The story of the first photograph

If you look carefully, you can see the outbuildings, courtyard, trees, and surrounding landscape as Nicephore saw it through his window, all the way back in 1826. And the rest is history.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

I originally wrote and published this in Connected Photographer, but in honor of Louis Daguerre's 224th birthday today, I wanted to share with you this ultimate DIY story.

The year was 1826. The American Temperance Society was founded that year. Mahmud II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, crushed the last mutiny of janissaries in Istanbul. Julia Boggs Dent, who would become the wife of Ulysses S. Grant, was born and both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died that year. John Adams' son, John Quincy Adams, was president. Aluminum had been discovered just a year earlier and slavery was still a big part of American life.

Clint Eastwood once said, "A man's got to know his limitations". In 1826, Nicephore Niepce was a man who was getting in touch with his own internal Dirty Harry. When Nicephore was born in Chalon-sur-Satne, he was named Joseph Niepce. His father was a counselor to the King. At the age of 23, Nicephore changed his name from the biblically-reminiscent Joseph to Nicephore, derived from the Greek word "nike", meaning "victory" and "phoreo", which means "to carry" or "to bear". Besides being a masculine name, the related name Nikephoros was also a title borne by the goddess Athena.

In 1807, Nicephore and his brother Claude obtained a patent, signed by Napoleon, for the Pyreolophore. Apparently, Nicephore liked words ending in "phore", and this "phore", the Pyreolophore (say that three times, fast!) was the world's first internal combustion engine.


In any case, back in 1826, good ol' 61 year old Nicephore was fascinated by lithography, what was then a pretty revolutionary printing process. Unfortunately, since photography didn't exist, if you wanted to use lithography to produce an image, you had to be able to draw.

Not a stupid man, this Nicephore. But also not much of an artist. If Nicephore wanted to put pictures in his lithography, he had to draw them himself. Nicephore was a man who knew his limitations and knew drawing was beyond his reach. But if he could create a photographic image, then he'd no longer need to draw.

Before 1826, photography was a fleeting thing. You could "take" a picture, in the sense that you could create an image on the wall, but you couldn't take it with you. Photography was merely a tool to help in drawing.

The camera obscura

Artists today draw and paint on walls by placing a transparency on an overhead projector, projecting the image on the wall, and tracing and painting over it.

Well, back in the old days, you could get an image to show up on a wall using a camera obscura. Placed in a darkened room, the camera obscura would transmit light from a pinhole (like an early pinhole camera) and project it onto a wall. Unfortunately, as the day's light waned, so did the picture and even if you could take the wall with you, the picture wouldn't come along for the ride.

People had been able to project and fiddle with light and shadow for centuries, but they never really figured out how to "fix" an image to something and make it stick. This is where nice Nicephore comes in. He figured out how to get an image to stick. But he didn't fix the image to paper. Instead, in 1826, he managed to get the image to stick to a polished pewter plate.

Nicephore's forays into photographic fabulousness didn't begin in 1826, of course. This stuff takes time. He actually started tinkering with the problem back in 1816. He first took transparent engravings and placed them on glass plates coated with varnish. Trying to get photos to stick would initially be a sticky proposition.

Experimenting with different materials

Nicephore worked quite hard to make his plan come together. In his earliest experiments, he coated paper with silver salts (which blackened with daylight). He placed this paper at the back of a camera obscura and in May of 1816, got his first image. This one was a negative and didn't last. Once daylight hit the paper, the entire sheet became completely black.

Wanting to create positive images, true renderings of what his eye could see, Nicephore tried using different substances that reacted to light by bleaching, rather than darkening the paper. He tinkered with salts, iron oxide, and manganese black oxide. He did make some progress, but he kept running up against the issue of how to get rid of the chemicals that weren't light-reactive.

Nicephore figured that acid was a nasty enough substance that it ought to do something. So he tried to use acid to etch images. His theory was that he could spread acid on calcareous (chalky) stone and that the acid's strength would vary according to the intensity of the light, thereby etching the image into the stone.

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Minor detail: acids don't decompose with light, so this whole set of experiments was a bust. Nicephore got fed up and took the year 1817 off.

Screwing around with this stuff, though, led to an interesting observation. Nicephore figured out that he didn't need to restrict his research to substances whose photochemical transformations were visible to the human eye. It was possible, he observed, that an invisible change in chemical properties under light might cause an image to appear during a reaction.

