Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, View from the Window at Le Gras


Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, View from the Window at Le Gras, c. 1826–27, heliograph on pewter, 6.57 x 8 inches (Harry Ransom Center, Austin)

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, View from the Window at Le Gras, c. 1826–27, heliograph on pewter, 6.57 x 8 inches (Harry Ransom Center, Austin)

At a second-story window of his country house in Le Gras, France, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce placed a camera obscura, loaded with a polished, light-sensitive, bitumen-coated, pewter plate, and aimed it toward the view outside. He then uncovered the lens for anywhere from eight hours to “several days.” [1] The result: the earliest surviving camera-made photograph. From left to right, it reveals the Niépce family’s “pigeon-house,” a pear tree, the diagonal plane of the barn’s sloped roof, the bakery’s chimney, and another wing of the house—all seen from a south-facing view. [2] During the extended time of this photographic exposure, the angle of the sun shifted, bathing both left and right sides of the structures in full light, and giving permanence to this view of Niépce’s nineteenth-century French estate and countryside.

Despite the presence of recognizable objects such as buildings and rooftops, the image is grainy and lacks detail. Nevertheless, this milestone photograph offered, in Niépce’s words, “the first uncertain step in a completely new direction.” [3] This “heliograph”—as Niépce called it, from the Greek words for “sun” and “writing”—was made more than a dozen years before the announcement of the invention of the daguerreotype by fellow Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre.

To make View from the Window at Le Gras, Niépce created a light-tight box with a small hole (aperture) in it—also called a camera obscura. He then prepared a polished pewter plate coated with light-sensitive bitumen of Judea (a naturally occurring asphalt), and placed it in the camera obscura. To make the photograph, Niépce put the camera in place, and opened the aperture. After he felt the plate was adequately exposed, he removed it and washed it with a mixture of lavender oil and white petroleum, which dissolved parts of the bitumen that were hardened by exposure to light. The result was this one-of-a-kind photograph.

Francis Bauer, inscription on the back of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras, c. 1826–27, 6.57 x 8 inches (Harry Ransom Center, Austin)

Francis Bauer, inscription on the back of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras, c. 1826–27, 6.57 x 8 inches (Harry Ransom Center, Austin)

Photography’s un-natural view of time

On the reverse of View from the Window at Le Gras, Niépce’s friend, British botanist Francis Bauer—who encouraged Niépce to write a letter staking claim to the invention to the Royal Society (of which he was a Fellow)—added an explanatory inscription in 1827:

Heliography. The first results obtained spontaneously by the action of light. By Mr. Niepce of Chalon-sur-Saone. 1827.

Monsieur Niépce’s first successful experiment of fixing permanently the Image from Nature. [4]

Bauer’s written remarks bear witness to Niépce’s claim to have invented photography, more than a decade before Daguerre would lay claim to the same achievement. They also note the instantaneous speed with which Niépce’s chemistry began reacting to translate light into an image—a process that found completion in several hours or days. Bauer’s notes on the reverse of View from the Window at Le Gras remind us that these photochemical reactions and photographs enjoyed a peculiar ability to represent time in a way that differs dramatically from our experience of it. Photographs confound viewers by preserving a small sliver of time from its dynamic natural continuum—or from “Nature”—and rendering it permanently visible, and stilled for later viewing and re-viewing.

Niépce’s death and his late addition to history

A diorama by Daguerre shown with different projections of light. Louis Daguerre and Charles Bouton, The Campo Santo of Pisa, c. 1834, oil on canvas, 92 x 152 cm (Galerie Perrin, Paris)

A Daguerre diorama shown with different light projections. Louis Daguerre and Charles Bouton, The Campo Santo of Pisa, c. 1834, oil on canvas, 92 x 152 cm (Galerie Perrin, Paris)

Nevertheless, Niépce ultimately was unsuccessful at attracting the interest and financial support of the French or British governments and scientific organizations to invest in his further experiments. [5] He became concerned about further draining the family finances on continued development of his photographic process, and entered a partnership in 1829 with one of the few men who was interested in the innovation, the renowned diorama and theatrical-scene painter Daguerre. [6] Niépce hoped to capitalize upon Daguerre’s connections and showmanship skills to find funding for his invention.

