History Lesson: The First Photograph (pt. I)

Written by Gregg McNeill

In this series, we explore the history of photography in terms of image-making methods and various technologies available to photographers at different periods of time. 

View_from_the_Window_at_Le_Gras,_Joseph_Nicéphore_Niépce 1826View from the Window at Le Gras, Nicéphore Niépce, 1826

This is the oldest surviving photograph made by a camera. It is called is a Heliograph and it was produced in 1826 by Nicéphore Niépce. This image is the manually enhanced version made by historian Helmut Gernsheim in 1952. The actual plate looks like this (The dimples were caused by damage sometime after 1952):


Niépce’s other pioneering work included the invention of the Heliogravure, a process used to copy drawings and engravings. He worked with Louis Daguerre perfecting many photographic processes like the Physautotype.  Niépce and his brother Claude invented the Pyréolophore, the world’s first internal combustion engine.

View from the Window at le Gras was created by dissolving Bitumen of Judea in Lavender oil and brushing it onto a pewter plate. The sensitised plate was then loaded into the back of a camera obscura similar to this one:


The exposure took anywhere from 8 hours to several days (modern experiments lean toward several days). Notice how the sun strikes both sides of the buildings?

After the plate was exposed, it was washed with lavender oil and white petroleum. The bitumen in the areas of the image that received more light would harden and remain and the areas that received less light would wash away. The Heliographic process doesn’t yield a terribly detailed photograph, but considering this is one of the very first times that a permanent image was made with a camera, it’s pretty incredible. This process, as well as Niépce’s Physautotype process, are still practiced today.

View from the Window at le Gras is on display at The Henry Ransom Center, in Austin Texas. You can also visit Niépce’s home and workshop, The Maison Nicéphore Niépce in Paris.

With the birth of photography, the process of making a permanent photograph was neither easy nor convenient. It was the domain of scientists, inventors and craftsmen. It would be some time before everyone would be able to be a photographer.

Up next: The Daguerreotype








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