Judea bitumen

By 1818, he managed to get an image to stick for a full three months, before fading away into history. That's an image we'll never see. In 1822, he managed to create the world's first photocopy (actually, what photographers call a "contact print") by placing a drawing of Pope Pius VII on a glass plate coated with Judea bitumen, a nasty organic tar-like substance used to waterproof boats and create flammable cities.

It's believed that the ancient North African city of Carthage used bitumen as a primary building material and once the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus the Younger conquered and set fire to Carthage in 147 B.C., the whole city burned to a crisp faster than you could say "Catherine O'Leary's cow".

Back in ancient times, workers used to collected Judea bitumen from the surface of the Dead Sea, where it keeps surfacing continually from the bottom of the sea. The Dead Sea is the lowest exposed point on the Earth's surface and is an endorheic body of water, meaning that there's no outflow of water either through a river basin or underground. The only way water leaves the Dead Sea is by evaporation, which is why it's so full of salt. The water evaporates, leaving the salt, and since the water is now hypersalinic, nothing can survive. And that's why it's called the Dead Sea.

By Nicephore's time, the technology was already available to extract Judea bitumen from shale, sandstone, or limestone, bituminous rocks that can often contain traces of petrochemicals or tar. Interestingly, the Judea bitumen Nicephore used in his first photo didn't actually come from Judea.

Primitive porn

Pornographic photographs were still a few years away when Nicephore started playing with pictures of praying Popes, priming pewter plates with a patina of petrified petrochemicals, and learning his own limitations with lithography.

The practice of creating pornographic images, of course, is ancient. But the first photos of naked people started showing up around 1845 and were distributed at opticians, instrument makers, and art dealerships. Yep, you could get your early photo porn from the guy who made your glasses. Nicephore would be so proud. From Pope Pius to porn in 23 years!

But before the local pervs could see a spectacular spectacle while picking up their spectacles, Nicephore needed to get his images to stick. And that brings us to 1826, the year Samuel Morey also patented an internal combustion engine, this time in America.


By the summer of 1826, Nicephore was ready to paint the town pewter. If you travel southeast from Paris to Saint-Loup-de-Varennes in Burgundy, north of Lyon, you might come upon Le Gras, shown to the right.

The first photograph was taken in this house.

This was where Nicephore lived. If you go inside the house and climb the stairs, you'd come to the restored upper-story room where Nicephore set up his camera obscura. 180 years ago, when he first began the chemical preparations that would lead to the first photograph, Nicephore started by dissolving powdered Judea bitumen in lavender oil.

He carefully spread this saturated solution in a very thin layer on a pewter plate, using it as a base. Using a hot drying process (nope, folks, he didn't have a hair dryer back then!) he got a shiny varnish with a cherry red color. Finally, he placed the coated pewter plate inside the camera obscura.

Throughout the prior year, Nicephore acquired a wide variety of lenses from Vincent and Charles Chevalier, Paris opticians, in order to perfect his camera obscura. Now, in his second floor workroom, with the pewter plate covered with varnish installed inside the camera obscura, Nicephore uncapped the lens he'd finally chosen.

The moment was spectacularly anti-climactic.

It would take a full day's worth of daylight to expose the plate. We have no record of exactly what Nicephore did to pass the time that day, but given his strong interest in the draisienne, a two-wheeled, steerable, human-propelled pre-bicycle, better known as a "hobby horse" or "dandy horse," and made entirely of wood, it's likely Nicephore took a ride.

After a long wait, like waiting for the latest Battlestar Galactica episode to download via BitTorrent, it was time for Nicephore to make nice to his pewter plate. He got off his hobby horse, climbed back up the stairs, removed the plate from the camera obscura, and washed it with a healthy mix of lavender oil and white petroleum. This dissolved away the parts of the bitumen which hadn't been hardened by the light of the day.

The result was what is widely considered the first permanent, direct, positive picture, shown below.

It's not much worse than some of our modern-day camera phone pictures.

If you look carefully, you can see the outbuildings, courtyard, trees, and surrounding landscape as Nicephore saw it through his window, all the way back in 1826. And the rest is history.

And that's the story of the first photograph.

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