Musée Nicéphore Niépce and the invention of photography

The very first photograph

Although there is no doubt that the Daguerreotype, announced to the world in 1839, was the first commercially successful photographic process, it is accepted that the above image is the oldest photograph we have today. That is Nicéphore Niépce’s Point de vue du Gras à Saint-Loup de Varennes – 1827. Today, it is in Austin University – Texas – USA. The image on the left is how the plate looks like, the one on the right is a rendering of that image aimed to an easy reading, without metallic reflexion and far more contrast.

The Museum Nicéphore Niépce, in Shalon sur Saône, 4/5 hours driving/train southeast from Paris, gives a full account of the last steps that led to the invention of photography. Nicéphore is until today constantly presented as unjustly relegated to a minor role in photography development while names like Daguerre, Talbot, Herschel or Wedgwood are considered the true innovators. That is an old claim. In 1867, Niépce biographer Victor Fouque published La vérité sur l’invention de la photographie, Nicéphore Niépce, sa vie ses essais, ses travaux (The truth about the invention of photography, Nicéphore Niépce, his life, his experiments , his works). The title openly conveys this air of denouncement, of some evil or conspiracy against Nicéphore.

Visiting the museum we get a very good understanding of Nicéphore’s contribution and it becomes clear that it was indeed pivotal. But that does not dimmish Daguerre’s part nor charges him as being guilty about his efforts to call the new process after his name alone. More than that, the parcours invites visitors to think the advent of  photography from a very broad perspective instead of disputes among its forefathers. These personal motivations, and idiosyncrasies are better seen as surface movements over deep social changes that were undergoing in society. Fortunately curators had that broader view in mind while setting up the whole museum concept.

The Museum

The museum is located at the very heart of Chalon sur Saône, city where Nicéphore was born, and it faces the Saône river in a very beautiful spot having an isle just in front of it. There we see a little garden with an iris and Niépce written with flowers. 

The first room, photography and its forms

The first room shows photography from many different perspectives. As we read in their website:   “The ambition of the musée Nicéphore Niépce is to explain the basics of photography from its invention by Niépce up to today’s digital imagery”. That goal is pursued by linking equipments, history, images and key players in photographic industry: public, photographers, manufactures, press, entertainment industry, etc.

First piece is a large studio view camera. It demonstrates the image formation principle that can inspected on the ground glass. The circle on the back is also an image formed by lens facing the street on one of the museum sides.

Here is a copy of the first photographic camera designed for portraits using the newly created Petzval lens with aperture ~f4. The original was built by Voigtlander in Wien. Just a few survived till our days. 

The complexity of image making in the sense of: what is likeness after all? What would be a true to life simulation of a visual experience? is raised when we see  attempts to obtain, for instance, three dimensional images. The above machine was able to rotate around the subject and take photos from different angles. Those pictures were later assembled in one single flat support and a layer of micro prisms allowed only one image to be visible at a time, according to the angle of view, giving the impression that the viewer was walking around a real object. The effect is amusing but not convincing. This was later used for souvenirs and other popular and cheap gadgets.

Landscape panoramic photography was another wonder as one could browse the details and embrace an angle of view bigger than what the human eye can. The equipment developed for that purpose was normally based on a rotating lens and samples of cameras are showcased

The relation of still photography and cinema industry is remembered through the specialized press that emerged after the first World War and contributed tremendously in setting up new aesthetic and behavior standards becoming a real mythological repository of our era.


Icons of photographic industry, like Rolleiflexes and Leicas, are proudly displayed in showcases of their own.

The role of film manufactures in fueling masses’ desire to record their memories is also remembered in this panel featuring a picture of a retail photo counter, press advertising, plus Kodak and Agfa panels used to indicate a points of sales. The explosion of consumer photography can’t be seen as just an industry satisfying a demand for pictures. It was for sure a complex movement involving many different aspects of technology, retail structures and the shaping of an image driven culture in its values and self understanding. Our digital era is probably yet a deployment of such seminal transformation.

All in all , these are just some highlights and this entry room works as “food for thought”. Of course is does not intend to offer an analytical view of what photography meant for our culture but it opens several doors and gives several leads one can follow and reflect upon.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

After such an enticing first room, on the first floor we find how it all started. But before any detail about his historical/technical contribution to image making, it is important some words about his life and background. He was born from a rich family of bourgeois origin but having already some privileges that in former times only the nobility could afford. His father was a court lawyer, king’s advisor and charged of public affairs in Chalon-sur-Saône. The fact that they enjoyed some noble status is attested by the fact that the family had to disperse and hide during the French Revolution. Nicéphore himself  picked a military career in the army right after the death of his father in 1792 (he was then 27 year old). His closest brother Claude did the same in the navy. That was done on purpose as an attempt to distract attention to his family royalist connections. But neither him nor his brother had any military vocation and both resigned, when things cooled down. Both returned to Chalon to live in the comfortable house where they were born. The revolution harvested a great deal of family’s fortune but what was left was yet enough to continue living a good life as part of the élite chalonaise.

