Nicéphore Niépce:
The Inventor of Photography

By Bill Dobbins
www.billdobbinsphotography.com

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This is the view from the window of Nicéphore Niépce, one of the first photographic prints ever made. Photo by Nicéphore Niépce.

The technology of photography became available to the world in 1839, thanks to pioneers like Louis Daguerre and his daguerreotype.  But the invention of a process that resulted in a fixed image on some kind of photo-sensitive object is generally attributed to Nicéphore Niépce, a French inventor, who created a print made from a photoengraved printing plate.

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An illustration of Nicéphore Niépce and his first camera.

According to Wikipedia: The date of Niépce’s first photographic experiments is uncertain. He was led to them by his interest in the new art of lithography,[12] for which he realized he lacked the necessary skill and artistic ability, and by his acquaintance with the camera obscura, a drawing aid which was popular among affluent dilettantes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The camera obscura’s beautiful but fleeting little “light paintings” inspired a number of people, including Thomas Wedgwood and Henry Fox Talbot, to seek some way of capturing them more easily and effectively than could be done by tracing over them with a pencil.

Long before there was a way of fixing an image, the camera obscura was well known.  This was some kind of darkened room in which a small hole in the wall (or a lens) was used to project an image on the opposite wall.  Niépce was the first to develop a technique for capturing a fixed copy of this kind of projected image.

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A still life by Nicéphore Niépce. Perhaps the first food photographer ever created.

Niépce called his process heliography, which literally means “sun drawing”.  In 1822, he used it to create what is believed to have been the world’s first permanent photographic image, a contact-exposed copy of an engraving of Pope Pius VII, but it was later destroyed when Niépce attempted to make prints from it.  The earliest surviving photographic artifacts by Niépce, made in 1825, are copies of a 17th-century engraving of a man with a horse and of what may be an etching or engraving of a woman with a spinning wheel.

In 1829, Niépce entered into a partnership with Louis Daguerre, who was also seeking a means of creating permanent photographic images with a camera. Together, they developed the physautotype, an improved process that used lavender oil distillate as the photosensitive substance. The partnership lasted until Niépce’s death in 1833, after which Daguerre continued to experiment, eventually working out a process that only superficially resembled Niépce’s.[19] He named it the “daguerréotype“, after himself.

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The ruined of an abby photographed by Nicéphore Niépce.

In 1839 he managed 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.

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Bill Dobbins Sarah Lyons dressingroomm-1

Bill Dobbins is a is a veteran photographer and videographer, based in Los Angeles, who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries, and published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
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The first steps in a technology that would develop rapidly in the coming decades. Photo by Nicéphore Niépce.

 

 

 

 

 

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