Joseph Nicéphore Niépce - 1826 -First Photograph

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

First Photograph
1826 Le Gras, France
Reproduction by Helmut Gernsheim, 1952

The first photograph was taken from the window of Niépce's workroom in his country house at Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, Le Gras. At left is the "pigeon house." At center, beyond the sloping rooftop, is a pear tree. At right, another wing of the house.

Niépce used a camera obscura with a polished pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea, a derivative of petroleum. After exposing this "film" for eight hours, Niépce washed the plate with a mixture of lavender oil and white petroleum to reveal the image by dissolving parts of the bitumen which had not been hardened by the light.

Niépce called his technique Heliography (helio = sun) and tried to interest the Royal Society in his discovery, with little success. Niépce later teamed up with Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (of daguerreotype fame), but died largely unrecognized in 1833.

After its last exhibition in 1898, the photo disappeared for over half a century. The photo historian Helmut Gernsheim tracked it down in 1952 and obtained it for his collection and later donated it to the University of Texas, Austin. The image here is a reproduction he made in 1952. Gernsheim originally considered this reproduction a "gross distortion of the original" and forbade its reproduction until 1977. Niépce's original photo is housed in a sealed frame at the University of Texas. [From University of Texas HRC online exhibition.]

Charge-Coupled DeviceToday, photography has advanced so far that anyone can purchase a disposable camera for under $10 and film itself is fast becoming obsolete. Digital cameras now use photo-electronic sensors called CCDs (charge-coupled devices) to register and record light digitally. A typical 8-megapixel CCD fits on a chip not much bigger than your thumbnail.

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