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Famous Names

Joseph Nicephore NiEpce  1765-1833

In Burgundy Nicéphore Niépce is known for inventing the world’s first photograph (right), a rather blurry rooftop image taken from his workroom at St. Loup de Varrenes. A museum devoted to photography in his hometown, Chalon-sur-Saône, is named after him. But delve a bit more and you find that this was not his only important invention. Here was a man with a good knowledge of science and the experimental method, and a very inquiring mind. Together with his brother, he developed and patented the first internal combustion engine, the Pyréolophore, and went on to make an engine with a fuel injection system. He thought up the vélocipède, a bicycle without pedals and gears which he suggested motorising - the forerunner of the moped. He was interested too in botany and experimented with fibres to make clothes, dyes such from woad for indigo, and even seeds for alternative forms of food.

The first photograph

The world today is on a different planet: there is digital everything, smart phones, and paper versions of photos are rapidly becoming a thing of the past as screens take over. But nearly 200 years ago, there was no way of recording an image on paper photographically. Niépce was obsessed with the idea. The camera obscura had been invented whereby a box with a hole for a lens projected on the back an inverted image of the outside view. This had been used only as a drawing aid.

By dissolving silver in nitric acid and adding cooking salt and spreading this onto paper, Niépce created a method to make a negative, but he couldn’t fix it to make it permanent. He studied substances which interact with light, and through experimentation, he developed photogravure etchings. His breakthrough came in 1824 when he says:  ‘The discovery I made and have called heliography consists of the spontaneous reproduction of images taken through a camera obscura using action and light, with the gradation of shade from black to white.’

It had taken eight years of dedicated research to get to this point and the key to success was a substance called Judea bitumen. This is a natural tar which has been used for a variety of purposes, including embalming mummies in Egypt. He mixed the bitumen powder with lavender oil and spread it on a very thin base of glass, copper, stone or silver. He exposed the plate in the camera obscura for several days, and then dipped it in diluted lavender oil to dissolve the bitumen, ending up with a negative image. For the positive, he varnished the plate and used iodine vapour to divulge the image.

In 1826 from the window of his workroom in his home at St. Loup de Varrenes, south of  Chalon-sur-Saône, he produced a blurry view entitled View from the Window at Le Gras. The first photograph to ever be produced.

There is an excellent and comprehensive website with videos devoted to the work of Niépce Nicéphore, his research and the renovation of the house at St. Loup de Varrenes, www.niepce.com. The house, granted national museum status
in 2013 as one of the Maisons des Illustres by the French
Ministry of Culture, is open to visitors during July and August.

For details of the current exhibitions at the museum of photography in Chalon-sur-Saône, see www.museeniepce.com

The lunar crater Niepce is named after him.