This black-and-white photograph from 1838 or 1839 (sources vary) may be the first photo of humans. It’s even more interesting for the fact that it shows these two individuals carrying out normal aspects of daily life, when we associate photographs of that age more commonly with people sitting and looking uncomfortable. (They probably were, too, since they had to sit extremely still for several minutes in order to be photographed.
It’s that same long shutter time that explains why these two are the only people in this photo — any people moving through the street would not have been captured by the long shutter time, which would have been over ten minutes. The question becomes less why there are no other people in the photo, but how it captured these two.
The answer to that lies in their activity: a man and a boy, with the latter shining the former’s shoes, would have been standing relatively still for somewhat longer than most busy people in the street. The two are in the lower left corner of the photo, as seen below.
The photo is by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, for whom the daguerreotype, or first publicly known form of photography, is named. The Daguerrian Society offers a brief history of photography, but in terms of this photo, what you need to know is that Daguerre publicized his method of photography to a group of scientists in January of 1839, showing them then only the products of the process — the photos, or daguerreotypes. In August, he again met with the French Académie des Sciences to show them the process.
Altogether, this means this oldest photo of humans was taken either very shortly after he took the process public, or perhaps even before.
Another interesting point about the photo is that, being a daguerreotype, the photo is mirrored. An unmirrored version is below.
According to the Metropolitian Museum of Art, due to a fire that destroyed Daguerrotype’s laboratory and the theater in which he displayed his work, fewer than 25 pieces still exist that can be definitively credited to him. Of these, this first photo of humans is one most historically iconic.