The world's first photograph

01:00 Fri 22nd Mar 2002 The AnswerBank

Q. So, how old is it

A. 177 years old. The image of a boy leading a horse was made in 1825 was auctioned by Sotheby's in Paris on 21 March 2002 and had been�expected to make in the region of $600,000. However,�because the French government declared it a national treasure - and therefore effectively banning anyone from taking it out of the country - it was bought by the Bibliotheque Nationale for a mere $392,000.

Q. And this date has been verified

A. It has. The 6-by-4 inch reproduction of a 17th-century Flemish print was mentioned in a dated letter by the photographer, Joseph-Nic�phore Niepce, to his son Isidore. No one is disputing the evidence.

Q. How much older is it than the previous 'earliest' photograph

A. One year. The 1826 reproduction of a portrait was also taken by Niepce. In the same year he produced an image of the view from his window.

Q. And it is actually a photograph

A. Yes and no. It's a heliograph - literally 'sun drawing' - a term invented by Niepce for the process he developed.

Q. Heliograph

A. By coating a copper plate with a kind of light-sensitive bitumen, Niepce found he could take a negative imprint of an image and use that to create a new picture. He exposed the light-sensitive coating to bright sunlight - hence the helio bit - which passed through the image he wished to reproduce. The negative was produced by developing the plate with oil of lavender and white petroleum and the image was then etched into the metal and an engraving plate produced.

So, it's not strictly a photograph in the modern sense - it's actually ink on paper - but it qualifies as one because light sensitive material was used to reproduce an image, which is the basic principle of photography.

Q. And a little more about Niepce

A. Niepce (1765-1833) was an interesting man. The son of a wealthy family suspected of royalist sympathies, Niepce fled the French Revolution but returned to serve in the French army under Napoleon, but was dismissed because of ill health. As if inventing photography wasn't enough, in 1807 he and his brother Claude had invented an internal-combustion engine, which they called the Pyr�olophore ('fire-wind-I produce' - honest). Employing a piston-and-cylinder system similar to the petrol- and diesel-powered engines we are now so familiar with, the Pyr�olophore used lycopodium powder for fuel, and Niepce even claimed to have used it to power a boat.

He first started experimenting with photographic techniques as early as 1813. After his successes in the mid-1820s he addressed a memorandum on his invention to the Royal Society in London, but his insistence on keeping the method secret prevented the technique from being developed further. One of the real pitfalls of heliography was that the exposure time of the plate was up to 8 hours. Unable to work out a method of shortening this period in 1829 he eventually gave in to the overtures of Louis-Jacques-Mand� Daguerre, a Parisian painter who had been trying to get Niepce to work in partnership with him for some time.

Q. Daguerre, as in daguerrotype

A. Exactly. Although Niepce died before they actually found a solution to the problem, in the 1830s Daguerre, based on the research the two had undertaken together, developed a new method which required only 20-30 minutes exposure time. Named for its inventor, the daguerrotype used a copper plate coated with silver iodide which was exposed to light in a camera, then fumed with mercury vapour and fixed by a solution of common salt.

Q. So, really Daguerre was the father of modern photography

A. The daguerrotype was the first practical method of photography, and the method remained popular throughout the mid 19th century until it was supplanted by the wet collodion process. So in that sense perhaps Daguerre gets the prize - but you can't take away from Niepce the credit for being the first person ever to take a snap.

If you want to see the image, you can find�it on the BBC website at http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/europe/newsid_1885000/1885093.stm

See also the answerbank article on Julia Margaret Cameron

For more on Arts & Literature click here

By Simon Smith

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