For years now, it generally has been accepted that the earliest known photographs made using easily repeatable techniques (photogenic drawings) were made about 1839. Some photographs had been made earlier, but they required extremely long exposures and were considered impractical. However, the world of photography might soon be turned on its head if a photogenic drawing that was recently removed from auction at Sotheby's turns out to have been made in 1802, as one photographic historian thinks it might.
David Schonauer, editor of American Photo magazine, has a detailed account of the story on the State of the Art blog at popphoto.com, but here are the basics. The image of a leaf, which is currently part of the Quillan Company Collection, had long been thought to have been created by early photographic pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot who was a contemporary of Louis Daguerre, whose eponymous Daguerreotypes launched an image-making craze in the mid-1800's from which the world has never recovered. Now, photo historian Larry J. Schaaf has said that the Leaf image may have been created by Thomas Wedgewood as early as 1805, or possibly even earlier. Just to put that in perspective, the earliest known permanent photograph (an eight-hour exposure out the window of a building in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France) was created by Joseph Nicephore Niepce circa 1826. If Schaaf is correct, Niepce may lose his coveted spot in photographic history and possibly fade away like so many unfixed photogenic drawings.
Stay tuned kids...this is about as exciting as photographic history gets.