre publically announced his photographic process, a young Philadelphian, Robert Cornelius, who worked in his family’s lamp and chandelier store, built his own camera using a box fitted with a lens from an opera glass. Because the daguerreotype process required a lengthy exposure that could take as long as thirty minutes, he took advantage of the light in his back yard to make this head-and-shoulders self-portrait.