The mystery of the first photograph of Barcelona

It was not only the first photograph taken in Barcelona, but in the whole of the Iberian peninsula. It was taken on 10 November 1839 from a terrace of Pla de Palau, in an act open to the public. The photograph was then raffled to raise funds, and this is when it became lost. 175 years later, it is unknown whether it still exists and who may have it.

Video ‘The mystery of the first photograph of Barcelona

The story dates back to the beginning of 1839 when the artist Louis Daguerre presented the first official photographic process in history at the Academy of Sciences in Paris. It was named the daguerreotype and through various chemical and light processes, it was possible to capture an image. The invention seemed like something out of science fiction at that time, and left everyone present absolutely astounded.

"A Catalan academic (his name is unknown) from the Royal Academy of Science and Arts of Barcelona, attended this presentation, and once he saw the camera, he did everything possible to acquire one”, according to Rafael Foguet, the current president of the entity.

Negotiations to purchase this ‘magic’ apparatus and take it to Barcelona went quickly, and before the end of the year, on 10 November 1839, the public were asked to participate in that historic moment at Pla de Palau. This location was chosen as “it was the most modern setting of Barcelona of the time”, explained Jordi Serchs, director of the Photography Archive of Barcelona .

Through an advertisement, he called for public participation of the event that would start at 11 am and last “60 or 70 minutes depending on the atmospheric conditions and the power of the sun” and they would be accompanied by a military band. He would also explain the daguerreotype technique to all those present. The image was finally captured from the terrace of the building of Carrer General Castaños 2-A (a square is named after the event). Afterwards, as it had been announced, the photo was raffled “in its corresponding frame”.

What was the image he captured?

175 years later, the name of the lucky winner and what he or she did with the image, is still a mystery. Nevertheless, the advertisement did hint at what would be taken>: “the first view to be taken will include the Llotja building and the attractive block of casa Xifré”.  The first camera has however been preserved. It was kept for many years at the Fabra Observatory, and it is now one of the treasures of the Royal Academy of Science and Arts.

This coming month of November the Photography Archive of Barcelona is organizing an exhibition to commemorate the 175 years from this event. The main treasures of the municipal collection of daguerreotypes will be displayed, such as the oldest dated portrait that is preserved of 1844. It will also be attempted to capture the first image from Pla de Palau using the same process.

Unless there are any last-minute surprises, this first photograph will unfortunately not be on display. If anyone ever finds it, they are sure to receive a reward.