The First Photograph

Part One

Although there was considerable early activity in England at the turn of the eighteenth century in the direction of the science of photography, the experiments conducted by Thomas Wedgwood and his colleague Sir Humphry Davy with silver salts were not widely circulated in the scientific community and were unknown to but a few of the next generation of experimenters. At this time, in the late eighteenth century, science was not as it is today: a closely guarded territory open only to those of the proper education. For several centuries, science was practiced by many gifted “amateurs,” quite a few of whom were wealthy landed country gentlemen of means who had the leisure time and interest and curiosity to explore the possibilities of science. As the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth, the quest for scientific discoveries was interrupted in France, which paused for a Revolution. When normal life resumed, after Napoléon’s final defeat in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo, French science had the task of catching up with the rest of the world. One of its most gifted experimenters, Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794), author of Reflexions sur le Phlogistique (1783),  Methods of Chemical Nomenclature (1787), which features terms used in chemistry today, such as, sulfuric acid, sulfates, sulfites and so on did not survive the Revolution. Lavoisier wrote the first modern textbook for chemistry, Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (Elementary Treatise of Chemistry, 1789), but for his erudite troubles, he was beheaded at the height of the Terror. It was up to scientists like Joseph Nicéphore Niépce to begin again. 


Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

The wealthy  family Niépce was from Chalon-sur-Saône in southern France (Burgundy) near Gras and Nice. During the reign of Louis XVI, Joseph’s father, Claude and his father before him, had served as King’s Counselors, or lawyers to the King, a position that forced the family to flee during the French Revolution. When Napoléon came into power, Joseph served in his army, retrieving their credential as loyal sons of France. But Joseph, who had been trained in the Catholic tradition and adopted the religious name of Nicéphore, contracted typhoid fever and had to leave the military. Reunited with his older brother Claude (1763–1828) (also known as Claude Félix Abel Niépce) in Nice in 1795, the brothers returned to  in  Chalon-sur-Saône in 1801, where they invented the first combustion engine for Napoléon who apparently wanted motorized boats. When they managed to power a boat down the Saône, the brothers received a patent for the Pyréolophore from Napoléon for their remarkable invention in 1807. The “fuel,” an experimental brew was mixed with a strange combination of elements including coal dust and resin. And ten years later, for the first time ever, the ingenious brothers made an engine work with a fuel injection system. Strangely enough, was with the later simultaneous “invention” of photography, another scientist also invented a hydrogen powered internal combustion engine in Switzerland in 1808. The Swiss product was the first used for automobiles and the Niéce engine was the first employed for boats.


Niépce Family Home

On the strength of their amazing engine, the brothers were awarded a commission to create a hydraulic pump system to bring water from the town of Marley to Versailles. In the midst of their local success, Claude, who was a bit of a visionary, went to England in 1817 (or 1811 depending upon which source you read) to promote the Pyréolophore to the British for their waterways. However, it was a case of an invention being too visionary for its time and he squandered some of the family fortune and died broke and broken. But Joseph stayed behind, seizing on any new invention that came his way. The government gave him the task of extracting indigo blue dye from the woad plant. Because the British had long used the woad plant to paint their faces blue since the Bronze Age and by Medieval times a primitive technology existed to make a dependable blue dye, the request was an odd one, left unexplained by the biographers of Niépce. Apparently what the government wanted was an new process and Niépce worked on the project for two years. In 1817 he also learned of a new German invention called the Draisienne or bicycle and promptly invented his own version. But it was the recent invention of lithography that seems to link Niépce to his experiments in photography.

As with the bicycle, Niépce had to reinvent lithography and approached the printing process invented  by Alois Senefelder (1731-1834) sometime around 1796 in his own unique way, playing with different surfaces and experimental inks. Coincidentally it was at that time that the patent for the engine was running out and he and Claude reconfigured the powered fuel, substituting bitumen or asphalt, a semi-solid form of petroleum. This primitive form of “gasoline” would power the first fuel injection system. Joseph moved to the family home called La Gras in the village of Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, where the bitumen had another destiny, and it is in that year, 1816, that Niépce to use the camera obscura, attempting to capture images on papers covered with silver salts. It is here, while Claude moved on to England, that Joseph continued his experiments with what he began to all “Heliography,” or “sun writing.” The work with the camera obscura seems to have been directly connected to his attempts to make images for lithography because he lacked the drawing skills, but the results were negative which Niépce could not print out as a positive. Using bitumen of Judea, straight out of the engine, as a light sensitive product, was apparently an attempt to achieve a positive image. As he wrote to Claude in 1816, a letter reprinted in The Photographic Times, Volume 16,

I placed this little apparatus in my work room, facing the open window looking onto the pigeon-house. I made this experiment in the way you are acquainted with, and I saw on the white paper the whole of he pigeon-house seen from the window..One could distinguish the effects of the solar rays in the picture from the pigeon-house up the window sash. The possibility of painting by this means appears almost clear to me.

The process worked, but still in the service of printmaking, because the bitumen was a very effective block to the rays of light and could be washed or wiped away with lavender, leaving an image behind. In his first success was the reproduction of a reproduction of a print of the Pope Pius VII on glass. The image was later destroyed but Niépce shifted from capturing light on a glass plate, which would have another history, to using pewter plates. A religious man, Niépce was still thinking of church leaders and his next image was that of a print of a print of a Cardinal for what he called a photogravure from which actual prints could be struck from the pewter plate. From the first attempts at sun printing in 1816 to the success in 1822, was six years of experimentation. But, it should be made clear, that like the work of Wedgwood and Davy, which was exploring the science of light and optics, the work of Niépce was about printmaking and was not, strictly speaking, about photography as an independent entity. 


Chevalier Camera Obscura that took the “first photograph”

However, by 1826, he had changed his technique from stone to pewter plates and had purchased better camera equipment and lens from the Chevalier firm in Paris, which provided yet another link in the chain of the invention of photography. Charles Louis Chevalier (1894-1859) was the son of Vincent, an optician and the father and son team became famous for their achromatic lenses they invented especially for the camera obscura. It is from this famous team that Niépce came to buy his lenses for his cameras and, in the process, shared his adventures in capturing light, “heliography,” on his plates. It was Charles who passed the name of Niépce on to another experimenter, a man named Louis-Jacques- Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851). With his new camera and new lenses, Niépce returned to his home and produced a image that is still extant today, called View from the Window at Le Gras on a pewter plate in 1826. The journey of this “first” photograph from France to England, now at the University of Texas at Austin, was a long and strange one. 


Print Photographed by Niépce

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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