Joseph Nicephore Niépce (1765-1833)
Niépce (pronounced Neep-sea) is credited with producing the first successful photograph in June-July of 1827. He was fascinated with lithography, but he could not draw, his artist son to make the images. 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. 

He came over to England later that year and sought to promote his invention via the Royal Society. However, the Royal Society had a rule that it would not publicize a discovery that contained an undisclosed secret, so Niépce meet 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 course of human conflict has spurred the development of many inventions, including photography. In fact, if one young Frenchman had not joined Napoleon's fateful march to Waterloo, the birth of photography might have been years delayed.

Joseph Nicephore Niepce, a Frenchman from Chalons-sur-Saone, was an avid enthusiast of the new art of lithography. Studying the work of the pioneering lithographer Alois Senefelder, he tried to improve the process by using tin plates. But Niepce lacked a critical skill: he couldn't draw. So he relied on his talented son to render images for the lithographs. When the army drafted the young man in 1814, Niepce was left without an illustrator.

Hearing of the work done with photochemical drawing, he turned his attention to silver salts. For the next decade Niepce struggled to perfect a primitive form of photo-lithography. Research advanced slowly and drained the funds of his considerable trust. Still, he enjoyed just enough success to forge on. Significantly, he found a way to fix images using acid baths.

Niepce's big breakthrough came in 1822 when he made a permanent image using a camera obscura. After exposing coated pewter plates to a camera image, he used the vapors from heated iodine crystals to darken the silver and heighten contrast. The method would inspire Louis Daguerre's highly successful mercury vapor development process. In fact, within a few years, the two inventors would be partners.

This is the first known photograph. There is little merit in this picture other than that fact. It is difficult to interpret; the building is on the left, a tree a third in from the left, and a barn immediately in front. The exposure lasted eight hours, so the sun had time to move from east to west, appearing to shine on both sides of the building.

Click to Enlarge

20 cm x 16.5 cm, Niepce called this a "heliograph" and it is believed to be and image of the courtyard outside his house. The current belief is that he used the lens of a crude camera and a pewtar plate with a few drops of bitumen (a tar like substance) on it and exposed the plate for eight hours. It will be on display in a sealed enclosure filled with inert gas at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin beginning in 2003.

The digital reproduction above is a link to another digital reproduction of higher resolution that depicts the original photograph, "View from the Window at Le Gras". This photograph is owned by the Harry Ransom Center for the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin, and was analyzed in 2002 by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. (source)

* In 1827, utilizing the camera obscura, M. Joseph Nicephore Niepce (1763-1833) created a ‘mixture’ of several ingredients that would capture the image. This mixture, for those of you with your own cauldrons, was dissolved bitumen of Judea (a type of asphalt) in lavender oil, then place onto a sheet of pewter” (Jensen 54). This came to be the first successful permanent photograph.

Chronology (source)

1793 - First conception of photography together with Claude (brother) at Cagliari during military service. Letter found in Russia in 1946.

1813 - Nicephore experiments with lithography, tries to find usable stones. Becomes interested in the mechanical reproduction of images. Research into use of light sensitive substances begins.

1814-15 - Idea of "photography" or "heliography" (his term) takes shape.

1816 - First paper negatives. Has problem with permanence.

1817 - Brother Claude leaves for London. Nicephore experiments with gases and acid fumes, phosphor and other dangerous materials. Begins using camera and Guaiacum resin. Problems with lenses, control of light. Designs diaphragm. Letters to Claude about experiments very secretive (Letters destroyed).

1817-22 - Experiments with bitumen of Judea and other resins on their response to light. Works on stone, then glass. Discovers Heliography. Uses pewter plates and etches them. Main interest is to achieve a positive camera image.

1824 - Niepce produces images by contact printing using stone and asphalt, pewter and asphalt, and copper and asphalt. Creates first view from window using stone and asphalt (no longer exists).

1826* - Produces first preserved photograph from nature. View from his workshop window uses asphalt on a pewter plate. Image discovered by Helmut Gernsheim (photo-historian) in 1952.

1827-28 - Experiments with fumes of iodine to darken unexposed areas. This is a guiding line to the later development of the Daguerreotype. Trip to England, stops in Paris to meet Daguerre. Tries to sell Heliography to England without success. Gives five heliographs to Bauer.

1829 - Enters first contractual agreement with Daguerre. Attempts to publish comprehensive account of Heliography. Suppressed by Daguerre.

1829-33 - Niepce has lost his old persistence and energy. Continues with some experimentation and comes very close to the Daguerreotype working with silver plated copper, and iodine fumes.

1833 - Nicephore Niepce dies of a stroke. 

More Info