Meet Jules Lion, the man credited with bringing photography to New Orleans
In March 1840, Jules Lion, a French-born free man of color who is recognized as the first African-American photographer, introduced the daguerreotype process — the first practical form of photography — to New Orleans in an exhibit at the St. Charles Museum. It was only the second such display of daguerreotypes in the United States; the first had been in New York City.
The names Louis Daguerre, who developed the process bearing his name, and Jules Lion may not mean much now, when people can snap selfies whenever they please (and, occasionally, when they shouldn’t). But their pioneering work was important to the development of photography as an art form that became accessible to anyone wielding a camera or smartphone.
- A daguerreotype is a photograph made on a piece of silver or a piece of copper covered in silver. Louis Daguerre, a Frenchman, introduced it in 1839.
- Lion’s March 1840 show included pictures of St. Louis Cathedral, the St. Louis Hotel (which occupied the spot where the Omni Royal Orleans stands) and the Mississippi River levee.
- In reviewing the exhibit, a writer for The New Orleans Bee, where Lion had worked as a lithographer, was ecstatic, saying, “Nothing can be more truly beautiful.”
- This happened during Lion’s second stay in New Orleans. He and his brother, Achille, a dentist, had come to town in the mid-1830s, and they invested in imported retail goods and real estate until the Panic of 1837 brought on financial losses and lawsuits.
- There’s some debate among scholars as to Lion’s race. City directories list him as “f.m.o.c.” — or “free man of color” — although no other historic records reportedly identify him as such.
- In 1839, Jules Lion returned to France, where he learned about daguerreotypy. He returned to New Orleans in the fall and started taking pictures, according to the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
- By 1843, the nascent field of photography had become competitive, and equipment was expensive, so Lion returned to lithography and, specifically, portraits.
- Despite his status as a photographic pioneer, Lion regarded himself more as a lithographer and painter, Charles East wrote in “Jules Lion’s New Orleans” in The Georgia Review. Among his more notable subjects were Zachary Taylor, John James Audubon and Andrew Jackson.
- When the Civil War broke out, Lion started lithographing Confederate sheet-music covers for New Orleans publishers. But when Union troops occupied the city in 1862, he returned to lithographic portraiture.
- Lion died in 1866. He was 56.
Jules Lion was important in the city’s history because he gave New Orleanians — people who have always been fascinated with themselves and their city — a new way to look at their environment and to document their lives. Among the people who were intrigued by Lion’s vision were African-Americans, according to blackamericaweb.com, who, viewing him as a role model, followed his example and went into the budding field of photography.