Heliography: A Double Invention That Revolutionized The World Of Images

By Nicéphore Niépce museum

Between 1827 and 1829, Nicéphore Niépce set out the principles of what photography would become: "to fix the images of objects by the action of light" or "the means of fixing spontaneously by the action of light, the images seen in the 'camera obscura'."

Heliography was developed using two distinct methods. The first consisted of "fixing the views" in the camera obscura, while the other copied existing engraving methods to "reproduce them by printing using known methods of engraving."

Jh. NICEPHORE NIEPCE (1854) by Léonard François BERGERNicéphore Niépce museum

Nicéphore Niépce: the first photographer

In 1827, Nicéphore Niépce produced the first photograph, and more precisely, the oldest known in the world today.

Le Point de vue du Gras (1827) by Joseph Nicéphore NiépceNicéphore Niépce museum

He took his 'View from the Window at Le Gras' by placing his camera obscura in front of an open window overlooking the garden of his house ('le Gras'), in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, several kilometers from Chalon-sur-Saône in Bourgogne.

Maison du Gras à St Loup de Varennes (1850/1855) by Fortuné-Joseph PETIOT-GROFFIERNicéphore Niépce museum

'View from the Window at Le Gras': the first photograph

Made on a polished, highly reflective metal plate, the first photograph is difficult to make out. By tilting the plate, it is possible to reduce the reflections, making the image easier to see.

Le Point de vue du Gras (1827) by Joseph Nicéphore NiépceNicéphore Niépce museum

The appearance of this image on metal is not what you would expect from a photograph, even an old one. In it you can see buildings (a sloping roof in the center, a dovecote to the left, and another wing of the house on the right) and a tree in line with the roof, more difficult to make out but recognizable.

Les Merveilles de la photographie Les Merveilles de la photographie (1874) by Georges TissandierNicéphore Niépce museum

Writing with the sun

Nicéphore Niépce called this first image a 'heliograph', literally 'sun writing' or 'work of the sun.'

Projet d'ouvrage sur l'héliographie Projet d'ouvrage sur l'héliographie (1829-09) by Joseph Nicéphore NiépceNicéphore Niépce museum

Announcing the principles of his method came with tangible accomplishments. The prints indisputably made by Niépce in 1826 and 1827, which he referred to by the generic term 'heliography,' are of a fully photographic nature and earned him the status of inventor.

On vient de retrouver la première photo du monde : elle est française (1952-05-10) by Joseph Nicéphore NiépceNicéphore Niépce museum

A Forgotten Invention

Reproduction de la première photographie (1952/1970) by Joseph Nicéphore NiépceNicéphore Niépce museum

This first image only became famous in 1952, when it was rediscovered by the photography historian, Helmut Gernsheim.

Projet d'ouvrage sur l'héliographieNicéphore Niépce museum

Niepce's research was effectively lost in the 19th century, despite his efforts in England to publicize and sell his invention.

Le Point de vue du Gras (1827) by Joseph Nicéphore NiépceNicéphore Niépce museum

To discuss heliography, Gernsheim had to be able to show it and thus be able to reproduce it… a difficult mission. The photograph of the ‘View from the Window at Le Gras’ was taken by tilting the plate and shining a strong light across it.

On vient de retrouver la première photo du monde : elle est française (1952-05-10) by Joseph Nicéphore NiépceNicéphore Niépce museum

It was then circulated in the press, using 1950s printing methods. The first appearance of it in France was in an article in Paris Match on May 10, 1952.

This reproduction shows the contrasts between the black and white areas, and is still used as a reference image to this day. Despite being widely printed, it doesn’t quite capture the shimmering reality of the 'view.'

Appareil de Nicéphore Niépce, premier appareil photographique Appareil de Nicéphore Niépce, premier appareil photographique (1826) by AnonymeNicéphore Niépce museum

Reproducing reality

Portrait du Cardinal d'Amboise (1826) by AnonymeNicéphore Niépce museum

Nicéphore Niépce invented the first method of mechanically reproducing reality. Until then, only sketches allowed people to copy what they saw.

Héliogravure du cardinal d'Amboise, profil dirigé vers la gauche, d'après une gravure de Briot (1826) by Joseph Nicéphore NIÉPCENicéphore Niépce museum

With his invention, he made the unthinkable possible, opening the door to a new world of images produced and multiplied by the action of light, freeing the reproduction of reality from drawing.

Jh. NICEPHORE NIEPCE (1854) by Léonard François BERGERNicéphore Niépce museum

The engraved copy

Having developed a photosensitive medium for fixing and preserving an image, Nicéphore Niépce created two possible applications for his invention.

La Sainte Famille / Le retour d'Egypte (1826/1827) by Joseph Nicéphore NIÉPCENicéphore Niépce museum

For the first application, the mechanical and faithful reproduction of an existing engraving, it is based on the principles of etching and the photosensitivity of bitumen of Judea.

Appareil de Nicéphore Niépce, premier appareil photographique Appareil de Nicéphore Niépce, premier appareil photographique (1826) by AnonymeNicéphore Niépce museum

The second application was the production of true-to-life 'views': an image produced in a camera obscura, and fixed on a photosensitive surface, which we later called 'photography.'

Fig. 3. - Maison de campagne du Gras, près de Chalon-sur-Saône, ou Nicéphore Niépce exécuta ses recherches / sur l'héliographie. (titre inscrit) ; Fig. 4 - Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce. (1869) by Louis FiguierNicéphore Niépce museum

Nicéphore Niépce: what's next?

Despite its imperfections, this heliograph that historians would soon be calling 'the first photograph' opened up a new field of visual representation.

INVENTION DE LA PHOTOGRAPHIE / NICEPHORE - NIEPCE . L. J. DAGUERRE (1889) by E. SOLDINicéphore Niépce museum

For Nicéphore Niépce, this achievement was only the beginning; a result that brought recognition to his invention and its commercialization.

Les Merveilles de la photographie Les Merveilles de la photographie (1874) by Georges TissandierNicéphore Niépce museum

Niépce presented the heliograph to the Royal Society of London, but his efforts were in vain. He continued his research, joining forces in 1829 with a man who was very interested in improving his process: Jacques-Mandé Daguerre.

PHOTOGRAPHIE / Nouveau procédé employé pour obtenir des poses gracieuses. (1856-06-05) by Honoré DaumierNicéphore Niépce museum

Nicéphore Niépce died suddenly in 1833. Daguerre went on to perfect the process and it was officially recognized in August 1839 as the 'daguerreotype'.

Autoportrait d'un daguerréotypiste faisant sa publicité Autoportrait d'un daguerréotypiste faisant sa publicité (1840/1850)Nicéphore Niépce museum

The image of reality recorded mechanically on the metallic plate is one of a kind, and can't be reproduced.

BULLETIN DES LOIS. / N° 669. / N° 8099. - LOI qui accorde des Pensions à MM. Daguerre et Niepce fils, pour la cession, faite par eux, du procédé servant à fixer les images de la Chambre obscure. (1839-08-10) by Imprimerie royaleNicéphore Niépce museum

The French government bought the invention from Daguerre (and Nicephorus's son, Isidore), offering it to the world for free.

Paris Match n°1219 Paris Match n°1219Nicéphore Niépce museum

Sadly, Nicéphore Niépce's personal contribution was obscured by history, and the recognition he deserved for the research he carried out from 1816 to 1833 was late in coming.

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