Joseph Nicéphore Niépce: The World’s First Photograph

ONE

He took his middle name from the ninth century Patriarch of Constantinople. He and his brother, Claude, invented the world’s first combustion engine, receiving a patent from Napoleon Bonaparte in July of 1807. A lunar crater is named after him. He was an independently wealthy farmer who raised a plebian crop of sugar beets. He coined the term velocipede for a wheeled cycle he engineered.  But, most significantly, he made the world’s first photograph—in September of 1826, more than a decade before L.J. Daguerre presented his monotype, silver iodide coated, copper plate process to the public, and also before Henry Fox-Talbot’s paper negative process, the Calotype. Both Daguerre and Fox-Talbot are generally credited as co-inventors of photography. But it was theFrench ex-Army officer and civil administrator from Saône-et-Loire who photographed the first non-fugitive image from nature. It was a view from the second floor studio window of his family estate at Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, Le Gras. The highly reflective pewter plate made for challenging viewing.

The original bitumen coated pewter plate of “View from the Window at Le Gras.”

The imaging process is described on an “overview” page on the Harry Ransom Center website at the University of Texas, Austin.

Niépce set up a camera obscura, placed within it a polished pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea (an asphalt derivative of petroleum), and uncapped the lens. After at least a day-long exposure of eight hours [you can track the sun’s movement on two opposed walls], the plate was removed and the latent image of the view from the window was rendered visible by washing it with a mixture of oil of lavender and white petroleum [turpentine] which dissolved away the parts of the bitumen which had not been hardened by light. The result was the permanent direct positive picture—a one-of-a-kind photograph on pewter. It renders a view of the outbuildings, courtyard, trees and landscape as seen from that upstairs window.

Gernsheim describes the image itself in his seminal history, The Origins of Photography:

On the left is what the brothers called the pigeon-house (an upper loft in the Niépce family house; to the right of it is a pear tree with a patch of sky showing through an opening in the branches; in the centre, the slanting roof of the barn. The long building behind it is the bakehouse, with chimney, and on the right is another wing of the house.

(A visit to the house and museum today affords a much-altered view.)

Niépce sent a letter to Claude on 16 September 1826 extolling his successful experiment:

I have the satisfaction of being able to tell you that through an improvement in my process I have succeeded in obtaining a picture which is as good as any I could wish. . . . It was taken from your room at Gras with my biggest camera [he had three sizes] and my largest stone [a metaphor for lithography or etchings]. The objects appear with astonishing sharpness and exactitude down to the smallest details and finest gradations.

In 1827, Niépce traveled to Kew, England to visit the terminally ill Claude. He presented his pewter plate of the view from the studio window, as well as four other images, along with a technical paper on the heliotype (as he called it) to the Royal Society  (though never in a formal session as he was reluctant to disclose his process). The starchy members, as well as a later presentation to King George IV, were only mildly impressive.

Title page of the presentation paper on “Heliographie.”

Returning to France, he left the plates with his English host, Francis Bauer. Niépce died about five years later after forging a brief partnership with Daguerre to further develop heliography. Niépce’s plates were largely forgotten, as was Niépce himself. The last pubic exhibition of the studio view was in 1898; then the plates and records disappeared. A persistent historian of early photography, Helmut Gernsheim, tracked down the plate of the view from Le Gras, acquired it in February, 1952 (it having been stored with other plates in a trunk since 1917); he gave it to the Ransom Center in 1963, where it is now on permanent display (viewed under controlled conditions with a cloth cover.)

Gernsheim relates how he first saw the forgotten photograph:

I was startled. I had not expected a looking glass, nor an Empire frame in which the pewter plate lay like a painting. I went to the window, held the plate at an angle to the light, as one does with daguerreotypes. No image was to be seen. Then I increased the angle—and suddenly the entire courtyard scene unfolded itself in front of my eyes. The ladies were speechless. Was I practicing black magic on them?

The archiving and near forensic investigation of the plate can be studied at this web page:

hrc.utexas.edu—“The First Photograph” link

It is a short but riveting read of how the barely visible image on the plate above was rendered into this one:

Digitally enhanced rendering of the world's first photograph.

Because, as with Daguerreotypes, the original bitumen pewter plate is a unique image, (no prints are possible) the special viewing installation was designed at the Ransom Center. It is described here:

Hrc.utexas.edu—“Viewing the First Photograph” link

On yet another page of the website Gernsheim describes in detail his years long search for the lost Niépce images. He lost the trail after seven years searching, in early 1950.  And then:

A year and a half passed. We were in the middle of preparations for the historical section of the World Exhibition of Photography in Lucerne, Switzerland, when one day my wife came running to me in great excitement, holding a piece of paper in the air, like Chamberlain in 1938, and shouted in triumph: “‘The Niépce photographs have been found,’ writes Mrs. Pritchard.” [Her husband was heir to the plates but he had considered them to be lost.] Dumbfounded, I read that her husband had died some months before. Going through his estate, a big trunk that had been in a London depository since 1917 had to be opened. Among old clothes, books and other family relics belonging to his mother (who had died in 1917) Mrs. Pritchard had found the Niépce items I had been searching for. She regretted to have to tell me that the picture had completely faded. There was nothing to be seen.

