History of Photography

History of Photography

A World History of Photography

The Story Behind the Pictures 1827-1991

Photographers' Dictionary




1   Nicephore Niepce. View from the Study Window, 1827

2   Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre. Boulevard du Temple, 1838

3   Eugene Durieu/Eugene Delacroix. Nude from Behind, ca. 1853

4   Duchenne de Boulogne. Contractions musculaires, 1856

5   Auguste Rosalie Bisson. The Ascent of Mont Blanc, 1862

6   Nadar. Sarah Bernhardt, ca. 1864

7   Francois Aubert. Emperor Maximilian's Shirt, 1867

8   Andre Adolphe Eugene Disderi. Dead Communards, 1871

9   Maurice Guibert. Toulouse-Lautrec in His Studio, ca. 1894

10 Max Priester/Willy Wilcke. Bismarck on his Deathbed, 1898

11 Heinrich Zille. The Wood Gatherers, 1898

12 Alfred Stieglitz. The Steerage, 1907

13 Lewis Hine. Girl Worker in a Carolina Cotton Mill, 1908

14 August Sander. Young Farmers, 1914

15 Paul Strand. Blind Woman, 1916

16 Man Ray. Noire et blanche, 1926

17 Andre Kertesz. Meudon, 1928

18 Robert Capa. Spanish Loyalist, 1936

19 Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936

20 Horst P. Horst. Mainbocher Corset, 1939

21 Henri Cartier-Bresson. Germany, 1945

22 Richard Petersen. View from the Dresden City Hall Tower, 1945

23 Robert Doisneau. The Kiss in Front of City Hall, 1950

24 Dennis Stock. James Dean on Times Square, 1955

25 Bert Stern. Marilyn's Last Sitting, 1962

26 Gerard Malanga. Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, 1966

27 Helmut Newton. They're Coming!, 1981

28 Sandy Skoglund. Revenge of the Goldfish, 1981

29 Robert Mapplethorpe. Lisa Lyon, 1982

30 Joel-Peter Witkin. Un Santo Oscuro, 1987

31 Sebastiao Salgado. Kuwait, 1991


see also:


Chapter 1




Nicephore Niepce


View from the Study Window

Traces in Asphalt

The public announcement of Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre's photographic process in August 1839 is sually accepted as the birth date of photography. But in fact, Daguerre's compatriot Nicephore Niepce had succeeded in fixing images with a camera obscura a good decade earlier.

The view must have been very familiar to the photographer. After all, what does a thoughtful person do when the flow of ideas is blocked, and though merely spin in circles around the problem without advancing furt-her? One looks out the window, beyond the limitations of one's own desk, and seeks new ideas and inspiration from the distance. The study of Joseph Niepce - who signed himself Niepce, but by the end of 1787 had adopted a second forename, Nicephore - was located on the second floor of his family estate Maison du Gras, in the village of Saint-Loup-de Varennes, just under three miles from the village of Cha!on-sur-Saone in French Burgundy. Just how often Niepce must have glanced out the win-dow of this room we can only guess, but what he saw is a matter of abso-lute certainty: to the right is an at least partially visible barn roof; some-what to the left, a dovecote; to the far left, a recessed baking kitchen; and finally, in the background, the pear tree, whose leafy crown nonetheless allows a clear glimpse of the sky to show through in two places, even in the summer months. And what he saw, he captured with the camera. View from the Study Window at Maison du Gras, taken in June or July 1827, is in all probability the first permanent - although mirror-reversed -image in the history of photography.

Long way from permanent camera images

Nicephore Niepce had returned to Burgundy in 1801 after a number of years spent in Italy, on the island of Sardinia, and in Nice. Now, as a gentleman-farmer, he raised beets and produced sugar; financially, however, he was in fact independent, for in spite of the vicissitudes of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, his inheritance was large enough to support him comfortably. With the years, he increasingly devoted his time to scientific experiments, busying himself as a private scholar and devel-oping (together with his brother Claude) the so-called pyreolophore, a combustion engine meant to revolutionize human locomotion, but which in fact turned into a financial debacle. Furthermore, Niepce attempted to Find a substitute for indigo, which had become scarce as a result of the Continental Blockade, invented a kind of bicycle, and last but not least, set himself the task of fixing the fleeting images produced by the camera obscura.

