The Story Behind the First Photograph Ever Posted on the Web

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Writing at Motherboard, Abraham Riesman tells the tale of"Les Horribles Cernettes," the web's ur-photograph, taken 20 years ago next week.

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Silvano de Gennaro via Motherboard

That monstrosity above is the ur-picture, the very first photograph -- slightly doctored, apparently -- ever posted to the web. The picture is of the Cernettes, a comedy band based at CERN, the laboratory near Geneva where particles collide giving us clues to the first few milliseconds of the Universe's existence and where, two decades ago, the World Wide Web was born.

The story, as reported by Abraham Riesman at Motherboard, begins at a Cernettes concert on July 18, 1992. Before the women went onstage, the band's manager, Silvano de Gennaro, snapped a picture of them that he hoped to use for the cover of their next CD. Here's the original photo:

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Soon after, Tim Berners-Lee approached de Gennaro for a guinea-pig image -- a picture he could use to test his recent upgrades to the web. As Riesman reports:

Lucky for him, de Gennaro had been toying around with a scanned .gif version of the July 18th photo, using version one of Photoshop on his color Macintosh. The .gif format was only five years old at the time, but its efficient compression had made it the best way to edit color images without slowing PCs to a crawl.

"The Web, back in '92 and '93, was exclusively used by physicists," de Gennaro recalled. "I was like, 'Why do you want to put the Cernettes on that? It's only text!' And he said, 'No, it's gonna be fun!'"

Berners-Lee handed the file off to Jean-François Groff, a programmer on the Web project. He was only too happy to work with it.

...

The upload was simple and uneventful -- uploads of anything on the early Web were more like saving a word-processing doc than anything else, Groff recalled. It popped up on a page about musical acts at CERN.

The story, and the picture itself in some senses, presages a lot of the ways we use web art today -- among friends, to mark a particular moment, maybe altered with a dash of light-hearted photoshopping to really make it shine.

The picture may not be beautiful, but, in some ways, it's just perfect.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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