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Niépce, Daguerre, and Herschel: The Essential Founders of Photography

The history of photography is vast and fascinating. It didn’t develop like other art forms and comparatively, photography is in its’ infancy. Looking at where our craft came from is a great way to find new appreciation and inspiration for your work in the future. While not a complete history of photography, this weekly column aims to introduce Photofocus readers to some of the aspects of this often overlooked part of learning photography and inspire them to think about their work in new and different ways.


Niépce, Daguerre, and Herschel: The Essential Founders of Photography

While the most very basic scientific precursors to photography and social and artistic desires to use light to replicate the world around us into two-dimensional form existed for centuries (described in my last article here), many people argue that the birth of photography wasn’t tentatively until the mid-1820’s.  This was when Joseph Niépce’s invented the heliograph.  Others point toward the late 1830’s with Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre’s invention of the Daguerreotype.

It is factual that Joseph Niépce was the first person to invent a way to make permanent images through the action of light. He experimented with papers coated with silver chloride and exposed inside a camera obscura. The result was essentially a paper negative. The areas corresponding to darker parts of the image were light and the brighter areas depicted were dark on Niépce’s paper. He would be able to temporarily “fix” the image to the paper by washing in water before sending them to his brother Claude to look at. Andre Gunthert, a photography historian, can be quoted saying “What is a print on sensitized paper, from an outdoor view, realized into a camera obscura, that can be sent by post and observed by a distant viewer some days later, if not a photographic picture?” By this definition, Niépce’s efforts in 1816 mark the true “birth” of photography.

In the late 1820’s Niépce had evolved his work from the silver-coated paper to silver-coated copper plates and was calling them Heliographs. He was able to create images, but they were far from perfect. They were contrasty and not sharp in focus. Additionally, they took a long time to make and weren’t reproducible. One still survives today, dated circa 1826-27 entitled View From His Window at Le Gras.

The original plate of Niépce’s first known surviving heliograph circa 1826.
Manually enhanced view of Niépce’s first known surviving heliograph circa 1826.

Niépce knew that to be successful, whatever he created needed to be able to be reproduced. Insert Daguerre. I’ve ready varying reports of how Niépce and Daguerre got together. Some say Niépce approached Daguerre; others have it the other way around. I’m not sure which contains the full truth, but the main point is that in the mid-1820’s the two got together to continue their quest for a way to record light permanently and reproduce it quickly, easily, and faithfully.

Daguerre had been known since the early 1800’s like a visionary in the Paris art scene. He had developed and perfected many theatrical special effects, particularly in the use of diorama, a type of theater performance. Diorama involved a variety of ways of projecting light and manipulating how viewers saw that light and the impressions it created. As a forerunner in the field, he was constantly striving for ways to produce better and better images with light as well as produce them more quickly. Due to Daguerre’s success in the theater, he had the funding, access to prominent society, as well as artist credibility within the Paris and European art communities, all of which Niépce could find advantageous in his quest to develop the heliograph into something better.

The two worked separately, but in conjunction with one another, sending coded letters back and forth between them discussing their research. After Niépce died in 1833, Daguerre continued the research, somewhat with Niépce’s son, but mostly by himself. Daguerre had developed the techniques to the point of using highly polished silver plates, heating iodine crystals on the plate while still in the dark, then immediately putting them into the camera for approximately 1-hour exposures in bright sunlight. Without any type of development process, this created a negative image. In late 1834, Daguerre claims that by accident he sensitized the plates with mercury vapor after exposure which was able to render the image (at certain angles) back to a positive image. He then would wash the plate in a sodium chloride bath to stabilize the image. The resulting image of a Daguerreotype is unlike any photograph as we understand it in a modern sense as depending on the angle you hold it in your hand, it can view as a negative or a positive image. However, the detail in which the process replicates life is impeccable and beautiful. (I’ll have more on Daguerreotypes themselves in another post in the future!)

Early Daguerreotype from 1836 and first known photographic recording of people. The long exposure blurred the majority of Parisians on the street, but note the shoe shine and his customer in the bottom left corner who remained stationary long enough to be captured by the long exposure.

At this point, we’re now in the late 1830’s and astronomer and chemist Sir John Frederick William Herschel approaches Daguerre and tells him that he’s discovered a solution to permanently “fix” images produced by cameras. The solution was hyposulphite of soda or “hypo” for short. Anyone who’s had an analog photography background and has been in the darkroom will recall large vats of super stinky stuff called “hypo” or “fixer”. That’s the same stuff.

Now the Daguerreotype was essentially perfect. Daguerre said, “The Daguerreotype is not merely an instrument which serves to draw Nature; on the contrary, it is a chemical and physical process which gives her the power to reproduce herself.” Daguerre went public to the Académie des Sciences, and the Académie des Beaux-Arts with his invention and those of the upper class who could afford it were instantly enraptured. In the years following from approximately 1830’s until the mid-1850’s, daguerreotypes reigned in popularity.

Click to read more columns about The History of Photography.

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