The invention of photography

The term photography comes from the Greek word photos which means light, clarity, and from graphein meaning to paint, draw, write. Photography literally means “writing with light”.

The invention of this process required two things: to create an optical device to create an image, and to be able to fix this image on a stable and durable support. Photography as we know it today is the result of a long series of technological and technical innovations in many fields: mechanics, optics and chemistry first, then electricity, electronics and computers.

Mechanics, optics and chemistry

The adventure of photography has its source in the reflections of the Greek philosopher Aristotle and in the Treaty of optics written by Ibn al-Haytham in the 11th century: by piercing a very small hole (pinhole) in a dark room (camera obscura), we see an inverted image appear in the white background of the box. The main disadvantage of the pinhole is its lack of brightness. In the 16thcentury, the sharpness of the image improves with the introduction of the lens.

The discovery of the action of light rays on a sensitive surface is attributed to the alchemists of the Middle Ages, who knew the properties of silver chloride, sensitive to light. This discovery is followed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by several researchers.

Nicephore Niépce

The first photographic process was invented by Nicéphore Niépce, an inventor from Chalon-sur-Saône, around 1824: it was called heliography. The images were obtained with bitumen of Judea (natural tar that hardens in the light) spread on a silver plate, after an exposure time of several days. The first photograph represents a wing of his property in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes: it is the “Point de vue du Gras”, an 1827 photograph that has been kept at the University of Austin in Texas since Helmut Gernsheim donated it to this institution in 1963. It is the first fixed image in history.

In 1829, Niépce associated Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre to his research. In 1832, they developed, from the residue of the distillation of lavender oil, a second process producing images in 7 to 8 hours of exposure time: the physautotype.

The “table served” is the first fixed still life and one of the first photographs (physautotype) made by Nicéphore Niépce, dating from 1832.

« Point de vue du Gras » – Nicéphore Niépce – 1827
« Domaine du Gras à Saint-Loup-de-Varennes », family home of Nicéphore Niépce
« La table servie » – CNAM


Niépce died in 1833. Daguerre continued his work and invented, in 1838, the daguerreotype, the first process to include a development stage. A silver plate covered with a thin layer of silver iodide was exposed in a dark room and then subjected to mercury vapors that caused the invisible latent image formed during the exposure to light to appear. This development consisted of such an amplification of the effect of light that the exposure time did not exceed 30 minutes. The fixing was obtained by immersion in water saturated with sea salt.

By discovering the principle of the development of the latent image, Daguerre found a way to shorten the exposure time to a few dozen minutes. In 1839, he promoted his invention to the scientist and deputy François Arago, who gave him his support. Thus, the conventional date of the invention of photography is August 19, 1839, the day Arago presented Daguerre’s “invention”, the daguerreotype, to the Academy of Sciences. It is in fact an improvement of Niépce’s invention.

Portrait of Nicéphore Niépce in his youth

Spéos & Niépce

Spéos Photography School is very concerned with ongoing research and in preserving a very significant French National Heritage site since 1999: The Nicéphore Niépce House Museum.
This is the location where the very first photograph in the world was taken by the true inventor of photography, Nicéphore Niépce. In this way, Spéos contributes to the enhancement of a place considered as part of the world cultural heritage.

Similar Posts