by Gerald Boerner


JerryPhoto_8x8_P1010031 It has often been said that the early photographers were either scientists (in the broadest sense) or artists. In the case of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, he was a scientist who dabbled in art. Ironically, he began his developmental process in an attempt to get an image from a camera obscura without needing the steady hand required to trace over the image; he did not have the steady hand of an artist.

He began with a photogravure process which led him to experiment with using different chemical solutions to “develop” his images. He continued this process to where he produced the first negative image and then the first positive image before 1830, ten years before Daguerre or Fox Talbot were able to accomplish the same thing!

He arrived at a process that worked and joined forces with Daguerre. Their collaboration brought most of the recognition and economic benefits to Daguerre, much to the displeasure of his son. But his experimentation and photographic work mad him a pioneer in the definition of Photography, which he called Heliographs, or “drawing with the sun.”

Thank you, Monsieur Niépce, for your generous contribution to the art and science of photography.  GLB


“In a word I was a pioneer, and therefore had to blaze my own trail.”
— Major Taylor

“Genius is the very eye of intellect and the wing of thought; it is always in advance of its time, and is the pioneer for the generation which it precedes.”
— William Gilmore Simms

“But whatever my failure, I have this thing to remember – that I was a pioneer in my profession, just as my grandfathers were in theirs, in that I was the first man in this section to earn his living as a writer.”
— Robert E. Howard

“Every pioneer and musician who could carry a musket went into the ranks. Even the sick and foot-sore, who could not keep up in the march, came up as soon as they could find their regiments, and took their places in line of battle, while it was battle, indeed.”
— Joshua Chamberlain

“America is the civilization of people engaged in transforming themselves. In the past, the stars of the performance were the pioneer and the immigrant. Today, it is youth and the Black.”
— Harold Rosenberg

“Honest pioneer work in the field of science has always been, and will continue to be, life’s pilot. On all sides, life is surrounded by hostility. This puts us under an obligation.”
— Wilhelm Reich

“I have been very interested in labor movement. If I could have wished another life, I would have loved to be a pioneer woman in the beginning of labor movement.”
— Astrid Lindgren

“It is a beneficent incident of the ownership of land that a pioneer who reduces it to use, and helps to lay the foundations of a new State, finds a profit in the increasing value of land as the new State grows up.”
— William Graham Sumner


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The First Photographic Image: Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

Joseph_Nicéphore_Niépce Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765 – 1833) was a French inventor, most noted as one of the inventors of photography and a pioneer in the field. He is most notable for producing the first photographs, dating to the 1820s. As revolutionary as his invention was, Niépce is little known even today.

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 publicize 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.

Joseph Niépce was born on 7 March 1765 in Chalon-sur-Saône, Saône-et-Loire. He took what is believed to be the world’s first photoetching, in 1822, of an engraving of Pope Pius VII, but the original was later destroyed when he attempted to duplicate it. The earliest surviving photoetching by Niépce is of a 17th century engraving of a man with a horse and of an engraving of a woman with a spinning wheel. Niépce did not have a steady enough hand to trace the inverted images created by the camera obscura, as was popular in his day, so he looked for a way to capture an image permanently.

Nicephore starts by himself new research on an idea that has obsessed him for many years : making permanent on a support through a compound the images seen at the back of camerae obscurae. Until then , these boxes with a lens adapted on a hole , projecting on the back an inverted image of the outside view , had only been used as a drawing aid. (Niépce House Museum)

He experimented with lithography, which led him in his attempt to take a photograph using a camera obscura. Niépce also experimented with silver chloride, which darkens when exposed to light, but eventually looked to bitumen, which he used in his first successful attempt at capturing nature photographically. He dissolved bitumen in lavender oil, a solvent often used in varnishes, and coated the sheet of pewter with this light capturing mixture. He placed the sheet inside a camera obscura to capture the picture, and eight hours later removed it and washed it with lavender oil to remove the unexposed bitumen.

retine For his first experiments , Nicéphore Niépce positioned at the back of a camera obscura sheets of silver salts coated paper, known to blacken with daylight . In may 1816 he produced the first image of nature : a view from a window . It was a negative and the image vanished because in broad daylight the coated paper becomes completely black . He calls these images “retinas“. (Niépce House Museum)

He began experimenting to set optical images in 1793. Some of his early experiments made images, but they faded very fast. The earliest known, surviving example of a Niépce photograph (or any other photograph) was created in 1825. Niépce called his process heliography, which literally means "sun writing". Nevertheless, semiologist Roland Barthes, in a Spanish edition of his book "La chambre claire", "La cámara lúcida" (Paidós, Barcelona,1989) shows a picture from 1822, "Table ready", a foggy photo of a table set to be used for a meal.

Seeking to obtain positive images , Niépce turned towards compounds that light bleaches instead of blackening . He then tried with salts and iron oxide and also manganese black oxide . Even though he got some results, he stumbled over the fixing problem when it is necessary to eliminate the initial chemical that has not been transformed by light. (Niépce House Museum)

Starting in 1829 he began collaborating on improved photographic processes with Louis Daguerre, and together they developed the physautotype, a process that used lavender oil. The partnership lasted until Niépce’s death in 1833. Daguerre continued with experimentation, eventually developing a process that little resembled that of Niépce. He named this the "Daguerreotype", after himself. He managed in 1839 to get the government of France to purchase his invention on behalf of the people of France. The French government agreed to award Daguerre a yearly stipend of 6,000 Francs for the rest of his life, and to give the estate of Niépce 4,000 Francs yearly.