However, Niépce would soon discover that Daguerre had greatly oversold the promise of his own photographic experiments, which were then in a rudimentary state. Daguerre eagerly visited Le Gras in 1829 and learned the heliographic process from Niépce.

Unfortunately, Niépce died in 1833, leaving his family relatively penniless, his photographic process imperfect, and all of his experiments and ideas about photochemistry in the hands of a man who made measurably fewer contributions to their partnership than he did. [7] Daguerre, in turn, developed a different process and sold it—and the diorama—to the French government in 1839.

For more than a century, Daguerre was credited as the maker of the earliest surviving photograph. [8] Niépce’s involvement received little recognition in our histories until View from a Window at Le Gras—with Bauer’s inscription on the back—made its way into the hands of photography historian Helmut Gernsheim, who began to track its provenance in 1952. Gernsheim’s re-discovery of the image—affirmed by details from correspondence between Niépce and Bauer, led to the acknowledgment that Niépce played an essential role as a “founding father” of the medium—about 125 years after Niépce’ historic contribution to the invention of photography.

Notes:

[1] Most research previously estimated the exposure duration at eight hours. More recent scholars have suggested that Niépce kept the lens open to light for “several days”: “The Niépce Heliograph,” The Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

[2] “The First Photograph,” The Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

[3] “The Niépce Heliograph,” The Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

[4] The full inscription, as it originally appears in French, is: “L’Heliographie. Les premiers resultants obtenus Spontanément par l’action de la lumiere. Par Monsieur Nièpce, De Chalon sur Sâone. 1827.”

[5] According to the British Royal Society’s notes, Niépce’s “heliography” was rejected because he refused to share details about the process of making the photographs, and the innovation could not be properly vetted. Niépce presumably planned to keep the innovation proprietary, and make a profit from it. Niépce in England (London: Royal Photographic Society, 2013).

[6] Helmut Gernsheim, The Origins of Photography (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1982), 38. Niépce and his brother Claude also invented and patented an internal combustion engine, the Pyréolophore, in 1807.

[7] Victor Fouque, The Truth Concerning the Invention of Photography: Nicéphore Niépce, His Life, His Endeavours, His Works from His Correspondence, and Other Unpublished Documents, Edward Epstean, trans. (New York: Arno Press Inc., 1973), pp. 72–73, 104, 108.

[8] Niépce’s name is not mentioned by Daguerre until page 3 of the 1839 report on the invention of photography. Even then, Niépce is not cited as a participant in its creation. Daguerre claimed Niépce’s process was “highly imperfect,” unclear, and that its exposure times were far too long. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, An Historical and Descriptive Account of the Various Processes of the Daguerreotype and the Diorama (London: McLean, 1839; reprinted by New York: Krauss Reprint Co., 1969), p. 3.


Additional resources

Niépce and the Invention of Photography” by Maison de Nicéphore Niépce.

Early Photography: Niépce, Talbot and Muybridge.

How to make a camera obscura by the George Eastman Museum.

More on the camera obscura.

Manuel Bonnet and Jean-Louis Marignier, eds., Niépce: Correspondence and Papers (Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France: Maison Nicéphore Niépce, 2003).

François Cheval, The Musée Nicéphore Niépce, Chalon-sur-Saône (Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2012).

Victor Fouque, The Truth Concerning the Invention of Photography: Nicéphore Niépce, His Life, His Endeavours, His Works from His Correspondence, and Other Unpublished Documents, Edward Epstean, trans. (New York: Arno Press Inc., 1973).

Helmut Gernsheim, The Origins of Photography (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1982).

The First Photograph,” The Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

Cite this page as: Dr. Kris Belden-Adams, "Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, View from the Window at Le Gras," in Smarthistory, July 11, 2022, accessed December 6, 2022, https://smarthistory.org/joseph-nicephore-niepce-view-from-the-window-at-le-gras/.