Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

The World’s First Photograph: “View from the Window at Le Gras.”

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Isn’t this an amazing picture? OK,  one has to view it in a  good light from  an angle to really see the image. In fact when this image reappeared in the historic record in 1952 (it had been missing for over fifty years,) the person who owned it thought that the image had faded completely and was shocked when a photographic historian showed them that the image was visible simply by viewing it at an acute angle. Try it yourself, hold your laptop at an acute angle, or view your monitor from the side, see it now? Of course you don’t, it only works with the original image. And if you actually were peering at your screen from an acute angle, hopefully no one saw you.

Moving right along, the image is usually reproduced so:

It’s a view from an upper window from the workroom of  Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. It was taken in 1826, and while it is not the first photographic image, it is the first photographic image of a real scene. There are two prior photographic images, but one is of a leaf and one is of a lithograph. Historically important, but not terribly interesting. This however is a real scene, a courtyard and roofs. It probably looked something like this:

That’s better, nu? The tree is a peach tree. The shadows are all wrong because this image was exposed for at least eight hours, and probably for several days.

So, where exactly is Saint-Loup-de-Varennes? It’s a little commune (municipality) in Eastern France. Only about a thousand people live there, and its only claim to fame is that is was the home of Mr Niépce. I couldn’t even find a decent picture of it on line, that’s how obscure it is.

Mr Niépce is more fertile ground. He was a prolific inventor, he made some improvements to the velocipede for one, the forerunner to the bicycle. And he built the world’s first internal combustion engine, and subsequently invented the first fuel injection system. Sadly he didn’t get the credit he deserved in the history books, especially for the invention of photography. After this photo he worked with Louis Daguerre, but died before Mr Daguerre perfected his photographic process. Mr Daguerre perfected the process, the “Daguerreotype“, the world’s first practical photographic process. Fortunately Mr Niépce has been rescued from obscurity in recent decades, and is now fairly well known as he inventor of the first successful photographic process, which he called the heliogaphic process. So I guess if we want to be accurate, the image above would be called a heliograph.

And one last tidbit. Mr Niépce’s invention of photography illustrates one of my theories nicely. I think that civilization was invented by lazy people. How’s that? Because so many of civilization’s advances were made by someone who said, dammit, there’s got to an easier way to do this! In Mr Niépce’s time the camera obscura was a popular device, it’s basically a primitive camera like device (or a room even)  that projects an image onto a wall or a piece of paper. When projected onto paper, people would then trace the image. Well, Mr Niépce’s hands shook so much that it was tedious for him to trace images this way. And that’s what inspired him to start experimenting with ways to capture the image using light reactive chemicals.

So if Mr Niépce’s hands had been steady, would photography never have been invented? Of course it would, numerous people were experimenting with ways to capture images using chemicals. It might have taken a bit longer and we wouldn’t have the fine image above, but the photograph was pretty much an inevitable invention. Heck, in fact a  case can be made that it could have been invented centuries earlier since all the basics of lens and light sensitive chemicals existed long before the first photographs. It’s even been suggested that the Shroud of Turin was a primitive photograph of some kind, made by some now lost photographic process. That however is a topic for another post.

(The above images are all claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. They aren’t being used for profit and are central to illustrating the post. The first two are definitely public domain due to their age. The third, meh, we’ll go with Fair Use. Lastly … How do you get the professional photographer off your front porch? Pay him for the pizza. Have a great week everyone.)


Written by unitedcats

February 28, 2010 at 7:50 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Very good post, very bad joke. Taking a peak into a place in time almost 200 years ago provides a nice perspective.

    Josh V.

    March 1, 2010 at 11:56 am

  2. I wonder what Joseph Nicéphore Niépce would think of it lasting this long?
    Photo’s and now series of photos (videos) describe the past far better than any text, wonder what will take its place, memory/thought storage?



    March 3, 2010 at 1:34 pm

  3. […] you might also like The World’s First Eyewitness, World’s First Colour Photograph, and The World’s First Photograph. A number of Doug’s Darkworld posts are available in a more organized fashion on the […]

  4. Nice piece, Doug. You might take a look at the article George Champine and I have in this year’s Journal of the Photographic Society of New England (pages 2-12) for a more extensive treatment of Niepce’s seminal photograph.

    Stephen Shohet

    July 10, 2010 at 4:26 am

  5. cant see


    December 30, 2010 at 2:40 pm

  6. Great thread. Thanks for putting the work in to this.

    Brian Goodwin

    May 17, 2012 at 10:22 am

  7. Nice theory. Matches my saying, “Necessity is not the mother of invention. Laziness is!”


    August 1, 2013 at 5:53 am

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