Two Early Photographs: Niepce and Daguerre

Two images made by pioneers of photography illuminate the humble beginnings of what has become the most ubiquitous of the arts.  When Nicéphore Niépce and Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre worked together in the early 1830s, they could not possibly have envisaged the impact their simple experiments would have on the contemporary world.


Figure 1 Nicéphore Niépce, 1826 View from the Window at Gras (8 hour exposure)

It is unlikely that this indistinct image is the first ‘photograph’ that was ever taken, although many histories of photography say so.  What can be said is that it is the earliest image still in existence.  It was taken by a French scientist and inventor, Nicéphore Niépce from a window in his house near Chalone-sur-Saone, Burgundy, in 1826.  The process, which Niépce had invented, involved taking a metal plate which had been sensitised with bitumen of Judea, exposing the plate inside a camera obscura, a light-tight box with an attached lens, and finally fixing the image with oil of lavender.  It is not recorded how many other plates Niépce produced, nor how many other scientists and inventors had attempted a similar feat but failed.  Until 1952 it was thought to have been lost, but was re-discovered by the historian, Helmut Gernsheim, who donated the plate to the University of Texas, where it remains.  (Broeker 1984 361-362; Frizot 1998 19-21)

While it was an important scientific breakthrough, the process that Niépce used was inefficient and unsuitable for all practical purposes.  The process required an exposure times of several hours—eight hours for the view from his window—and while the image of the plate as shown here is the one most often reproduced, it is quite unlike the original, which is dull and closely-toned and almost impossible to see except when viewed from an oblique angle in perfect lighting conditions.  Despite these caveats, View From His Window At Gras is a remarkable image.

Niépce was an inventor, not a businessman.  In 1829 he met Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre, a scenic designer, showman and co-owner of the Diorama, a spectacular image-and-light show in which an audience was enthralled with stage-sized ‘paintings’ made with a clever use of light and illusion.  Daguerre had also been experimenting with ways to produce images for his dioramas, and after meeting Niépce, the two formed a partnership that lasted until Niépce’s death in 1833.  Daguerre took charge of the development of the process, and in 1838 he offered the invention to the French Government.  The discovery was officially announced to the Académie des Science in January 1839.  It was made known to the general public on August 19th of that year.  (Frizot 1998 26)

But even before this date, Daguerre had used the process to make a number of images.


Figure 2 Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre, c1838 A View of the Boulevard du Temple, Daguerreotype

This photograph is usually called A View of the Boulevard du Temple.  It is one of the most important images of the nineteenth century.  At first glance, it is straight forward.  Obviously taken some time ago, it is a view of a deserted street of shops and houses somewhere in Europe, a long time ago.  There is little sign of activity.  You could guess the time of day by the shadows angling to the left from buildings, posts and trees, and the only discernible figure in the scene is a wraith-like shadow in the bottom left-hand corner.

But there are things about this image that makes it historically significant.

Firstly, it is a daguerreotype, and that alone is enough to make it important.  While many thousands of daguerreotypes are still in existence, this is only a small number of the daguerreotypes that were made, and a tiny fraction of the sum total of photographic images made in the last two centuries.  Daguerreotypes are fragile, easily damaged and difficult to preserve, but more importantly, every image was an original.  To make a daguerreotype was quite a task.  The photographer took a sheet of copper, silver-plated on one side and polished to a mirror finish.  In a purpose-built box, potassium iodide was heated and the metal plate suspended above.  Iodine fumes combined with the silver, creating silver iodide, which is sensitive to light.  The plate was transferred to a camera, an exposure made, and then immediately and in darkness the plate was suspended in vapour from heated mercury to ‘fix’ the image.  The plate was finally washed in sodium hyposulfate, rinsed in distilled water and carefully dried.  It was delicate, so the small sheet of copper and silver was usually mounted in a glass case.

Daguerreotypes were expensive, and once they became more common remained the preserve of the middle classes.  While they may seem quaint today, they were the cutting edge of contemporary 1840s technology—the iPad of the day—and were extremely fashionable.  Much of the cost was tied to the fact that every image was an original, and unlike Henry Fox Talbot’s process (which used paper negatives and was invented at the same time in Britain), daguerreotypes could not be reproduced or enlarged.

So the photograph above is notable at one level because it is a daguerreotype.  It is not simply a daguerreotype, however, but one made by Louis Daguerre himself.  If the date is correct—it is generally given as 1838—it was made before photography was announced the public.  It is thought that Daguerre made three images of this scene, but only two remain.  The view was most likely from a window of the photographer’s apartment but this can’t be checked because the building and the street disappeared in the 1850s, a victim of Baron Haussmann’s modernisation of Paris.

One of the most engaging aspects of the picture, though, is the boulevard.  Apart from the solitary figure having his shoes shined, the rest of the street appears as a ghost-town.  But just because we can’t see other people does not mean that none were present.  The sensitivity of early photographic emulsions was low and exposure times were long—thirty minutes was not unusual in the early years of the daguerreotype.  Most early photographs were taken of things that didn’t move, and so many early photographs have a similar emptiness.  There were undoubtedly pedestrians on the footpaths and carriages on the street, but nothing registered on the plate.  The American inventor, Samuel Morse, was shown this image and quickly realised that, ‘Moving objects leave no impression.  The boulevard, though constantly crossed by a flood of pedestrians and carriages, appeared completely deserted, apart from a person who was having his boots polished …’  (Quoted in Frizot 1998 28)

While we know who took the image, we know nothing of the figure, stopping on the way home, nor of the worker shining his boots.  It is likely that he was unaware of being photographed—he would never have heard of the process nor seen the image.  But the presence of that solitary figure makes this image important, because as far as we know, this is the first photograph of a human being, and so it is the first street portrait and the first urban image, taken from the window of the photographer’s apartment a year before the rest of the world knew that such a wonder existed.

Text © Stuart Peel 2012


Broeker, William L. (Ed)  Encyclopedia of Photography, International Center of Photography, Pound Press, Crown Publishers New York.  1984.

Frizot, Michel 1998  ‘Light Machines’, in Frizot, Michel (Ed)  A New History of Photography, Könemann Verlagsgellschaft, Köln, Germany.  1998.