Nicéphore and Claude received a high level education in the Seminary of the Peres de la Congregation de l’Oratoire and had even a private tutor as a complement. This solid education was of course important to their decision to become inventors in partnership. The climate was very favorable. Enlightenment mindset was all about science, research, new technologies and discoveries as means to reach a welfare state, far from medieval royal and religious tutelage. The two brothers launched themselves in a couple of projects and among them, the most famous and admirable, was a internal combustion engine that actually propelled experimental boats at Bercy – Paris in the Seine river. It was well praised, very promising, and they got a patent by a Napoleonic decree but… they never managed to make money with that. Claude even moved to London to sell it – motivated by the fact that over there the industrial revolution was at full speed and new machines were always welcome. But not even with English investors it was possible to start any business with the Pyreolophore – name they gave to their invention.

Claude’s long stay in London (1817 to 1828) was another downfall in family’s financial conditions. In 1827 Nicéphéore also decided to go to London where he found his brother very ill and learnt that there was no progress at all with the Pyreolophore project. Claude died in 1828.

A second purpose in Nicéphore’s trip to London was related to his experiments with what later would be called photography. After some successes in sensitizing plates for contact printing under sunlight, using  asphaltum-coated pewter, Nicéphore intended to submit his results to the Royal Society of London. There he got acquainted with Francis Bauer, who was Society’s secretary, explained him his achievements and was requested to write a report. Reading his report (in Fouquet p.149) we see that his approach was not very promising. First he went through all the shortcomings of his technique, all the issues to be yet solved, his uncertainties about materials not yet tested, secrecy about the actual/current proceedings, and then he stated that he didn’t want to give any advantage to England in priority to any other country and that he was there just to get the opinion of that prestigious institution and safeguard by a public presentation the recognition about his ownership of his discovery. Well, no wonder, he did not manage to be accepted to present his invention in any of the Royal Society’s meetings. He brought samples of his photographs, made on metal plates, impressed his interlocutors, but too much secrecy about the process and lack of a clear proposal probably did not create the desired reaction.

What is interesting in this short recollection over a few facts about the life of Nicéphore Niépce, is to highlight how completely he embodied the ambiguities of his time. He, as a bourgeois,  set himself as an entrepreneur aimed to make money. But, a business life was something he could not actually bear, that would be too mundane for someone cultivated as he was. Military career, the quintessential of all aristocratic affairs, was not at all his talent either. Becoming a dilettante was then a good compromise. It could, or should, keep him far from Universities, far from the Court and far from the Business Centres, far from all kinds of competition, in line with his aversion for social life. His choice was for a solitary almost scientific quest for new technologies that would never be accomplished in full – for that he devoted his life. He was far more a men of Romanticism than of Enlightenment.

Chambre de la Découverte

As we climb to the museum first floor, there is one room dedicated exclusively to Niépce’s works. He was attracted to the realm of images when he learnt about lithography. The process was recently invented and in 1810 the first treatise on the subject was published in Stuttgart. That triggered a quick dissemination throughout Europe. Georges Potonniee, is his Histoire de la Découverte de la Photographie (p.84) gives a certain fashionable touch to the novelty: “in 1813, cultivated people were doing lithographs, Niépce like the others. And that discovery, which he saw as a marvelous one, made upon him a deep impression”. Interested as he was about industrial processes he set himself the problem of arriving to a drawing spontaneously made by “natural forces”. That was the driver and first conception of his project.

A preliminary success was reached using a coating of Bitumen of Judea as a light sensitive surface over a metal plate. Artists used to cover copper plates with bitumen and later scratch it with a sharp instrument exposing the metal. Next, they used an acid etching the drawing. Last step was about removing the bitumen, inking the plate and stamping it on paper, reproducing this way the drawing. So Niépce modified this process by observing that the Bitumen becomes less soluble after the action of light. Instead of scratching, he placed engravings printed on paper over the bitumen coating and expose it to sunlight. The white paper was turned transparent through the application of wax and oils. The printed part worked as a barrier to light. Next, he washed out the unexposed parts that were still soluble and the exposed remained as the drawing etched by light. He called this process Heliography.

On the left we see the well preserved sample of that phase as shown in the Nicéphore Niépce Museum. That is from 1826, made over a pewter plate, and represents Cardinal Georges d’Amboise. On top is the backlit paper engraving, in the middle the metal plate and at the bottom a final print. Niépce sent it to be printed in Paris by the engraver Lemaître.

Would Niépce be a entrepreneur, keen for quick profits, he would have realized the excellent opportunity the foto-mechanical reproduction of images represented as a new business. He would have leveraged on what he had achieved already in 1826. But the light filtered by a hand made drawing was not the light he had in mind. So he continued to the next step that was about using a camare obscura.

