Monday, July 5, 2010

Nicéphore Niépce and the first photograph

Nicéphore Niépce
March 7th, 1765 to July 5th, 1833

This is the first known photograph.

Digital photographers could care less, but Nicéphore Niépce is a significant pioneer in the development of photography who provided the first photographic image on paper. The good ole days...the exposure was eight hours.

Robert Leggat wrote...

Niépce (pronounced Nee-ps) is universally credited with producing the first successful photograph in June/July 1827. He was fascinated with lithography, and worked on this process. Unable to draw, he needed the help of his artist son to make the images. However, when in 1814 his son was drafted into the army to fight at Waterloo, he was left having to look for another way of obtaining images. Eventually he succeeded, calling his product Heliographs (after the Greek "of the sun"). Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, writing in 1857, informs us that he was a man of private means, who had began his researches in 1814. When he eventually succeeded, he came over to England later that year and sought to promote his invention via the Royal Society (then as now regarded as the leading learned body concerned with science). However, the Royal Society had a rule that it would not publicise a discovery that contained an undivulged secret, so Niépce met with total failure. Returning to France, he teamed up with Louis Daguerre in 1829, a partnership which lasted until his death only four years later, at the age of 69. He left behind him some examples of his heliographs, which are now in the Royal Photographic Society's collection.

The Harry Ransom Center...

Long before the first public announcements of photographic processes in 1839, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a scientifically-minded gentleman living on his country estate near Chalon-sur-Saône, France, began experimenting with photography. Fascinated with the craze for the newly-invented art of lithography which swept over France in 1813, he began his initial experiments by 1816. Unable to draw well, Niépce first placed engravings, made transparent, onto engraving stones or glass plates coated with a light-sensitive varnish of his own composition. These experiments, together with his application of the then-popular optical instrument, the camera obscura, would eventually lead him to the invention of the new medium.

In 1824 Niépce met with some degree of success in copying engravings, but it would be two years later before he had success utilizing pewter plates as the support medium for the process. By the summer of that year, 1826, Niépce was ready. In the window of his upper-story workroom at his Saint-Loup-de-Varennes country house, Le Gras, he 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, 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 which dissolved away the parts of the bitumen which had not been hardened by light. The result was the permanent direct positive picture you see here—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.

An ultimately doomed attempt to interest the Royal Society in his process—which he called "Heliography"—brought Niépce and the first photograph to England in 1827. Upon his return to France later that year, he left this precious artifact with his host, the British botanist and botanical artist, Francis Bauer, who dutifully recorded the inventor's name and additional information on the paper backing of the frame that held the unique plate. Niépce formed a partnership with the French artist, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, in 1829, but produced little more work and died, his contributions chiefly unrecognized, in 1833.

Thereafter, the nineteenth century would see the first photograph pass from Bauer's estate and through a variety of hands. After its last public exhibition in 1898 it slipped into obscurity and did not surface for over half a century. It was only in 1952 that the photohistorian, Helmut Gernsheim, was able to follow the clues, establish the work's provenance, and discover where descendants of the plate's last recorded owner had forgotten that it was stored away. He verified the photograph's authenticity, obtained it for his collection, and returned Joseph Nicéphore Niépce to his rightful place as the first photographer. When Harry Ransom purchased the Gernsheim Collection for The University of Texas at Austin in 1963, Helmut Gernsheim subsequently donated the Niepce heliograph to the institution. It is this heliograph—the world's earliest-known, permanent photograph from nature—that remains the cornerstone not only to UT's Photography Collection but also to the process of photography which has revolutionized our world throughout nearly two centuries. Because of its uniqueness and its significance to the fine arts and humanities, it is among the world's and The University's rarest treasures.

Nicéphore Niépce [Wikipedia]

Nicéphore Niépce House

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