Niepce had already produced his first heliographs, as he called the results of his experiments, in the spring of 1816. And already at this point, it was precisely the view from the window that he attempted to depict in his 'sun drawings'. One wonders what motivated Niepce again and again specifically to aim the eye of his camera from his study down onto his property in Le Gras. Was it sentimentality? Or did the experiment of capturing precisely the view that he knew so well appeal to him because its very familiarity would make it easier for him to check its precision and accuracy - the qualities that he was most striving for? In all probability, the reason lies elsewhere: Niepce could work with his camera on the window sill at length, without interruption and without having to answer questions of the curious - and without alerting possible competitors to the progress of his experiments. For he knew that discovery was in the air. "My dear friend," he wrote in May 1816 with unusual candor to his brother Claude, now living in Paris, "I am rushing to send you my four latest test results. Two large and two small ones, all considerably clearer and more exact, which I succeeded in making with the help of a simple trick: namely, I reduced the aperture of the lens by means of a piece of paper. Now less light makes its way into the interior of the camera. As a result, the image becomes more lively, and the outlines as well as the light and shadows are clearer and better illuminated." And what does Claude see in the pictures, insofar as he can make out anything at all? For Nicephore has not yet found a means of permanently fixing the silver-chloride images made with the help of his home-made camera obscura. Together with Nicephore, he gazes out the window of their hereditary Maison du Gras: before him are the two wings already described, the dovecote, the dominating slate roof of the baking kitchen. Admittedly, all that he sees is reversed from left to right; similarly, the shadows and light appear as negative images; and the whole is merely black and white. Niepce is still a long way from either positive or perma-nent camera images. At the same time, he remains confident and con-fides in his brother in order to convince himself of his own progress. He has no inkling that it will in fact take him another ten years to produce a permanent photographic image.

Searching for a new technology

Nicephore Niepce, born the scion of a wealthy family in March 1765, was not the only one searching at the turn of the nineteenth century for a new technology that would produce images appropriate to the new positivistic age. It had been four hundred years since Gutenberg introduced a true textual revolution. In contrast, the development of the visual image had stagnated, at least in the technical sense. Of course Aloys Senefelder's invention of lithography (1797) signified an important flat-printing process for the graphic arts. But here also - and in this, lithography did not differ from woodcuts or copper engraving - the active hand of the artist remained necessary to the creation of a picture. Still missing was a quasi-automatic process that would be both fast and inexpensive. Above all, the new technology had to be dependable, objective, and precise in detail - in short, it must correspond to a rational age oriented to exactitude. To this end, research and systematic experiments were being conducted in almost all the lands of Europe, but nowhere more intensively than in England and France. After all, the principles behind an analogue process for producing pictures were already long familiar: the operation of the camera obscura, known from the Renaissance, and Johann Heinrich Schulze's discovery ofthe light sensitivity of silver salts in 1727. Actually, it was only necessary to combine the two principles - the physical and the chemical - together.

Views according to nature

In his quest, Niepce was a child of his age; his research was not at all directed toward the discovery of a new medium of artistic expression. He strove for a pictorial mass medium: quick, cheap, and dedicated to the realistically oriented Zeitgeist of a bourgeois age. Niepce had actually begun quite early to employ various acids for etching transitory images onto metal and stone. "This kind of engraving," claimed Niepce in 1816, "would be even better than the [the silver chloride images] because they can be so easily replicated and because they are unalterable." In the end, however, his efforts, whether to obtain a direct positive image or to produce plates that could be used for printing, remained unsuccessful. Not until 1822 did Niepce discover in bitumen, an asphalt-like substance used by both copper engravers and lithographers, a medium capable of holding an image. He realized that bitumen eventually bleaches out and, more importantly, hardens under the influence of light; on the other hand, bitumen kept in the shade remains soluble and can be rinsed away. Niepce succeeded in copying a portrait of Pius VII by using oil to make the copperplate print transparent, placing it on a bitumen-coated glass plate, and laying it in the sunlight. After two or three hours, the exposed portions had hardened to such an extent that the shadowed areas could be rinsed away with a solution of lavender oil and turpentine.

