Anne Darling Photography

Joseph Nicephore Niépce (1765-1833)

Joseph Nicephore Niépce was an inventor and is considered to be the first person to make photographs, images that were permanent. He represents the beginning of photography as we know it today.

In 1916 Joseph Nicephore Niépce made an image of the view through a window. The image was reversed, a negative, and it didn't last because in broad daylight the coated paper turned black.

Then in 1917 new experiments were begun. This time he was looking for a substance that would turn white in sunlight, not black. He first tried resin from a coniferous tree which seemed to work until he tried it with a camera obscura. Unfortunately the camera obscura's lens filtered out the ultra violet rays of the sun and it was only the ultra violet that acted on the resin.

Joseph Nicephore Niepce
Set Table (1827) by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

Niépce then tried a mineral, bitumen, which was again somewhat successful but still only produced fugitive images. The first real breakthrough came in about 1822 or 1823 using bitumen varnish to produce what is now called a contact print. The image was still a negative but it remained on the plate when rinsed with lavender oil diluted in white kerosene.

Joseph Nicephore Niepce
Man Leading a Horse (1825): photograph of an engraving, by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

In 1824, Niépce placed some lithographic stones at the back of a camera obscura. They were coated with bitumen and he managed to produce, for the first time, an image from nature, a landscape, after an exposure lasting several days.

Joseph Nicephore Niepce
Photograph of a 1650 Portrait of Georges d'Amboise (1826) by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

In 2002, a photograph was found which had been made by Niépce in 1825. It is an image of an engraving of a young man leading a horse (see below). The photograph sold for 450,000 euros at an auction, and is probably the oldest photograph.

Joseph Nicephore Niepce
View from the Window at Le Gras (1826) by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

Niépce's photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras (see below), is the oldest known photograph taken of a natural subject. If you would like to see the original, it is on display in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Joseph Nicephore Niepce Right: Portrait of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

In 1828 Niépce started using silver which interacted with the bitumen image thereby producing a black and white photograph on a metal plate. The images were of much better quality although the exposure was still several days long.

After Niépce died in 1833, Louis Daguerre continued the experiments which he and Niepce had collaborated on since about 1820, although he developed a different process which he named the "Daguerreotype".

Joseph Nicephore Niepce Left: Louis Daguerre and the Story of the Daguerreotype

In 1839 the French government purchased his invention and awarded Daguerre 6,000 Francs per year for the rest of his life, but the Estate of Joseph Nicephore Niepce was only awarded 4,000 Francs per year which displeased Niépce's son who said that Daguerre was profiting excessively from his father's work.

In fact, for a long time Niépce's contribution to the development of photography had been forgotten but today he has regained his place in history as the inventor of heliography, what we now call photography, where an image is created on a light-sensitive surface by the action of light.

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