The First-Ever Photos of Animals

Including the oldest existing photo of a living animal.

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Photo by Sheldon K. Nichols, 1852–53.

In 2015 there were about 6.5 billion cat pictures online. But cat photos are nothing new. We have been photographing our cats, dogs, chickens, and other animals since the introduction of the camera in 1839.

As any pet lover with a camera knows, animals don’t tolerate lengthy photo sessions. During the 1840s and ’50s, the daguerreotype photographic process required at least a few seconds of exposure to develop an image—and up to 10 seconds if the photo wasn’t taken in bright sunlight. Movement resulted in the blurry images seen in some old photographs (and in at least two of the photos on this list.)

All but one of the following photos was taken during the 1840s and 1850s. One of them is the oldest verified animal photo in existence. Two others are the oldest known images of their species. All of them are captivating.

The Poodle With a Bow and a Panting Pointer

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Unknown photographer.

The first photograph of a dog is supposedly a daguerreotype titled Poodle With Bow on Table, taken by an unknown photographer in the 1850s. Nothing else is known about the dog, other than it seemed well-behaved (or old) enough to sit patiently for a daguerreotype. The photo was sold at Sotheby’s in 2009 for $8,125.

However, a photo of a dog in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (shown below) is dated 1841–1849. It is credited to Louis-Auguste Bisson, a French photographer famous for his photograph of Chopin. Bisson made the image for his surrogate sister, the painter Rosa Bonheur. If both dog photos are dated correctly, then Bisson’s image is the earliest.

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Photo by Louis-Auguste Brisson.

A Thirsty Kitty

Harvard University claims this daguerreotype dating from 1840 to 1860 is the earliest known photo of a cat. It’s possible there are cat photos that predate this one, but those photos include their human companions. It’s in the digital collection of Harvard’s Houghton Library.

The Iconic Cow

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Photo by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey

This could be the oldest existing photo of any living animal. It’s definitely the oldest photograph of a cow. It was taken at a cattle market in Rome by Frenchman Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey between April and July 1842. It was lent to the 2019 New York exhibition, By Hoof, Paw, Wing or Fin: Creatures in Photographs. Girault de Prangey took thousands of photos during a three-year trek throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. The image of the camel below, titled Desert Near Alexandria, was also photographed in 1842. But the quality isn’t as good as his cow photo.

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A Nile Crocodile

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Photo by Ernest Benecke.

A deceased crocodile aboard a vessel on the Nile in Egypt was photographed by explorer-photographer Ernest Benecke in 1852. The photo was added to the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collection in 2019. A later, well-known photo of the unfortunate creature is titled Autopsy of the First Crocodile Onboard, Upper Egypt.

A Reclining Goat

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Photo by Giacomo Caneva.

A 19th-century Italian painter-turned-photographer named Giacomo Caneva captured this image of a reclining goat in Rome in the 1850s. It’s an albumen print from a collodion negative. This isn’t Caneva’s only goat photo. He took another of two goats and their herdsman in 1856.

A Vision in White

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Photo by Jean-Gabriel Eynard.

Study of a White Foal is a circa 1845 daguerreotype by Jean-Gabriel Eynard, a wealthy banker and amateur photographer. The photo was probably taken in Geneva, Switzerland where he lived. Eynard photographed his family, his servants, and his surroundings in Geneva with the assistance of another of his servants — his gardener.

A Photogenic Racehorse

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Unknown photographer.

The shiny British racehorse pictured here is Wild Dayrell in 1852. The champion thoroughbred’s career spanned from October 1854 to September 1855. He was retired to stud after his first and only defeat at the Doncaster Cup. The horse has also been immortalized in an 1855 painting by Samuel Henry Alken titled Wild Dayrell, Winner of the Epson Derby, and again in 1856 by artist Henry Hall.

A Beloved Bunny

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Unknown photographer.

“Genushe” is mysteriously etched on the back of this hand-colored postmortem daguerreotype of a beloved bunny, circa 1845–1846. Memento mori photos of people were popular during the mid-19th century, but those of animals were rare. The photo was a gift from the Hall Family Foundation to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

To make up for the sad bunny picture, here’s an anonymous, undated picture of two living bunnies:

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Unknown photographer.

An Eagle Facing Left, Then Right

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Unknown photographer.

The eagle’s blurred face suggests it was photographed while it was alive, unlike the previous photo of the rabbit. This circa 1850 daguerreotype titled Eagle Facing Left was also gifted by the Hall Family Foundation to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. No further information about the bird is provided.

A Damsel and a Deer

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Portrait of a Girl With a Deer could also be titled Portrait of an Unhappy Girl With a Deer judging by the look on her face; or Portrait of a Girl With a Distracted Deer judging by the look on its face. It was displayed in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s 2015 exhibition, In Focus: Animalia. The museum dates it to about 1854.

The Bird and the Thread Spool

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This circa 1855 daguerreotype is titled, Bird in a Basin With Thread Spool and Patterened Cloth. The patterned cloth is most likely a tablecloth and the bird is probably a thrush. The thread spool is just weird. The odd photo is the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

An Elephant Walk

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A Twitter source tweeted that Man With Elephant is the earliest photo of an Asian elephant. Whether it is or not hasn’t been confirmed. It was photographed (probably in St. Louis) by Thomas Martin Easterly in 1850. Easterly was also one of the first daguerreotypists to photograph a lightning bolt. Easterly's elephant photo is in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

A Popular Hippopotamous

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Obaysch, the London Zoo’s first hippopotamus “smiles” for the people in this 1852 photo by Juan, Count of Montizón. Obaysch arrived at the zoo two years earlier, and became an “instant star.” It’s even been suggested that crowd-pleasing Obaysch generated hippo merchandise and the popular song, The Hippopotamus Polka by L. St. Mars. To see the sheet music cover and hear the tune, click here.

Polly and the Privileged

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Boy With Parrot shown here is one half of a hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype made in 1856 by Antoine Claudet, England’s first professional daguerreotypist. The photo is in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s collection. The boy is not identified. Based on his fancy shorts, he was probably well-to-do.

The Squirrel and the Waif

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Unknown photographer.

Not much is known about this tintype of a boy and his squirrel other than it was probably taken in the 1860s. It was described on eBay as “Killer rare ninth plate tintype of a barefoot little boy with a live squirrel on his shoulder! He really is an adorable little waif in plaid pants and shirt with long curly hair. The image is housed in a scarce union case titled ‘The Scythe and Grain,’ Krainik #423.” Nevertheless, it’s unusual (and cute) enough to be included in this list.

Written by

Not Chevy Chase. BA in Theatre from ASU. Film and photography enthusiast. See her photos at flickr.com/photos/womansworkproductionco/

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