To solve this problem , he tried to find a method that would lead to obtain etched images on a base and studied the effects of light on acids hoping to observe their decomposition. Then one could spread on a calcareous stone some acid whose strength varying with light intensity

more or less would etch the stone, according to the projected image hues. But unhappily acids are not decomposed by light and this is another failure .

Niépce, however , through his last research , understood that it is not necessary to use a coumpound whose photochemical transformation is visible to the naked eye ,and that even an invisible change of chemical properties under light action may induce the appearance of an image during a reaction , either with the base or another compound . Consequently he is interested by all the subtances that interact with light . (Niépce House Museum)

This arrangement rankled with Niépce’s son, who claimed Daguerre was reaping all the benefits of his father’s work. In some ways, he was right—for a good many years, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce received little credit for his significant contribution to the development of photography. Later historians have reclaimed Niépce from relative obscurity, and it is now generally recognized that his "heliographic" process was the first successful example of what we now call photography: an image created on a light-sensitive surface, by the action of light.

Principle of the Invention of Photography

Nicéphore_Niépce_Oldest_Photograph_1825 One of the two earliest known evidences of seminal photographic
activity, made by Nicéphore Niépce in 1825 by the heliograph
. This illustration is of an etching printed from a
metal plate that was etched following alteration of the
ground by sunlight; the image is of a 17th Century
Flemish engraving showing a man leading a horse.

In March 1817 , an obstinate Niépce restarted his research on making images . While reading chemistry treatises, he focused his attention on the resin of Gaïacum extracted from a coniferous tree. This yellow resin becomes green when exposed to day-light but what made it especially interesting to Nicéphore is that it loses its solubility in alcohol . He understood that because of this property one could find the difference between the modified resin and the intact on , therefore fixing the image .

At first he got pretty good results experimenting directly with sun-light , but he failed when using a camera obscura . He did not know that only U-V rays were active on this resin and that they were filtered by his camera obscura lens .

After the Gaïacum resin , Niépce used another resin but mineral this time : asphalt or Judea bitumen . He demonstrated that under light action this resin became non-soluble with his usual solvents .

From 1822 on he succeeded at reproducing drawings put in contact with bitumen coated bases (glass plates , calcareous stones then copper or tin plates ). Then he used the aqua fortis process to etch with acid the images he made and printed them on paper . This process will remain for a while the base of photoengraving used to print photos and graphical documents. (Niépce House Museum)

Principle and Technique

In order to reproduce drawings, around 1822-1823, Niépce conceived what we now call the contact print. He explains clearly how he applied varnish to the verso of an etching to make the paper translucid, and once dry he applied this etching directly in contact with the copper or tin plate coated with bitumen varnish . He exposed the lot in full daylight during three to four hours, then he rinced the plate in lavender oil diluted with white kerosene . The bitumen that had been protected from the effect of light under the lines of the drawing then dissolved and let appear the raw metal . On the other hand the light transmitted through the translucid paper had made the bitumen non-soluble and remained on the plate after the lavender oil rinse . The bitumen image was the drawing’s negative : the back is colored in the dark bitumen brown and the lines are represented by the raw metal .

Then Niépce imagined a process that would allow to get the drawing etched in the metal . It was a well known and simple principle as it was the aqua fortis one . The plate carrying the Judea bitumen image is dipped in an acid bath that bites the metal where it was not protected, meaning the places corresponding to the lines of the drawing . Because the bitumen varnish is acid resistant, this one can penetrate down to the metal . Once the lines are etched in the plate, the inventor eliminated the bitumen varnish from the metal base to keep only the drawing etched on it .

The first successes of this method can be dated to 1822 as far as contact reproductions are concerned , because this year he made a copy of Pope Pius VII portrait on a glass plate . This was not yet acid etched engraving . The earliest attempts of etching in 1823 are not on metal but on lithographic stones . A Dijon printer produced paper prints from those stones . So Niépce got the proof that his process allowed after contact reproduction to multiply an original through printing .

In 1825 , Niépce etched his images on copper, then on tin from 1826. The acid process is perfectly appropriate to lines drawing reproduction where the gradations are represented by hatchings . In the case of images with continuous hues ,these one are reproduced by various thicknesses of bitumen that acid etching cannot render because the acid solution cannot permeate the varnish . Niépce understood this and he worked a lot to reproduce etchings . Many museums throughout the world preserve metal plates etched by the inventor with his process .

The Niépce museum owns ten of those metal plates on which Nicéphore reproduced an engraving . Other Niépce etched metal plates are preserved at “La Societe française de Photographie", at “ The Royal Photographic Society “ or in Janine Niépce’collection. After all his repeated failures to etch continuous tones images obtained with a camera obscura , progressively Nicéphore gave up etching to stop around july 1827. (Niépce House Museum)



Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:

Wikipedia: Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

Web Sites and Blogs:

Masters of Photography: Joseph Nicéphore Niépce…

Niépce House Museum: History of Photography…

Brainy Quote: Pioneer Quotes…