The worldu2019s u2018first photographu2019 by Joseph Nicu00e9phore Niu00e9pce was lost for decades but is now regarded as a unique historical treasure, writes David Clark

‘View from the Window at Le Gras’ was taken by Niépce in 1826 and took an exposure time of eight hours.

In January 1839, two rivals, the Frenchman Louis Daguerre and the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot, announced their daguerreotype and calotype processes respectively. These two near-simultaneous declarations sparked debate over which of their creators should be named as the inventor of photography.

It wasn’t until 1952 that historians rediscovered the first known permanent photograph from nature, which had been made 13 years before Daguerre and Fox Talbot’s announcements. It was an image known as a heliograph and had been made by Daguerre’s former business partner, the virtually forgotten Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.

Niépce was an inventor who had not only made significant steps in the early development of photography, but had also, together with his brother Claude, patented the first internal combustion engine (called the pyréolophore) in 1807 and developed his own early version of the bicycle (the velocipede).

Niépce was born in 1765 in the small town of Chalon-sur-Saône in eastern France, where his family had an estate. He studied at an Oratorian college and excelled in science. After the French Revolution in 1789, he enlisted as a soldier in the Revolutionary Army in 1792 and served as a lieutenant for the next two years.

His interest in science continued and while serving in Sardinia with his brother Claude, they began to consider the idea of making permanent images from a camera obscura. Niépce’s first documented experiments with photography began in 1816, when he produced a negative image on paper coated with silver chloride by using a rudimentary camera. There was, however, no known way to fix the image and it faded when exposed to light.

In the early 1820s, Niépce experimented with projecting images onto stone and glass surfaces coated with bitumen dissolved in lavender oil, which hardened and became insoluble when exposed to light. Niépce described one significant experiment in a letter to Claude (then living in England) in 1824. ‘I have the satisfaction of being able to tell you that through an improvement in my process I have succeeded in obtaining a picture as good as I could wish,’ he wrote.

‘It was taken from your room at Le Gras [the family’s country house in the town of Saint-Loup-de-Varennes] with my biggest camera and my largest stone. The objects appear with astonishing sharpness and exactitude down to the smallest details and finest gradations. As the image is almost colourless, one can judge it only by holding it at an angle, and I can tell you the effect is downright magical.’

Niépce’s image of an engraving, depicting a man leading a horse, made in 1825, was sold in 2002 to the French National Library for E450,000.

Unfortunately, this early example of Niépce’s heliography has not survived; the earliest surviving example dates from 1825 and is a copy of a 17th century engraving of a man leading a horse.

After starting to use improved camera optics and refining his technique further, Niépce achieved his most significant result the following year. Recorded as a 16x20cm positive image on a polished pewter plate sensitised with bitumen of Judea, it shows the view from an upper window at Le Gras.

It resulted from an eight-hour exposure in bright sunshine and clearly shows a courtyard with a sloping roof in the centre of the frame and taller outbuildings on either side. After making the exposure, Niépce dissolved the unexposed parts of the image in turpentine and rinsed the plate, leaving only the areas exposed to light fixed to its surface.

Although the process Niépce used was distinct from the techniques later adopted, this image has become rightly regarded as the oldest surviving photograph from nature. Niépce, however, profited little from this or any of his other inventing work and his finances were always in decline. This problem was compounded by his brother Claude’s relentless spending of the family fortune, and by the time of Niépce’s sudden death from a stroke in 1833, aged 68, he was financially ruined.

In the years before his death, Niépce had begun a business agreement with Louis Daguerre, who was excited by the potential of his pioneering work. The two officially began their collaboration in 1829 and Daguerre went on to use their experiments as the basis for his own daguerreotype, which he finally perfected ten years later.

‘View from the Window at Le Gras’ itself went on to have a complicated history. In 1828, Niépce had left it in the possession of his friend, the English botanist Francis Bauer, in the hope that he could help publicise his invention of heliography. When Bauer died in 1840, the picture was subsequently sold on to a succession of people before being stored away in a trunk in 1917 by its then owners, the Pritchard family.

Its whereabouts were unknown until 1952, when photographic historian Helmut Gernsheim, who had been searching for Niépce’s original image for several years, was notified that it had been found in a London warehouse. Gernsheim then officially announced the picture as the world’s first photograph and it was published internationally. In 1963, Gernsheim and his wife donated Niépce’s image to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, where it is now on permanent display.

French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

Niépce died in obscurity, but Gernsheim’s research ensured that his place in photographic history was recognised. Now the rudimentary image he recorded on a sunny summer’s day in 1826, which was forgotten for decades, is treasured as the first-known artefact in a completely new medium.

Further information
A detailed examination of ‘View from the Window at Le Gras’, plus more biographical information on Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, is available on the Harry Ransom Center website at www.hrc.utexas.edu (search for ‘first photograph’).

Events of 1820s

  • 1821: George IV is crowned king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
  • 1821: English Romantic poet John Keats dies from tuberculosis at the age of 25
  • 1822: The number of crimes in Britain punishable by the death penalty is reduced by more than 100. In the same year, the last public whipping takes place in Edinburgh
  • 1824: The country formerly known as New Holland officially adopts the name of Australia
  • 1825: The 1825 Combination Act is the first to allow trade unions to bargain over wages and conditions, but restricts their activity
  • 1827: The Dutch Navy’s paddle steamer Curaçao, built in Britain, makes the first transatlantic crossing by steam power
  • 1828: Former British military leader The Duke of Wellington succeeds Lord Goderich as Prime Minister. He remains in office until 1830
  • 1829: The Rainhill Trials, a competition to decide which locomotive is to pull trains on the forthcoming Liverpool to Manchester Railway, is won by Stephenson’s Rocket