What I'm Reading: The First Photograph

First Man on the Moon: Neil Armstrong

First Flight: The Wright Brothers (Santos Dumont if you're from Brazil)

First Photograph: ????

Most people (myself included) probably don't know a very important first: Who captured the first photograph? What did the photograph look like?

Rather than keep you waiting, I'll provide the answer upfront. The photographer was Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. The photograph can be visualized below, first in it's original form ( light sensitive pewter plate), followed by a retouched version by Helmut Gernsheim.

"View from the Window at Le Gras" by Niépce, 1826

"View from the Window at Le Gras" retouched by Gernsheim

If you're like me, you probably stared at the original minutes (a la "magic eye") before realizing there in fact is something there. The retouched image by Gernsheim helps make things a bit clearer.

I won't attempt to educate you on the entire first photograph experience but I'll do my best to call out some interesting tidbits:

  • "View from the Window at Le Gras" as the title suggests, was taken at Niépce's family estate, roughly six kilometers outside of Chalon, France, in the village of Saint-Loup-de-Varennes

  • Niépce was known as a "gentleman scientist", a term for a financially independent middle-aged man who, had time on their hands, and who had a single-minded curiosity about the world around them.

  • Niépce's interests went beyond photography. He joined forces with his brother Claude to create "Pyréolophore," the worlds first internal combustion engine. This amazing invention was eventually abandoned after promotional difficulties and Claude's death.

  • The process by which the photograph was created was termed "heliography" which translates to "sun writing." A light-sensitive chemical was used to coat a plate, which was then exposed for a long time (several hours), and later washed with special solution to dissolve away the parts of the chemical coat hardened by light.

  • Heard of a daguerreotype? Well, this was invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, former business partner of Niépce. After Niépce's death, his son took over his half of the partnership and faded into obscurity while Daguerre rose to success.

  • The photograph is now housed of all places, deep in the heart of Texas (Austin). It was purchased by Gernsheim for UT Austin in 1963.

Did that whet you appetite? For more information, Google "the first photograph," "Joseph Nicéphore Niépce," or check out this great article by PetaPixel.

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