Homage to Niepce:
double-page spread from Miroirdu Monde, June 17, 1933. Hi's View from the Study Window had yet to be discovered.


On the advice of his brother, Niepce soon replaced the glass plates with copper or, often, tin, which reflected more light and was thus more suited to his intention of creating "views according to nature." Now, with his discovery of the missing clue, Niepce took up his earlier experiments with the camera obscura again around 1825, replacing his home-made camera in Feb-ruary 1827 with a 'professional' model that had double convex lenses using bitumen-coated tin plates. In the summer he suc-ceeded in making a 61/2 x7 3/4 inch direct positive image with left-to-right reversal. In the picture, the lustrous bitumen rendered the light, while the tin, washed clean with lavender oil, reproduced the shadows. His shooting point was his study in Le Gras, and experts have calculated that the expos¬ure time must have been more than eight hours. It is for this reason that the two opposite wings of the building are both in sunlight. Clearly recognizable at the edges of the picture are the curved and out-of-focus vertical lines produced by the lenses. What we are looking at - and here historians of photography are unanimous - is clearly the world's first photograph. Initially, Niepce left it behind in Burgundy when he journeyed to England in September 1827 to visit his seriously ill brother Claude, who was now living in Kew, near London. Among the acquaintances he made on the visit was that of the botanist Francis Bauer, who immediately took a strong interest in Niepce's heliographic experiments and proposed making a report on the process before the Royal Society. Niepce sent at once for his pictures, including View from the Study Window, and immediately drew up a memorandum, point-black identifying himself as the inventor of what he called 'heliography': a process of "capturing the pictures reflected in the camera obscura in gradated tones from black to white solely with the help of light." Niepce avoided, however, giving precise information about his method of procedure, a reticence which led the Royal Society to reject the report.


"The first photograph in the world". This article in Fotomagazin (May 1952) is probably the first reference to the sensational discovery in a German specialist publication.

Joseph Nicephore Niepce. View from His Window at Le Gras, c. 1827. Heliograph. Gernsheim Collection.


Niepce returned home to France, undoubtedly disappointed, in January 1828, having turned over all his experimental pictures to Francis Bauer as a gift. The botanist was well aware of the significance of the seemingly insignificant objects: "Monsieur Niepce's first successful experiment of fixing permanently the Image of Nature," he inscribed on the back of the picture which makes its way into every history of photography as View from the Study Window.

After Bauer's death in 1841, Niepce's pictures and other documents passed first into the ownership of Dr. Robert Brown for a sum of 14 livres and 4 shillings, and later into the hands of J. J. Bennett, both of whom were members of the Royal Society. Bennett subsequently sold one portion of the legacy to the photographer Henry Peach Robinson, and a second to Henry Baden Pritchard, the publisher of Photographic News. In 1898, the 'heliographs' surfaced once again within the framework of a photographic exhibit in the London Crystal Palace. And then they disappeared without a trace into the depths of history. We would still probably be speculating about the content and whereabouts of Niepce's view of Le Cras today if Alison and Helmut Gernsheim had not set out on a seemingly hopeless search for the pictures a few years after the end of the Second World War. In April 1948, the two researchers published a brief report in the London Times with all their findings gathered up to that point, but the article found no immediate resonance. Two years later, they made a second attempt, and this time the aged son of Henry Baden Pritchard responded in a corresponding article in the Observer - without, however, offering any information on the whereabouts of the pictures, last seen in 1900. Months passed until Mr. Pritchard Jr. was heard from again at the end of 1951: tucked between books and clothing, Niepce's picture (in the meantime framed) had turned up in the family attic in a suitcase belonging to his mother, who had died in 1917. The joy at the discovery was muted, however, because the motif was hardly discernible to the naked eye, and was furthermore not reproducible. There followed long and arduous attempts by the research department at Kodak until a certain P. B. Watt finally succeeded in photographing the image in such a way that the picture - today owned by the University of Austin, Texas -became legible: the contours of the buildings at Le Gras emerge recognizably behind the initially reflective surfaces. Niepce's View from the Study Window had thus been exposed, so to speak, a second time.


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