The First Photograph in History

Oct 20, 2021 1 comments

View from the Window at Le Gras

It doesn’t look like much, but this is the world’s first photograph, or rather, the oldest surviving photograph, or both. It was taken by French inventor Nicéphore Niépce, using a camera obscura focused onto a pewter plate coated with a thin layer of Bitumen of Judea, a naturally occurring asphalt. Niépce exposed this plate through a lens to the buildings and surrounding countryside of his estate, Le Gras, in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes. The exposure is believed to have lasted at least eight hours, up to several days.

Bitumen of Judea is a light sensitive material that is soluble in spirits and oils, but when exposed to light it gets hardened. The bitumen hardened in the brightly lit areas, but in the dimly lit areas it remained soluble, which was washed away with a mixture of oil of lavender and white petroleum. Niépce called this process heliography, which eventually became photography with the invention of daguerreotype, the world’s first commercially viable photographic process. Instead of hours, daguerreotype reduced exposure time to mere minutes and produced clear, finely detailed results. The year Louis Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype, 1839, is accepted as the birth year of practical photography. But it was his ill-fated associated Nicéphore Niépce, who was the world’s first photographer.

Nicéphore Niépce

Nicéphore Niépce

Niépce was born in Chalon-sur-Saône, Saône-et-Loire, France, in 1765, to a wealthy family. After college he joined the French army under Napoleon as a staff officer and spent a number of years in Italy and on the island of Sardinia, but ill health forced him to resign, whereupon he got married and became the Administrator of the district of Nice in post-revolutionary France. In 1795, Niépce resigned from his post to pursue scientific research with his brother Claude. The two brothers created the Pyréolophore, a very complicated machine considered the world’s first internal-combustion engine. This engine ran on controlled dust explosions of various experimental fuels, including mixtures of finely crushed coal dust, Lycopodium powder, and resin. After they successfully powered a boat upstream on the river Saône, a patent was granted to their name. The brothers spent the next 20 years improving and trying to commercialize the Pyréolophore without success. Having squandered much of the family fortune chasing nonexistent business opportunities for the Pyréolophore, Claude died a destitute in London. Meanwhile, his brother Nicéphore developed an interest in capturing light on a plate.

Around 1816, Niépce managed to capture small camera images on paper coated with silver chloride, making him apparently the first to have any success at all in such an attempt. However, Niépce could not find a way to fix the image permanently on paper; the image gradually darkened all over when brought into the light for viewing. Niépce turned his attention to other light-sensitive substances eventually discovering Bitumen of Judea, a naturally occurring asphalt that engravers used to make acid-resistant coating on copper plates for making etchings. What interested Niépce was the fact that the bitumen coating became less soluble after it had been left exposed to light.

oldest heliographic engraving

The oldest heliographic engraving known in the world. It is a reproduction of a 17th century Flemish engraving, showing a man leading a horse, made by Nicéphore Niépce.

Niépce dissolved bitumen in lavender oil, a solvent often used in varnishes, and applied a thin coat of it onto a sheet of metal. After the coating had dried, Niépce laid various engravings printed on paper over the surface in close contact and the two were put out in direct sunlight. After sufficient exposure, the bitumen coated plate was rinsed in a solvent and only the unhardened bitumen that had been shielded from light by lines or dark areas in the engravings was washed away. Thus the engraving on paper was transferred on to the plate by the action of sunlight. Niépce called his process heliography, which literally means “sun drawing”. Niépce enhanced the image further by etching the exposed parts with acid to create a more pronounced image. The excess bitumen was washed away from the metal base to keep only the etched drawing on it. He made several heliographs using this technique, one being an image of Pope Pius VII, and another of a 17th-century engraving of a man with a horse.

Niépce's created the first permanent photograph using bitumen in 1826 (or 1827) when he photographed the view from a window in his house at his family estate in the nearby village of Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, on a sheet of bitumen-coated pewter. The resulting image titled, View from the Window at Le Gras, has survived to this day and is now recognized as the oldest known camera photograph.

View from the Window at Le Gras

An enhanced version of the original photograph.

View from the Window at Le Gras

A computer generated image depicting the original scene that was photographed by Niépce in 1826 from a window of his house. In the photograph left and right are mirrored, so the pigeon tower on the right appears on the left in the photographs. The buildings depicted do not exist anymore, but the house from which the photo was made is still there. Photo:

In 1827, Niépce went to England to visit his ailing brother who was promoting their struggling Pyréolophore project. While in England, Niépce met botanist Francis Bauer, who encouraged him to present his heliography process to the Royal Society in London. Niépce did as told but because he was reluctant to disclose the details of the process, his presentation was rejected. Dejected, Niépce returned to France and in 1829, entered into a 10-year partnership with Louis Daguerre, who was also seeking a means of creating permanent photographic images with a camera. Together, they developed an improved process called the physautotype, that used lavender oil distillate as the photosensitive substance. The partnership lasted until Niépce's death in 1833, after which Daguerre continued to experiment, eventually working out a process that greatly reduced exposure time from hours to minutes. He named it the “daguerréotype”, after himself.

After the pioneering photographic processes of Louis Daguerre and later by Henry Fox Talbot, Francis Bauer fought for Niépce's sake for the right to be acknowledged as the first inventor of a process for making permanent photographs. The photograph View from the Window at Le Gras was finally exhibited at the Royal Society in 1839. After Bauer's death in 1840 they passed through several hands and were occasionally exhibited as historical curiosities, until 1905, when it disappeared. Nearly fifty years later, historians Helmut Gernsheim and his wife, Alison Gernsheim, tracked down the photograph and brought it to prominence, returning Niépce to his rightful place as the inventor of photography. In 1963, Harry Ransom purchased most of the Gernsheims' photography collection for the University of Texas at Austin. It is currently on display in the main lobby of the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.

The Niépce plate in the Harry Ransom Center

The Niépce plate in the Harry Ransom Center. Photo: Harry Ransom Center

# Harald Johnson, The First Photo, PetaPixel
# Wikipedia


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