Of the people thronging the streets only one person kept still for long enough to leave a visible trace, but it is sobering to reflect that this first known photograph of a human being, entitled ‘Boulevard du Temple’ and taken by Louis Daguerre at around 8 a.m. in April or May 1838, should depict one man lording it over another.
We know otherwise, of course – he was having his shoes shined at the time – but at a glance it seems as if the standing figure had his boot on the other man’s neck.¹
His slender erectness and the shadowy coattails – like folded wing feathers, – evoke a heron poised to spear a frog, but on reflection that simile misses the mark, since the man’s figure is remarkable for its dynamism, for the impression it gives of wiry purpose and vigour.
It is bright and early and Spring is in the air. One feels a tinge of envy for this man about town, sensing his aliveness, his eagerness to attend to his business or pleasure, and to partake in the life of the city. An active player in the affairs of the world, he strikes one as a free agent, with a will of his own and a busy day ahead of him.
The boot black, on the other hand, faced with the need to eke out a living, is not going anywhere, but compelled to squat on the street for the rest of the day.
And herein lies a paradox. Although he would have been no less of a fixture than the lampposts or the trees, he is almost invisible, reduced to the tools of his trade – his rags and his boxes – as though the man’s shoes were being blacked and polished by some act of magic – a striking illustration of the theory of alienation, which a young Karl Marx would first expound 6 years later.²
While money animates our world like electricity, causing things to happen for those who obtain it, and submitting one man’s will to that of another, – Jump to it! – the triumph of our bourgeois is exposed as a bleak and hollow one, since, by wiping out the life all around him – the traffic on the street and the hustle and bustle of his fellow human beings – the technical limits of Daguerre’s invention reveal the cruelty of a system which, by dismembering the social body, reduces persons – bourgeois and workers alike – to commodities, to things, pitted against, and cut off from, each other – from their human essence, indeed – and forced to accept, whether consciously or not, a condition of stark and cosmic aloneness.
1) At a further stretch his lithe silhouette and tight-fitting clothes evoke a Victorian bully boy in the Harry Flashman mould, with the cowering boot black as his hapless whipping boy.