Joseph Nicéphore Nièpce, 7.3.1765 – 5.7.1833

- the world's oldest photography -

Since 1815 the then well-off Nièpce, a private scholar, was busy with the technique of litho-graphy which is a printing-process for pictures. Out of this occured his wish to have the pictures of the camera obscura directly engraved on a printing plate.

At his time it was known that silver-salts are sensitive to light. In 1802 Wedgewood and Davy made photograms with silver chloride on paper, meaning silhouettes of things that were just put upon appropriate prepared paper and than exposed to the sunlight. Nièpce worked out even pictures with such paper in a camera obscura in spite of the low photo-sensitivity but as Wedgewood and Davy he doesn't know any fixing bath for these pictures.

At all, pictures on silver chloride paper were not suitable for the making of printing plates and so Nièpce searched for other possibilities. Some publications of another private scho-lar, Hagemann from Bremen, her learned about the lightsensivity of resins. Hagemann made photograms on paper soaked with guaiac-tincture.

During this efforts Nièpce came to use syrian asphalt which is next to a few other asphalt-species photosensitive. It was diluted in oil of lavender, later on in turpentine and mixed with benzene and chloroform. This leads to a kind of varnish that is to be applied as very thin layer upon a tin-plate. Exposed to light the ultraviolet part of the sunlight hardens this layer, were there is no light the layer keeps soft and can be diluted in oil of lavender again which will not touch the hardened parts. So one gets a tin-plate with varnished and free areas, exactly as it was exposed, the free areas than can be etched so that this procedure will lead to a printing plate.

The disadvantage of this technique is the rather low lightsensivity. Meanwhile there is the conclusion that the preserved printig plate from 1826 was exposed not just one day but at least for three days. It is the merit of the photo-historian Prof. Gernsheim that this picture, known as the worlds oldest photography, was rediscovered. After some years of research he finally found it at a junk-dealer's shop where it was offered to him – inappropriate framed – as a somewhat blind mirror. The picture shows the inner courtyard of Nièpce's manor, taken from the window of his work room.

Early in 1822 Nièpce made a photogram of an etching with asphalt, too, but this didn't withstand the following efforts of reproducing.

Nièpce used the camera format of 16,5x21 cm which became later the standard format also for the Daguerreotypes. 16,5x21 was named as „Full Plate“, from this derived the smaller formats as „Half Plate“, „Quarter Plate“ or „Eighth Plate“.

The mediation by the optician Charles Chevalier from Paris made in 1826 the acquaintance of Nièpce and Daguerre, both researchers bought their lenses there. After a first visit of Nièpce in Paris, 350 km away from his home, the further cooperation took place by letters. This was part of an interworking-contract which was signed by Nièpce in 1829 because of the financial embarrasments that has reached him. For both men started their experiments in rather different directions there was no substantial collaboration but just an exchange of experiences. During this exchange was especially one hint from Nièpce of great significance: he reported about the utility of iodine while processing of the plates. This led to the iodation of the silver plates used by Daguerre and by this to their sufficient lightsensivity.

In addition to this there were no similarities of the two photographic procedures. Anyway the son Isidor Nièpce got a life annuity, too, within the scope of purchasing Daguerre's invention by the government of France. Meanwhile he had joined the contract as heir of his father.

While the Daguerreotype marked the beginning of photography and spread like a wildfire all over the world the heliography-process of Nièpce remained rather unnoticed. Later in the 19th century the heliography was further developed to the technique of heliogravure what is an ideal solution to print photographs. So the research of Nièpce finally met their original aim: a suitable printing-process for pictures of the camera obscura.

Alike this John North got a patent in America on a printing-procedure for photographs using guaiac-acid in 1898. But this method, based on the actually lightsensitive part of guaiacum resin, never gained real practice.

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