Chambre Noir having served to M. Niépce for his first experiments. Its  holes closed by corks allowed him to follow up the operation advancement.

Above, one of the Camera Obscura used by Niépce. He expected a sort of print-out effect and so drilled two holes, normally closed with corks, in order to allow him a real time observation of image development. He used a Wollaston type lens that was a simple meniscus offering about f11 or f16, that means, not bright at all. His first surviving success in capturing an image with a camera obscura is the image that opens this article, the Point de vue du Gras à Saint-Loup de Varennes, it dates from 1827 and it demanded an exposure of 12 hours. Niépce knew that this exposure time was not practical and so decided to go after other light sensitive substances to replace the Bitumen. The problem was not actually about getting an image but rather on how to fix it, how to remove the parts of it that were not exposed. The samples showed something when removed from camera but the shadows continued to blacken due to the action of ambient light.

Wollaston type lens – 1804 – light direction is from left to right

Actually, the invention of photography was very much the invention of means to fix the photographic image. The principle of using an image formed by a lens and a sensitive surface was known long before. Difficult to trace the very first to experiment with it. The Englishman Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805) published in 1802 a dissertation about the use of silver nitrate: “The images formed by means of a camera obscura have been found too faint to produce, in any moderate time, an effect upon the nitrate of silver. To copy these images was the first object of Mr. Wedgwood in his researches on the subject, and for this purpose he first used the nitrate of silver, which was mentioned to him by a friend, as a substance very sensible to the influence of light; but all his numerous experiments as to their primary end proved unsuccessful”(Eder p137). Althout he was not satisfied with the results, what Wedgwood was doing can very properly be called Photography. What was still missing in his experiments was something to boost silver nitrate sensitivity and later a fixer.

protographic image produced by contact by Hercule Florence in (1833) – private collection Brasil

Hercule Florence is another forerunner. French from Nice, born in 1804, he studied arts and at the age of 20 moved to Brasil where he settle himself as a draughtsman in Rio de Janeiro. Later he married an moved to Sao Carlos where he started his research about printing by the action of light. In 1833 he succeed in obtaining photographic images using a camera obscura. There is no image preserved from his proceedings but his written records are pretty convincing. He used glass plates covered with gum arabica and ashes, the sensitive component was silver or gold chloride and images were fixed with ammoniac hydroxide. Unfortunately, he was in a colony not in a metropolis and his findings never left his own surroundings. He remained using one of the most important inventions of the century to copy glass labels and documents like Masonic Diplomas. The image below is a preserved sample of the latter. Boris Kossoy (1941) is a photographer and researcher with several works about Hercule Florence. He finishes one of his lectures published in Les Multiples Inventions de la Photographie, with an interesting citation  from Hercule Florence writings: “In a century that rewards the talented, Providence brought me to a country where nobody cares about it. I endure the horrors of misery, and my imagination is plenty of discoveries. No one soul hears me nor understands me. Nothing matters here but gold, politics, trade, sugar, coffee and human flesh. No doubt I know some great and beautiful souls, but those in a very small number, are not acquainted with my language and I respect their ignorance”.

Coming back to Niépce, he experimented with a lot of different substances, particularly he had a great hope about the use of phosphors but that never yielded any good result. If we think of combinations of supports like cooper, pewter, silver… light sensitive substances like bitumen, phosphore, iodine, development or cleasing baths in different oils, acids, whatever, plus different timings and concentrations, for all these processes, we can infer that Niépce employed thousands and thousands of hours in his trial and error experiments.

By the end of the twenties he was convinced that the quality of images produced by his camera obscura was an issue. In 1826 he asked his cousin, who was going to Paris, to bring him several optics from Vincent and Charles Chevalier, well know opticians at that time (Fouque p117).  That is how Charles Chevalier was acquainted with the nature and results from researches performed by Niépce, and it seems that was Charles Chevalier who put him and Louis Daguerre in touch.

Pictures printed over tin, by contact, etched with acid using the heliographic process invented by Niépce. Dated from 1823 to 1828

Daguerre was an artist, painter, and entrepreneur working in a sort of entertainment business, his Diorama, that was a great success in Paris. He approached Niépce, who hastened checking with the engraver Lamaître (letter from jan/1827 – Fouque p126 ) references about him: “Do you know one of the Diorama inventors, this M. Daguerre? The reason why I am asking is that this gentleman, being informed, I don’t know very well how, about the subject of my research, wrote me last year, in January, to let me know that since a very long time he was concerned about the same thing and inquired me whether I had been happier than himself in my results. However, according to him, he had already got very impressive results, and besides that, he begged me to tell him, first of all, whether I considered the whole thing possible. I will not conceal from you, sir, that such an inconsistency of ideas, had occasion to surprise me, to say the least”.