Gernsheim knew the bitumen image was unlikely to have completely faded; he explains it further:

Hrc.utexas.edu—“The Discovery” link

TWO

In July of 1999 the Paris photography school SPÉOS began restoration of a section of the Niépce estate. Using archeological and forensic techniques, they sought to establish what his original studio looked like. Founder of the school, Pierre-Yves Mahé, along with Jean Louis Marinier, sought to determine the exact point where Niépce had made his famous photograph.  (An 11-minute film was made of the arduous process; it was first shown in 2000 at the Recontres Internationales de la Photographie (RIP) in Arles.) After establishing the original camera position, they essay a number of experiments with a camera obscura that include mixing a silver chloride solution and hand coating the sensitized paper just as Niépce had done in 1816. But this image was fugitive. It was not until eight years later in 1824 that Niépce was able to make the stable image on a pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea that now resides in Austin.

The eleven-minute video is a compelling window into a lost past, a journey back into the very origins of photography.

Three of the other original pewter plates are in the collection of the National Media Museum in Bradford, England. The institution hosted a conference in conjunction with the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles that sought to apply CSI style state of the art forensic techniques to the plates. Dusan Stulik of the Getty narrates the process; Susie Clark from the National Media Museum illustrates dating of the various frames; Art Kaplan joins with Stulik in explaining the non-invasive examination of the material makeup of the plates using an X-ray fluorescent spectrometer.

THREE

Carol and I began our photography collection in the early seventies. It was a period when there was little written scholarship beyond that of the Gernsheims. Coffee table historical surveys were almost unknown and first editions of many existing photo books could be had for a song. Collecting 19th century photography was a specialized, niche market in a field that was just beginning to establish galleries. The burning question “Is Photography Art” was being hotly debated in art magazines; few museums had freestanding photography departments. Even the Metropolitan Museum in New York seemed scarcely aware of the vast gift that Alfred Stieglitz had made in 1928 and which now constitutes most of its recent show Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand.

Catalog of the Met Museum exhibition.

Metmuseum.org—“Works of Art” link

So, it is with both awe and a bit of amusement that I observe such intense levels of study and research now being conducted: a treasure trove of photo books, monographs, museum catalogs and histories published monthly. Academic study of early photography has exploded, and many long forgotten and near lost photo albums and collections make their way, almost routinely, into the auction houses, galleries and museums. Any museum of stature now schedules a wide range of photography exhibitions; the number of visitors to these venues often exceeds that of all but the most high-profile painting and sculpture exhibitions. No longer is photography ghettoized as a subdivision of the “Prints and Drawings” department. Photography has taken its rightful place in survey exhibitions, freely mixed among paintings and sculpture. Studies of painters and photographers intertwine in parallel examinations like the recent one of Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams.

Amazon.com—Georgia OKeeffe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities link

The iconic American Precisionist painter Charles Sheeler is now as highly regarded for his photography as for his paintings. Many contemporary artists incorporate photography elements into their paintings or have evolved away from painting and into photography. It is a still young medium, less than two centuries old.

Nineteenth century history has become viscerally alive for scholars with online access to vast archives of national libraries. The demotic nature of photography and its use to document quotidian life, as opposed to that of grander “salon painting,” has opened up a whole new sense of social analysis. Surveyors of working class culture such as Luc Sante have found in photo archives of magazines and newspapers a detailed window into evolving societal lifestyles.

One can only wonder what the early advocates of photography, artists like Niépce, Daguerre, Fox-Talbot, Fenton, Bayard, Watkins, Muybridge or Jackson, would have thought had they wandered today into an auction house and seen one of their photographs sold at a hammer price in the low to mid six figures.

It’s a long way from Niépce’s studio window at Le Gras to the 72nd St. and York Ave. Manhattan galleries of Sotheby’s. But new levels of scholarship are rapidly collapsing that distance, even as young collectors are acquiring photography much as their parents had collected paintings.

Next week: “Cinematography in the Digital Age,” an event at A.M.P.A.S.

On Saturday June 4 at 11 am, David Heuring and I will reflect further on themes that were featured at the May 24 “Cinematography in the digital age” event at AMPAS. I will show scenes from several DV features I have photographed, discuss the “Digital Dilemma” and its concerns for media preservation and archiving, the wonders and perils of 3-D, and thoughts on the conjoined craniopagus twins Tatiana and Krista Hogan, subject of a feature story in the May 29 NY Times Sunday Magazine.This discussion will be at 11 am in Paramount’s Sherry Lansing Theater as part of the annual CineGear show.

At 3 pm George Spiro Dibie will moderate a panel discussion on film formats with a distinguished panel of cinematographers.

 

5 Responses to “Joseph Nicéphore Niépce: The World’s First Photograph”

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  • Thanks John, for the fascinating article and links!

  • Thanks for helping to overturn the injustice of forgetfulness and wrongly assigned credit. I had never heard of Niepce, but what an extraordinary genius!

  • The first photograph looks quite murky, much like the first roll of film I developed using paper developer rather than film developer (Dektol instead of D-76) and certainly of no historical significance. But all silliness aside this is a very informative essay that I very much enjoyed.

  • John,

    I may have unknowingly stood in the very spot Joseph Niepce took his first photograph, having spent a week in Le Gras on vacation a few years back. We rented an old house in town and there were window views reminiscent of the digitally enhanced one shown in your blog. Had I known then what I know now I would have opened another bottle of wine.

    This article has connected me personally with the true birthplace of photography, and I thank you for that.

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