The First Photograph Ever Taken (1826)


In his­to­ries of ear­ly pho­tog­ra­phy, Louis Daguerre faith­ful­ly appears as one of the fathers of the medi­um. His patent­ed process, the daguerreo­type, in wide use for near­ly twen­ty years in the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry, pro­duced so many of the images we asso­ciate with the peri­od, includ­ing famous pho­tographs of Abra­ham Lin­coln, Edgar Allan Poe, Emi­ly Dick­in­son, and John Brown. But had things gone dif­fer­ent­ly, we might know bet­ter the hard­er-to-pro­nounce name of his one­time part­ner Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, who pro­duced the first known pho­to­graph ever, tak­en in 1826.

Some­thing of a gen­tle­man inven­tor, Niépce (below) began exper­i­ment­ing with lith­o­g­ra­phy and with that ancient device, the cam­era obscu­ra, in 1816. Even­tu­al­ly, after much tri­al and error, Niépce devel­oped his own pho­to­graph­ic process, which he called “heli­og­ra­phy.” He began by mix­ing chem­i­cals on a flat pewter plate, then plac­ing it inside a cam­era. After expos­ing the plate to light for eight hours, the inven­tor then washed and dried it. What remained was the image we see above, tak­en, as Niépce wrote, from “the room where I work” on his coun­try estate and now housed at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin’s Har­ry Ran­som Cen­ter.


At the Ran­som Cen­ter web­site, you can see a short video describ­ing Niépce’s house and show­ing how schol­ars recre­at­ed the van­tage point from which he took the pic­ture. Anoth­er video offers insight into the process Niépce invent­ed to cre­ate his “heli­o­graph.” In 1827, Niépce trav­eled to Eng­land to vis­it his broth­er. While there, with the assis­tance of Eng­lish botanist Fran­cis Bauer, he pre­sent­ed a paper on his new inven­tion to the Roy­al Soci­ety. His find­ings were reject­ed, how­ev­er, because he opt­ed not to ful­ly reveal the details, hop­ing to make eco­nom­ic gains with a pro­pri­etary method. Niépce left the pewter image with Bauer and returned to France, where he short­ly after agreed to a ten-year part­ner­ship with Daguerre in 1829.

Sad­ly for Niépce, his heli­o­graph would not pro­duce the finan­cial or tech­no­log­i­cal suc­cess he envi­sioned, and he died just four years lat­er in 1833. Daguerre, of course, went on to devel­op his famous process in 1829 and passed into his­to­ry, but we should remem­ber Niépce’s efforts, and mar­vel at what he was able to achieve on his own with lim­it­ed mate­ri­als and no train­ing or prece­dent. Daguerre may receive much of the cred­it, but it was the “sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly-mind­ed gen­tle­man” Niépce and his heli­og­ra­phy that led—writes the Ran­som Center’s Head of Pho­to­graph­ic Con­ser­va­tion Bar­bara Brown—to “the inven­tion of the new medi­um.”

Niepce Reproduction

Niépce’s pewter plate image was re-dis­cov­ered in 1952 by Hel­mut and Ali­son Gern­sheim, who pub­lished an arti­cle on the find in The Pho­to­graph­ic Jour­nal. There­after, the Gern­sheims had the East­man Kodak Com­pa­ny cre­ate the repro­duc­tion above. This image’s “pointil­lis­tic effect,” writes Brown, “is due to the repro­duc­tion process,” and the image “was touched up with water­col­ors by [Hel­mut] Gern­sheim him­self in order to bring it as close as pos­si­ble to his approx­i­ma­tion of how he felt the orig­i­nal should appear in repro­duc­tion.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

See The First “Self­ie” In His­to­ry Tak­en by Robert Cor­nelius, a Philadel­phia Chemist, in 1839

Har­ry Tay­lor Brings 150-Year-Old Craft of Tin­type Pho­tog­ra­phy into the Mod­ern Day

Alfred Stieglitz: The Elo­quent Eye, a Reveal­ing Look at “The Father of Mod­ern Pho­tog­ra­phy”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Cindy Rainwater says:

    I once had the priv­i­lege of work­ing at the Har­ry Ran­some Cen­ter, in sev­er­al col­lec­tions, includ­ing the Pho­tog­ra­phy Col­lec­tion. This pho­to was then kept in a locked area. It was not on pub­lic dis­play, but resided in a light and cli­mate con­trolled envi­ron­ment. View­ing it was rather like see­ing a sacred rel­ic.

  • Michael Pritchard says:

    Hel­lo. It was actu­al­ly the Research Lab­o­ra­to­ries at Kodak Lim­it­ed in Har­row, UK, which pro­duced the image for repro­duc­tion by the Gern­sheims and not East­man Kodak Co.

  • Joe Monroe says:

    I’m sur­prised the names Fox and Tal­bot were not men­tioned since they were among the first pho­tog­ra­phers in the 1830’s, using a process I think they called calo­typ­ing, which required a sta­tion­ary sub­ject for an extend­ed amount of time, but work­ing in Scot­land, they were able to take the first rea­son­ably clear pho­tos of every day peo­ple, includ­ing them­selves

  • Neil Johnson says:

    Mr. Mon­roe, you are think­ing of Hen­ry Fox Tal­bot of west­ern Eng­land. One man, two last names. Yes, he invent­ed his own tech­nique of cap­tur­ing light. His first pho­to­graph was cre­at­ed in 1835. But, he treat­ed his inven­tion as a fas­ci­nat­ing past­time and did not pub­li­cize the work. Until lat­er when it was too late to be “the first.”

  • Terry Walsh says:

    Hard to pro­nounce?? Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (French: [nise­fɔʁ njɛps] = Neece-ay-fawr Nee-APES.

  • Paul Tatara says:

    Jesus, the fram­ing is ter­ri­ble! (That’s a joke.)

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