The encounter and cooperation of Niépce and Daguerre was poisoned from the very beginning by the secrecy each one kept about their actual achievements. Each one overestimated the level of knowledge and development the other apparently had on the subject. Daguerre believed Niépce had already something far more effective than the bitumen prints and Niépce, in his turn, believed that Daguerre would be able to provide a magic camera with superb optics,  capable of making up for all the drawbacks his process still presented. Anyway, they signed a contract in 1829 and so had to mutually disclosure their findings. It was a reciprocal disappointment. But, to be fair, it must be said that Niépce had something with his Heliographic process, while Daguerre did not add anything Niépce could not get from opticians like Charles Chevalier among others. Eder says it plainly: “It is worthy of notice that Niepce acquainted Daguerre with his really new invention, but that Daguerre had no important photographic contribution whatever to offer” (Eder p223).

This camera, exhibited in the museum, was given to Niépce by Daguerre as part of their cooperation.

The terms of their agreement, the contract for a partnership between Daguerre and Niépce, states clearly that the Heliography was already a discovery, just in need of improvements, and that Daguerre was supposed to bring those improvements. We read: “M. Daguerre, to whom he [Niépce] disclosed his invention, fully realizing its value, since the invention is capable of great perfection, offers to join with M. Niepce to achieve this perfection and to gain all possible advantages from this new industry”. There is a full translation to English of that agreement in Eder (p215) and the original is reproduced by Fouque (p161). Anyway, both inventors realized right after their “disclosures” that there was still a long way to go. They started an intense correspondence exchanging their hypothesis and tests conducted solely in the field of sensitive materials and means to fix them, using the available lenses and cameras.

Nicéphore Niépce posthumous portrait painted in 1854 by the French artist Léonard François Berger

Niépce died in 1833 and his son Isidore took over his part in the contract. But further developments were conducted by Daguerre and, as we know, his name alone would be the one laureate with glory for discovering photography. The process that ended up bearing his name, instead of Niépce-Daguerre as it was the initial agreement, has ever since quite often been referred a case of usurpation. Isidore, Nicéphore’s son, wrote  “Post tenebras lux. Historique de la découverte improprement nommée Daguerréotype” (p47)  in which, among many other considerations, he brings a specific clause in his father’s contract “in the case of death of one of the associates, the mentioned discovery shall never be announced without bearing the two names designated in the first article”. That is quite clear and strong but, Daguerre had also his arguments. The fact is that his technique using silver plates sensitized by iodine and having a latent image developed by mercury was something really different from what Niépce had arrived. It is also true that Daguerre insisted that Niépce should try iodine and the latter wrote him back saying that he had completely given up about it. In a letter from nov/8th/1831 to Daguerre, Niépce says: “I have made a great number of experiments with iodine in combination with silvered plates, without at any time obtaining the results which the deoxidation medium would have lead me to expect. Notwithstanding all changes to which I subjected the procedure and all various combinations of different methods of tests, my success was no more fortunate. […] After some other trials I remained at this point, and I must confess that I am exceedingly sorry to have pursued for so long a time a wrong direction, and what is worse, without any profit…” (Eder p.225)

So Daguerre persevered in a path that Niépce had abandoned. Later he considered that discovery only his and so he managed to convince Isidore to sign an addendum to the provisory contract from 1829 changing the association name, setting his as the first one. That was in 1835. Later, in January 1837, Daguerre, more assertive, pressed Isidore to sign a definitive contract preparing the announcement and commercial strategy to finally exploit their findings. Daguerre’s proposition was a split: to name what Niépce had done, the Heliography after Niépce’s and the new procedure would be called Daguerreotype. Isidore himself explains the way Daguerre played the situation and why he yielded: “Irritated by my constant refusal, he declared that if I did not consent to his request, he would retain his technique only for himself [Isidore had seen Daguerreotypes and was, as anyone would be, very impressed]. And that we should then publish only the process of M. Niepce, and later he would publish his own; That it would prevent me in taking even the slightest advantage out of the discovery of my father. In vain I observed that such an action was contrary to the rights stipulated in the act of association; He replied that his procedure had nothing in common with that of my father, and that he was free to keep it!”. (Isidore Niépce)

So Isidore signed and they started a commercial launch through a system of prepaid subscriptions. It was a complete failure. Success came only in 1839 when helped by the enthusiasm of Dominique François Jean Arago (1786-1853), scientist and active member in the French Academy of Sciences, the French government acquired the rights to Daguerreotype, Heliography and yet the Diorama. All the processes were made public, free for anyone to use and the Daguerrotype became a big hit. Isidore and Daguerre were contemplated with a lifetime pension.

“Photographie – New method used to obtain graceful poses” – Museum Nicéphore Niépce

Why photography?

