Analyzing the World's First Photograph
Precious Image Studied at Getty Institute in Los Angeles
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April 7, 2002 -- Louis Daugerre is considered by many to be the inventor of modern photography. On August 19, 1839, Daugerre announced his invention of the daguerreotype process that fixed optical images permanently. But the first successful photographic image, called a heliograph, was captured more than a decade earlier.
Historians credit fellow Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce with being the first to permanently capture an optical image. Niépce worked with traditional lithography techniques, but was not an artist himself. So he relied on his talented son to create images for the lithographs. When his son was drafted in 1814 to fight with Napoleon at Waterloo, Niepce was left without an illustrator.
Niépce turned his attention to a process called photochemical drawing, using silver salts, and for the next decade he struggled to perfect a primitive form of photo-lithography. Niépce's biggest breakthrough came in 1822, when he created a permanent image by exposing coated pewter plates to a camera image, using the vapors from heated iodine crystals to darken the silver.
The exposure time for the first photo lasted eight hours -- so the sun had time to move from east to west, appearing to shine on both sides of the building.
The iodine method would inspire Daugerre's more successful mercury vapor development process -- and in fact, Niépce teamed up with Daugerre in 1829 and died four years later at age 69.
The precious photo has been housed at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin since 1963. It is currently being analyzed at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles.
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
Other Ranson Center artifacts related to Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.
Getty Conservation Institute.