Some Firsts

Some absent-minded link-hopping on Wikipedia last night led me to some interesting first human achievements in photography. I thought you might enjoy them as well.

So, here’s the very first photograph, from 1826!

The photo is by a Frenchman, with the wonderful name of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. It’s an amazing image, capturing the view outside Niépce’s window. To the left and right, we see the walls of the building. Between them, we (faintly) see the village in the distance. An immediately striking feature of the image is the weird lighting, as the sun seems to be shining on both sides of the building. In fact, this is exactly what’s happening, a result of the long exposure time required for these early photographs: approximately ten hours in this case.

Inventing photography required the combination of two things: a camera and a recording method. The camera has been around forever. Recording the images was the tricky part. Following on the work of some earlier chemists, Niépce began applying bitumen (a dark, tar-like, oily substance) on sheets of pewter. When exposed to light, the bitumen hardened, binding to the pewter. The more light exposure in a particular area, the darker the resulting surface, thus making it possible to record an image. (I’m simplifying what was, in fact, a much more complicated chemical procedure, but that’s the basic idea.)

Niépce’s early work with this process didn’t involve a camera. He would take his bitumen-smeared sheets of pewter and leave them in the sun. Above them, he would place an art engraving on paper, soaked in oil to make it semi-transparent. The light would shine through the engraving, blocked along the drawn lines, recording images like this:


The first product of this technique, from 1822, was later destroyed by accident, but this 1827 image used the same method. It’s pretty neat, but, of course, it relies on a pre-existing image. It was a few years before it occurred to Niépce to combine this chemical process with a camera, thereby making it possible to record original images of nature. This is why we consider “The View from the Window at Le Gras” the first photograph.

Returning to that picture, it’s worth moving in a little closer. Here’s a detail from around middle-right of the full image:

We have what looks like a tower on the left rising in the distance above the wall of the building from which the photo was taken. It’s very pixelated, very grainy. I was tempted to say something about how strangely moving this is, as if we’re seeing the very atoms of this first photo. Some people have drawn a connection to Seurat’s pointillist paintings.  But, actually, things are not what they seem. Although the above image is the most famous reproduction of the photo, it’s not a particularly accurate one. It turns out that the original image is (and always has been) very faint. Moreover, the pewter, itself is highly reflective, making modern photographic reproduction difficult. The image I began with, a 1952 reproduction, introduced the graininess (due to the lack of light). Also, portions of it were touched up with watercolors to aid the viewer in making out the building shapes.

More recently, a new reproduction was made that better represents the original image. Here it is:

On the plus side, there’s no graininess. But it turns out that our first photograph is a pretty faint image. But, hey, it was 1826 after all! I’m told that in person it’s a little easier to make things out.

After Niépce, the technology developed quickly. Images became clearer, and exposure times lessened. This made possible another historical first, in this photo from 1838:

The photographer was Louis Daguerre, former partner of Niépce and inventor of the improved (and well-named) Daguerreotype process. I’ll spare you (and myself) the chemical details, but Daguerre had already made a number of these detailed new images. So, can you guess what’s special about this particular picture? Take another look. Try the bottom left-corner:

What we have here is the first mechanically recorded image of a human being. This picture required about ten minutes of exposure time, which is why we can’t see the traffic that must have been moving along the road. But, by sheer luck, a gentleman happened to be having his shoe shined that day, and he stood still just long enough to be recorded in the image. (Our shoe-shiner had the bad luck of sitting in the shade of a tree, thereby obscuring most of him from posterity.)

To me, it seems remarkable that this should happen by accident. I would have guessed that people would be lining up to stand still for ten minutes. But that’s hindsight. At the very beginning, it just wasn’t obvious that the technique would have this application. The first real portrait photograph wouldn’t come until the next year, in 1839. Here it is:

It’s a self-portrait, by an American photographer, Robert Cornelius. I gotta say, it’s a pretty cool looking photo. It’s aged well.

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2 Responses to Some Firsts

  1. David says:

    Wow. This is really fascinating, Nates. I hope it’s the first in a continuing series of first X’s…

  2. Nates says:

    Thanks, David. And, yes, I do have a couple more planned.

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