The value of going into such details, reading personal letters, business letters, press, scientific papers, contracts and so on, is not on the novelistic aspects in which that story evolved, as it surely did, it is not about discovering who was the very pioneer in photography. What is intriguing is the fact that so many pioneers worked secretly, simultaneously, on the same subject in places as far apart as Brasil and France. Photography is not like weaponry for which unfortunately mankind has been ever keen of perfecting it more and more. In fact, seems like there was no need for photography until the XIX century and then, all of a sudden, it became a must. A frenzy was installed about who would be the very first to discover a proper way to render images from the camera obscura on a permanent media. It is a popular saying, about problem solving, that the trick is not on finding the right answers but rather on positing the right questions. Photography is an outlier of that rule, for everybody was very well aware on what they were looking for and a tremendous effort was deployed to find it.

Was the 19th century badly served in terms of images? Were there gaps in image offer to be fulfilled? That is questionable in many grounds. Today we have almost forgotten how to draw and drawing itself, for the sake of representing something, occupies a distant second place behind photography. Even contemporary visual artists often are not able to draw. But in the 18th or 19th centuries, drawing was a common thing. Wealthy people learnt the basics and used it for taking visual notes like we take snapshots with our mobiles. The same goes for music, playing musical instruments was as common as singing in the shower today. Those were talents that used to be part of a good education and an evidences of refinement.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres – portrait of Etienne Gonin

All images were handmade. That demanded thousands of painters, draughtsmen, engravers, miniaturists and a whole industry, including educational system, to support them. At the time photography was created, being an artist, was a regular profession mostly embraced by mid to low income youngsters. The path and its milestones were very clear. In the case of France, it started by being admitted to a public or private atelier as a student, and/or École de Beaux Arts – composed also by ateliers directed by confirmed artists. Those coming from the county side normally passed by drawing courses in municipal schools, offered free of charge very early in the morning or evening courses. Most of the artists had a second job to provide them a regular and reliable income that they could not afford as artists. At the highest level one would become a painter of history and receive official comissions for large canvases. That would certainly create opportunities to sell portraits to aristocrats and high bourgeoisie. Anne Martin-Fugier, in her book La vie d’artiste au XIXe siècle, gives an account of what success meant: “A confirmed portraitist could make a lot of money. Around 1845, a portrait painted by an artist of good reputation (Alexis-Joseph Pégignon, Henri Scheffer ou Sébastien Cornu) was 1500 francs and a portrait painted by a star like Horace Vernet or Court worth 3000 francs , that means more than the annual revenues of a petite-bourgeoise family.” At the same time, Martin-Fugier comments also that Ingres’ wife, reported once that during their stay in Florence, Ingres (he was about thirty years old) draw a series of crayons to the Gonin family at the price of 25 francs each. Another interesting data is that after the 1845 Salon, out of 2079 artworks among paintings, drawings and miniatures, that were on show, 700 portraits left as private acquisitions, 250 bought by state being 150 to Versailles. The left overs were either returned to artists or sold by 10 to 12 Francs each and exported to Russia, Germany, England and United States.

Miniature – William Grimaldi – 1793

Price and offer were not a barrier for those who wanted to own images for decoration or imortalize their figures. There were prices and artists for all budgets. Out of thousands of students aiming the coveted Prix de Rome, which was for a long while the entry ticket for a successful career, just a few actually entered that selected group. Among the vast majority, of those who failed in becoming a famous painter of history, many were talented to paint or draw portraits and settle themselves in this business. There was even a category of portraits called “miniatures” that was formerly reserved to aristocracy and high bourgeoisie, and after the French revolution,  artists having lost a significant part of their clientele, managed to offer better prices and the miniatures made their way into a lower social stratum. Those are small paintings, normally watercolor and gouache over ivory, sized around 5 x 7 cm, preserved in metal frames or in folded little boxes. The daguerreotypes put an end on miniatures. In regards to their use, both address the same need of keeping a unique self or beloved person’s image. The sizes, posing, framing and coloring of daguerreotypes, besides the difficulties in producing large plates, certainly stem from miniatures.

Honoré Daumier – lithograph from 1872

If we consider now printing techniques, aimed for large quantities, we have several options introduced mainly from the end of middle ages onwards. Woodcut (~1400), Engraving (~1430), Etching (~1530), Acquatint (1650), Mezzotint (~1670), Litography (1796) (these dates were collected from Met Museum website). The subjects were mostly important figures of their time, historical events, genre or still-life, often carrying a moral statement, and thousands of copies of  artworks. Engravings were extremely important as a diffusion media for artworks and were also a way one could possess a reference of a master for a low price. Mezzotints were suitable and very popular for oil painting’s copies. As we enter the XIX century, we see the booming press industry of newspapers, magazines and other periodicals, that started paving new ground and setting up what a mass media image would be in all its variants, like caricature and humor, one of the favourite categories. With techniques that could yield thousands of prints out  of the same matrix (lithography , for instance) printed images became ubiquitous.

