The 'father of photography' Joseph Niephore Niepce was born in Chalons-sur-Saone, France on March 7, 1765. His parents educated him for a career in the clergy, but the French Revolution intervened. Young Niepce's interests led him elsewhere, and by 1793, he and his brother Claude were conducting photographic experiments with great success. However, the following year, Mr. Niepce joined the French Republic Army on its Italian campaign until a bout of illness forced him to terminate his military service.
After getting married and settling in his hometown of Chalons, Mr. Niepce began paying close attention to the new art of lithography, which was enjoying great popularity throughout France in 1813. Although he lacked drawing skills, he began experimenting with engravings. He made a transparency and then placed it on a stone he coated with a varnish that was sensitive to light. He dubbed this "sun drawing - heliography". This discovery led to further experiments in photography, and in 1814, Mr. Niepce embarked upon fixing images that had been captured in the camera obscura; however, no texts detailing this research were published until 1827.
The year 1826 turned out to be an important turning point for the photographic scientist. He took what is widely believed to be the first permanent photograph, of the landscape surrounding his house and entitled, "View from the Window at Gras." The total process took three days, and began with making an exposure on a polished pewter plate that had been coated with bitumen of Judea solution. After an eight-hour exposure time, the image became visible when Mr. Niepce washed the plate with a mixture of lavender oil and white petroleum, which dissolved the leftover bitumen. What remained was a direct positive picture, nine years before British inventor William Henry Fox Talbot would produce the first paper negative. Mr. Niepce also became acquainted with countryman Louis Daguerre's photographic research, which he followed with great excitement.
During an 1827 trip to England to visit his ailing brother, Mr. Niepce met botanist Francis Bauer, who was also the Secretary of the Royal Society. Dr. Bauer enthusiastically learned of Mr. Niepce’s discovery, and encouraged him to send a descriptive memoir about it to the Royal Society. The memoir, dated December 8, 1827, also included several heliographs, but most of the photographs were merely engraving reproductions because Mr. Niepce did not wish to divulge too many details about his invention. Unimpressed, the Royal Society returned his memoir and samples, and a disheartened Joseph Niepce returned to France.
In 1829, Mr. Niepce and Louis Daguerre were finally introduced by a mutual acquaintance, optician Vincent Chevalier. The pair entered into a 10-year partnership, during which time Mr. Daguerre shared his research findings on the daguerreotype with his new partner. Mr. Niepce, in return, published a detailed treatise of his heliographic process. Joseph Niepce died on July 5, 1833, less than four years into the partnership with Mr. Daguerre, and was succeeded by his son Isidore. Most photography historians now credit Mr. Niepce's heliograph with being the first known photograph. His name may be unfamiliar to the public, but his important discovery laid the groundwork for contemporary photography.
1867 The English Cyclopaedia, Vol. VI (London: Bradbury, Evans, & Co.), p. 471.
1952 IMAGE: Journal of Photography of the George Eastman House, Vol. I, No. VI (New York: George Eastman House), pp. 1-2.
1874 The Photographic News for Amateur Photographers, Vol. XVIII (London: Piper and Carter), pp. 169-170.
1889 The Photographic Times, Vol. XIX (New York: The Photographic Times Publishing Association), pp. 241-242.
1914 The Story of Photography (New York: D. Appleton and Company).
2011 Photograph by Daderot, of a portrait in the Exhibit in the Musée Nicéphore Niépce, 28 Quai Messageries, Saône-et-Loire, France.
Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera