Saturday, April 1, 2006

The story of the first photograph


By David Gewirtz

The year was 1826. The American Temperance Society was founded that year. Mahmud II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, crushed the last mutiny of janissaries in Istanbul. Julia Boggs Dent, who would become the wife of Ulysses S. Grant, was born and both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died that year. John Adams' son, John Quincy Adams, was president. Aluminum had been discovered just a year earlier and slavery was still a big part of American life.

Clint Eastwood once said, "A man's got to know his limitations". In 1826, Nicephore Niepce was a man who was getting in touch with his own internal Dirty Harry. When Nicephore was born in Chalon-sur-Satne, he was named Joseph Niepce. His father was a counsellor to the King. At the age of 23, Nicephore changed his name from the biblically-reminiscent Joseph to Nicephore, derived from the Greek word "nike", meaning "victory" and "phoreo", which means "to carry" or "to bear". Besides being a masculine name, the related name Nikephoros was also a title borne by the goddess Athena.

In 1807, Nicephore and his brother Claude obtained a patent, signed by Napoleon, for the Pyreolophore. Apparently, Nicephore liked words ending in "phore", and this "phore", the Pyreolophore (say that three times, fast!) was the world's first internal combustion engine.


In any case, back in 1826, good ol' 61 year old Nicephore was fascinated by lithography, what was then a pretty revolutionary printing process. Unfortunately, since photography didn't exist, if you wanted to use lithography to produce an image, you had to be able to draw.

Not a stupid man, this Nicephore. But also not much of an artist. If Nicephore wanted to put pictures in his lithography, he had to draw them himself. Nicephore was a man who knew his limitations and knew drawing was beyond his reach. But if he could create a photographic image, then he'd no longer need to draw.

Before 1826, photography was a fleeting thing. You could "take" a picture, in the sense that you could create an image on the wall, but you couldn't take it with you. Photography was merely a tool to help in drawing.

The camera obscura

Artists today draw and paint on walls by placing a transparency on an overhead projector, projecting the image on the wall, and tracing and painting over it.

Well, back in the old days, you could get an image to show up on a wall using a camera obscura. Placed in a darkened room, the camera obscura would transmit light from a pinhole (like an early pinhole camera) and project it onto a wall. Unfortunately, as the day's light waned, so did the picture and even if you could take the wall with you, the picture wouldn't come along for the ride.