If we consider now photography only from the point of view of its qualities and draw backs, it might look strange the notorious place it almost instantly grabbed for itself. It should rather be just one more among others due to its limitations in sizes, lack of reproducibility of daguerreotypes, or very small series in negative/positive processes, no colors and a rather complex and expensive procedure compared to drawing and painting. On the qualities side we can provisory count that it was very detailed and quick to produce. We will come back to that in a while. But the success was tremendous, for instance, in the preface of Traité de Photographie, fourth edition, from June 1843, Lerebours (manufacturer of lenses, daguerreotype apparatus and himself a great photographer) says that all the 1800 units from previous edition were sold out in only two months.

Theodore Maurisset – lithograph Daguerreotypomanie – click to access it in full size

The daguerreotypomanie became the talk of the town, in every town, and although only the basic equipment costed around 400 francs in France, many photo studios were opened overnight and a movement of itinerant photographers started to spread to every corner of  Europe and also United States. We read in the August/25th/1853 Le Nouveliste, a Parisian newspaper, a journalist, visibly irritated, talks about the new technique boom: “The exploitation of the daguerreotype requiring no intelligence, no spirit, no art, no studies, no work, no investment, Paris is invaded by  daguerreotype painters. We count them by the hundreds. The daguerreotype ended the miniature tradition, and more than one talented miniaturist was forced to break his palette to practice the daguerreotype, it became a fuss. Now that everyone can have his resemblance for five, three and even two francs, the oil portrait has fallen into oblivion”.

Far from the big cities the daguerreotype had to face a clientele not so enthusiastic or prone to see the intangible values over which a new fashion normally builds up. It is interesting the testemonial of John Werge, himself a daguerreotypist, about the arrival of a itinerant photographer to his town when he was a teenager: “Some time after that [the first time he saw a real daguerreitype in the Post Office window] , a Miss Wigley, from London, came to the town to practise Daguerreotyping, but she did not remain long, and could not, I think, have made a profitable visit. If so, it could scarcely be wondered at, for the sun pictures of that period were such thin, shimmering reflections, and distortions of the human face divine, that very few people were impressed either by the process or the newest wonder of the world. At that early period of photography, the plates were so insensitive, the sittings so long, and the conditions so terrible, it was not easy to induce anyone either to undergo the ordeal of sitting, or to pay the sum of twenty-one shillings for a very small and unsatisfactory portrait. In the infancy of the Daguerreotype process, the sitters were all placed out of doors, in direct sunshine, which naturally made them screw up or shut their eyes, and every feature glistened, and was painfully revealed.”. (The evolution of photography – 1890 – John Werge p31)

It is worthwhile to ask ourselves why daguerreotypes gained such popularity even before some very much wanted improvements were implemented, being higher light sensibility the most important one. The explanation always in stock is that it provided a faithful image, really resembling the sitter or subject like no other. That is possibly true. At the same time, likeness is not always a good strategy in portraiture. “The most terrible enemy that the Daguerreotype has had to contend with is undoubtedly human vanity. When one is painted by the ordinary means, the compliant hand of an artist knows how to soften the somewhat harsh features of the physiognomy, to supplant the stiffness attitude and give to the whole grace and dignity. It is not so with the photographic artist; unable in correcting the imperfections of nature, his portraits have, unfortunately, the fault of being too resembling; they are, in a sense, permanent mirrors in which self-love does not always find its share”. Quoted by J.Thierry in Daguerreotypie from 1847 (p.137).

Even if we concede that likeness was the pilar of daguerreotype’s  huge success, or photography’s success as a whole, we must be careful. Likeness is a very tricky concept. I agree with those who advocate that photography championed likeness, as long as we take likeness as something contaminated by subjectivism, cultural environment and conventions. Then we can say yes, although likeness is not something objective, definable, but rather questionable, it is probably true that people in the XIX century considered daguerreotypes true to life representations, something more than a realist painter, like Courbet, or a classicist, like Ingres, could ever achieve in that direction. The long discussion, of which the conflict between classicism and realism is just one among many other instances, around what is meant by “real” – is the imanent more real then the transcendent? That is a topic not so easy to disentangle. Once we agree on that, the consequent next question is: why did they believe photography championed likeness in ways that no other media could possibly do? I propose that this is the right question to be investigated.

But before we tackle that crucial point, it might be a valuable exercise to remember how reality, that we can assume as being one, always had multiple renderings, all of them true to life to its contemporary viewers. Every culture that set itself in the quest for realism reached it to its complete satisfaction. Giotto di Bondone (1266/7 – 1337), painter of the frescoes in Arena Chapel in Padua, had his saints and other figures considered by his contemporaries as realists as realism can be.

