Robert Cornelius' 1839 self-portrait is the earliest extant American photographic portrait. Working outdoors to take advantage of the light, Cornelius (1809-1893) stood before his camera in the yard behind his family's lamp and chandelier store in Philadelphia, hair askew and arms folded across his chest, and looked off into the distance as if trying to imagine what his portrait would look like.
Early studio daguerreotypes required long exposure times, ranging from three to fifteen minutes, making the process highly impractical for portraiture. After Cornelius and his silent partner, Dr. Paul Beck Goddard, opened a daguerreotype studio in Philadelphia about May 1840, their improvements to the daguerreotype process enabled them to make portraits in a matter of seconds. Cornelius operated his studio for two and a half years before returning to work for his family's thriving gas light fixture business.
Considered a democratic medium, photography provided the middle class with an opportunity to attain affordable portraits.
Popularity of the daguerreotype declined in the late 1850s when the ambrotype, a faster and less expensive photographic process, became available. A few contemporary photographers have revived the process.