Joseph Nicephore Niépce (pronounced Neep-sea). Born in Chalon-sur-Saône, France. (1765 – 1833)

Niépce was fascinated with lithography but had no artistic skill and relied on others for drawings which he reproduced with a camera he described as “a kind of artificial eye, simply a little box, each side six inches square, which will be fitted with a tube that can be lengthened carrying a lenticular glass.” He was successful in creating negatives but did not realize that prints could be made from the negatives. This process quickly became popular and well-known, and in 1826 Niépce received a letter from Louis Daguerre asking for his collaboration on the development of the photographic process. The two kept up correspondence but neither one was wiling to give up their secret; they simply exchanged works.

When Claude Niépce, Joseph’s brother, fell ill in England, Niépce traveled to there to visit his brother and also meet with the Royal Society as well as Louis Daguerre in person. When Niépce met with the Royal Society, he was pressured to reveal his experiments and his process, but Niépce remained reluctant to give up his photographic secret. During this meeting he gave Bauer samples of his work such as Literary Gazette (produced February 27, 1839), which today is a part of the Royal Photographic Society’s collection in London. After meeting with Daguerre in England, Niépce returned to France in 1829 and re-established contact with Louis Daguerre. On December 9, 1829, after reluctantly and never giving up each others secrets, Niépce and Daguerre made a partnership and joined articles, projected to last ten years. Unfortunatly only four were completed when Niépce died in 1833.

(Niépce's oldest heliograph produced in 1825. It is a reproduction of a 17th century flemish engraving, showing a man leading a horse)
(Right: Niépce's "heliograph" or "sun drawing" of Cardnial Georges D'Amboise. Left: A second reproduction of Niépce's etching)

Niépce’s process of producing a reproduction: Placing an engraving (which has been made translucent) on a varnished pewter plate (plate covered in a mixture of antimony, bismuth, lead and other hardening agents). The plate and engraving were then exposed to light and given enough time for the varnish to harden and react to the sunlight. The engraving and pewter plate were then separated and the plate was then dipped in a solvent which “developed” the image; the parts exposed to light hardened while the darker images washed off and allowed the pewter plate to show. The plate was then washed and laid out to dry.


The first photograph (produced in 1826): Niépce’s first photograph, titled “View from his Window at Gras” was produced with a Camera Obscura on a pewter plate in 1826. It was a permanent, positive-image which could only be produced once, making it a one-of-a-kind image. After coating a pewter plate with bitumen of Judea solution, the plate was placed in the camera and focused upon a sunny scene. This photograph took 8 hours to develop. The result was that the brightest parts of the picture bleached and hardened the chemicals. The plate was then developed in lavender oil and turpentine, resulting in a positive image: the light sections of the photograph were the hardened bitumen and the dark shadows were the pewter plate surface.

(The Elusive Image)

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