Even looking back to the 178 years of official photography history, we know that daguerreotypes were considered a faithful image, exactly like a sitter or landscape it represented, and we can hardly share the same opinion today. When color film became a massive product, our ancestors  got used to a specific way of rendering reality that looked true to life for them. Like the picture above, from a Kodak advertising in the U.S.Camera from 1951, which for us is absolutely dated and in  need of improvements in regards to likeness. Maybe about the picture below, contemporary advertising from Canon, we can say, yes, now we finally got it! That is absolutely like reality.

This problem of understanding what can we mean by a faithful representation involves in part psychology of perception and in part philosophy of language. It is the central question in  the classic Art and Illusion, from Ernst Gombrich. The key takeaway from his studies is that likeness is something that, within very flexible boundaries, we do not recognize only with our eyes, first we learn it and then we recognize it with our minds.

People looking to the first photographs were not checking the faithfulness of images against their actual visual impression. They were learning how a faithful image should look like. Whatever result a photograph would bring, no matter how coarse, how dull, how compressed in tonal range, how far from the colorful real world, they would call it a true to life representation of reality. Photography, a conception from XIX century, was born to be, by definition, a faithful representation of the world around us.

Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, circa 1525 – draughtsman using a net to render a more accurate visual impression

One aspect to which several historians have called attention in the development of photography is about de delay between the discovery of its basic principles and its actual invention as a whole image making procedure.  It is worth a long citation of John Werge in his “The evolution of Photography” published in 1890: “More than three hundred years have elapsed since the influence and actinism of light on chloride of silver was observed by the alchemists of the sixteenth century [1556 according to Robertu Hunt,p5]. This discovery was unquestionably the first thing that suggested to the minds of succeeding chemists and men of science the possibility of obtaining pictures of solid bodies on a plane surface previously coated with a silver salt by means of the sun’s rays ; but the alchemists were too much absorbed in their vain endeavours to convert the base metals into royal ones to seize the hint, and they lost the opportunity of turning the silver compounds with which they were acquainted into the mine of wealth it eventually became in the nineteenth century. Curiously enough, a mechanical invention of the same period was afterwards employed, with a very trifling modification, for the production of the earliest sun-pictures. This was the camera obscura invented by Roger Bacon in 1297, and improved by a physician in Padua, Giovanni Baptista Porta, about 1500, and afterwards remodelled by Sir Isaac Newton.” Indeed, the photo-chemical transformation of silver chloride and the camera obscura were known since the 16th century. Apparently to no one occurred to combine both and create photography almost 300 years before Niépce and his contemporaries.

The point is that, even to scientific insights, it takes more than scientific knowledge to materialize them into meaningful discoveries and new habits. The birth of photography depended on lenses and chemicals but it also depended upon a new attitude towards nature that would only be formed when Enlightenment would become the flagship of western culture. To treat nature, no longer as the work of God, no longer as something mysterious, as a tangible manifestation of his almighty power and wisdom, closed to any blasphemous inspection, but instead, as something just material, just extant, governed by laws knowledgeable to mankind, was a long and painful process started somewhere in the middle ages and that might never be completely accomplished. Or rather, it is a constant debate, in which the 19th and 20th centuries were perhaps the most disenchanted period in human history.

The metaphors writers used to celebrate the arrival of photography, like any good metaphor, should not be taken as literal truths, but not as pure nonsense either.  They were clearly celebrating a victory: “Wedgwood went to work avowedly to make the sunbeam his slave, to enlist the sun into the service of art, and to compel the sun to illustrate art, and to depict nature more faithfully than art had ever imitated anything illumined by the sun before” John Werge. Not to be forgotten that light has a heavy heritage as a symbol of divine presence and manifestation – Pentatheuck: “And God said, let there be Light, and there was Light”. In opposition darkness correlates to all evils. In 1862, Arthur Chevalier recollects about the life and works of his father Charles Chevalier, and writes how Charles talked about Daguerre’s frustration: “That after he had obtained the image, he was not able to fix it, and then, while he was contemplating his captive, she went disappearing, ascending to the source from which she emanated.” The science brought up by Modernity, was all about domination over nature, about explaining all its secrets and making it work for human glory. The conception of nature for the Enlightenment philosophers was that the Universe would be like a big machine moving alone and solely governed by its own laws. A marvelous machine, but not one to be worshiped, but rather to be explored.

In his important and elucidative speech before the Science Academy in Paris, François Arago inscribes photography among scientific discoveries aimed to inspect the secrets of nature. He ranked Daguerre’s discovery together with the telescope and microscope. About the latter he makes a very iconoclast statement: “The microscope has subsequently unveiled in the air, in water, in all the fluids, these animalcules, infusoria, and strange reproductions, in which it is hoped one day to find the first germs of a rational explanation of the phenomena of life”. He was an atheist and had also many works on light. Of course, he supported the wave theory, the most materialistic approach, and made important contributions to the understanding of light polarization and determination of light speed.

