These days, travel photographers jet around the world, trying to capture new angles on well-loved cities. There was a time, however, when photographs of urban centers around the world were a rarity. With the advent of photography in the 19th century, for the first time people were able to record the landscapes that surrounded them.
When pioneering French photographer Louis Daguerre perfected the daguerreotype process, it passed into widespread use in the 1840s and 1850s. The method, which calls for printing images on a silvered copper plate, also called for long exposure times. Thus, these early images of international cities are landscapes, largely devoid of human presence. The few people that are present in the images would have posed for quite a long period in order to make an impression on the final image.
These early images of well-known cities are a visual testament to the changing urban landscape. Many almost unrecognizable when compared with their contemporary iterations. Bustling cities like Los Angeles and New York City show sprawling farm land, while Bombay’s photo shows wide, spacious roads that look nothing like our modern images of a crowded Mumbai.
A survey of the oldest surviving photographs of cities around the world shows the advent of travel photography.
This photo of what is now downtown Los Angeles was taken around 1860. It’s possible to see the Plaza Church, built in 1822, in the lower left corner of the photo. It’s pretty much the only image in the photo still standing.
Showing Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square, this early photograph of London was taken in 1839.
French photographer Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey took this image of Jerusalem in 1844. An early travel photographer, Girault de Prangey toured the Middle East, Italy, and eastern Mediterranean from 1841 to 1844, producing more than 900 photographs along the way.
Around 1866 Italian-British photographer Felice Beato took this panoramic photo of Edo, now Tokyo. Taken from the Atagoyama hill, it gives a sweeping view of the city, which has changed dramatically over history due to natural disasters and war.
New York City
Manhattan’s Upper West Side looks nothing like we now know it in this 1848 daguerreotype. The picture, which sold at auction several years ago for $62,500, shows a farmhouse on a hill, with a road that is now Broadway running below.
These two views of Athens in 1845 show a city much different from its current urban sprawl. The iconic Acropolis is pictured in the right-hand image, while the hill in the left image is home to the marble stadium built for the 1896 Olympic Games.
This 1850 image of Bombay, now Mumbai, was taken when India was still under the rule of the British East India Company. The photograph is titled “Scotch Church, Court-House, and entrance to the Dock-Yard (Bombay).”
In 1855 photographer Robert Hunt took a series of stereographs that are some of the first photos of Sydney. This image shows St. James Parsonage on Macquarie St. and was taken from the Mint Building, which was built in 1811.
The Colosseum in the center of this 1842 panorama makes Rome instantly recognizable. The shot was taken from the 125-foot Trajan’s Column.
The oldest photograph of Philadelphia is also the oldest surviving photograph in the United States. Taken in 1839 by Joseph Saxton, the daguerreotype is a 10-minute exposure of the Central High School at Walnut and Juniper.
Alphonse-Eugene-Jules Itier, a French customs service officer, took this early image of Singapore in 1844 from the vantage point of Government Hill, now known as Fort Canning.
Among the earliest photos of Washington, DC, this 1846 photograph shows the Old Patent Office. The building is now the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
This image of King Street East is part of a set of photos taken in 1856 to bolster Toronto’s bid to become Canada’s capital city.
This 1840 photograph of Copenhagen shows the public square Ulfeldts Plads, which was renamed to Gråbrødretorv a year after the shot was taken.
The oldest photo of Chicago was taken in 1855 and shows the Cook County Court House and City Hall, which was destroyed in the 1871 Chicago fire.
This 1840 view of Leipziger Strasse in Berlin also shows the spire of the Marienkirche in the background.
Dublin’s earliest photo, taken in 1848, shows a group posed in front of St. George’s Church, a former Church of Ireland parish church located in Hardwicke Street. It’s now used as office space.
The oldest photo of San Francisco dates to 1850 and shows abandoned ships in the bay. The wood from these ships was later used to pave dirt roads, causing serious fires in the city.