The oldest surviving photograph, sketched in pencil on the right by its re-discoverer, Helmut Gernsheim, 1952.

Joseph Nièpce – as was his name when he was born 251 years ago – was the second son of a wealthy lawyer in Chalon-sur-Saône, Saône-et-Loire. While studying at Oratorian Brothers in Angers, Joseph adopted the name Nicéphore in honour of Saint Nicephorus, the ninth-century Patriarch of Constantinople. His education in Angers was an enlightened one, including an introduction to experimental methods in Physics and Chemistry, Nièpce’s favourites. After short careers as a teacher, an army officer under Napoleon, and as a local administrator, Nièpce finally returned to his family estate Le Gras near Chalon-sur-Saône to manage it with his elder brother Claude. Both brothers had been working together on experimental projects in the previous years, their most important being an internal combustion engine, Pyreolophore (pyr=fire, eolo=wind, and phore=I carry or I produce), the first of its kind ever built. In 1807, they were given a 10-year patent for it. When it was about to expire, Claude travelled to England in order to find sponsors or buyers there.

Left behind alone, Nièpce tried his hand at lithography, an image-printing technique with stone plates developed by the Austro-German Alois Senefelder (1771-1834). As Nièpce was not good at drawing – necessary for this process – and could not find the right stones, he experimented with ways of fixing an image produced by sun light on a plate. He coated a pewter (stone, tin, copper or silver) plate with various light-sensitive substances, covered it with the print (on paper) of an engraving and exposed it to the sun for long periods. Yet, none of the images appearing on the plate would be lasting. Better results were produced with a coating of bitumen of Judea (a kind of asphalt), which hardens when exposed to light. By rinsing away the unhardened bitumen with lavender oil and turpentine after the exposure, the image created by light remained etched in the surface. Nièpce called this light-etching process ‘heliography’ – ‘sun-drawing’. A demonstration of how it is done can be found here.


Original chemicals used in photo labs at the time.

Eventually, his experiments included a simple camera obscura fitted with special lenses. In about 1826/27 (the date is uncertain) he finally managed to produce the oldest surviving photograph, a print of a real scenery – a view from an upper window of the family estate Le Gras – etched into a coated plate in a camera obscura after many hours of exposure. In 1827 he travelled to his brother in England – who, meanwhile, had been squandering the family fortune in doomed ventures to promote the combustion machine – where Nièpce presented his invention to the Royal Society. As he did not want to reveal his method, the Society would not follow it up any further, and Nièpce left the six plates he had taken as samples with Franz Bauer, an Austrian-born botanical illustrator and Fellow of the Royal Society.

Source: The Royal Photographic Society Collection, two of the three plates.

Three of the plates were later bought by the eminent photographer Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901), whose son Ralph would eventually present them to The Royal Photographic Society. More here. A video about the project studying these plates can be watched at youtube.

In 1829, Nièpce entered into a partnership with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) with a view to improving both the quality of the image and its permanent reproduction on paper. However, on 5 July 1833, after hardly four years of collaboration, Nicéphore Nièpce died of a stroke, poor and unacknowledged. Daguerre continued their research project and eventually developed the photographic process, announced in 1839, that bore his name and made him world-famous: “daguerreotype” (see January 9). It would take many years and some serious research by historians – most notably by Helmut and Alison Gernsheim – to restore Joseph Nicéphore Niépce to his rightful place in the history of photography.

In 2015, France’s National Heritage Site commemorated the 250th anniversary of his birth. On this highly informative site, you also have free access to Nièpce’s collected papers. The original photo is kept at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, which has a permanent J. N. Nièpce exhibition.

The oldest photo lab in the world

The world’s oldest Photographic Studio and Lab is that of Fortuné Joseph Petiot-Groffier (1788-1855), on display in J. N. Nièpce’s house.