The idea that by discovering nature’s laws and using this knowledge to understand our own role as human beings, was a cornerstone of Modernity edifice. In nature, there would be the logic and foundations to regulate even social life and that was the key in getting rid of spiritual and political tutelage, both supported by traditional thinking all based on the authorities of church and nobility, rather than facts and observation. Photography could be, and it was, presented as freeing images from the authoritative intermediation of an artist. Objects would draw themselves the same way people would drive and decide about their lives. In the basis for the preliminary agreement between Niépce and Daguerre, we find the seminal way to define photography : “M. Niepce, in his endeavor to fix the images which nature offers, without assistance of a draughtsman, has made investigations, the results of which are presented by numerous proofs which will substantiate the invention. This invention consists in the automatic reproduction of the image received by the camera obscura” (Fouque p.162). The automatism, the surface that presented an image without having in any step of the process being touched by no one, that was the wonder of photography.

Richad Buckley Litchfield was Thomas Wedgwood’s  biographer. In the following passage he does not hide his disappointment about the lack of perspicacity of Humphrey Davy, competent chemist and Wedgwood’s collaborator in his experiences with silvered paper, for not realizing the importance photography could have. He uses exactly this “hands free” feature of the new process to highlight its most important quality: “Up to that moment every picture produced by man had been made by the human hand, guided by the human eye. – But here was a picture, or a sort of picture, a representation of an object, which had come into existence by the spontaneous action of natural forces, by a chemical change produced by the action of light”. What Wedgwood and Davy did not realize is how tuned this feature was with the way liberal thinking was taking over in Western Culture.

Henry Fox Talbot was an Englishman who developed at the same time as Daguerre a substantially different process using paper and a negative/positive approach. He partially presented his discovery to the Royal Society in London on the 31st January 1839. He did not disclosure all the details because he intended to get a patent for that as he actually did. Again, the way he presented  his invention, the way he put it in one single title, underlines the real strength of the new photographic process.  It was published in the Literary Gazette (London) No. 1153 (23 February 1839). Below is the header (from the excellent online source Midley History of early Photography)

“… objects made to delineate themselves without the aid of the Artist’s pencil”, that is the most important quality of photography, more than its actual capability of rendering faithfully a visual impression. Later, after some important improvements in his Calotype, Talbot published a collection of photographs that he called “Pencil of Nature”. That is also what Robert Hunt underlined in his 1844 book,  Researches on light in its chemical relations, in which  he said: “Europe and the New World were alike astonished at the fact, that Light could be made to delineate on solid bodies, delicate beautiful pictures, geometrically true, of those objects which it illuminated”.

Camille Corot while painting d’après nature

There are many parallels to photography in other fields of culture also driven by changing attitudes towards nature. Even painting underwent a major transformation and would never be the same again. The tangible world that seemed formerly completely devoid of interest for middle age artists, entered the roll of themes through portraits, genre scenes with anecdotal notes, landscapes and still life, the Vanitas from 16th and 17th centuries. Of course the biblical or mythological scenes, together with historical events kept their status in a more serious and respected rank of art. But in the 19th century, at the same time that Niépce was experimenting all sort of materials “trying to make  in his endeavor to fix the images which nature offers”, painters later known as École de Barbizon, among them Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Charles-François Daubigny, Jean-François Millet et Théodore Rousseau, were trying to fix the images which nature offers in their own way. Before that, landscape paintings were done based on earlier landscape paintings and worked very well as such. But that started to be questioned, for instance, by the English painter John Constable (1776-1837) who questioned why all landscape’s foreground should be in brownish colors, why not just look the real colors nature offers and paint them as they are?

So, before any photographer would set his camera and tripod for a Photogenic Drawing, painters were setting up their easels and canvases to paint d’après nature. Photographers wanted to get rid of artist’s interpretation, artists wanted to get rid of old academic formulas. Everybody wanted to get rid of any authoritative constrains and nature was the answer they envisaged to replace traditional sources of guidance and knowledge. That was the project of Enlightenment and photography was an important axis on its deployment.

 

And the visit continues

This text started as a museum review and still is. So let us say that the Chambre de la Découverte was so inspiring, that it triggered many readings and thinking, and that was the reason for such a long digression about the invention of photography and its connections to modernity.

As we proceed to the following rooms we have hints of the quick changes that happened right after the discovery, during the first decades of photography. Many pictures in new or modified techniques and we can perceive sitters attitude changing as they could be more relaxed with shorter exposure times. It was a whole new imagery and new ways of recording individual and collective memories.

A complet gear for Daguerreotype making. Above the iodine sensitizing box and on the right the big wood box is for mercury.

Difficult to gauge what was the sensation caused by the photographic gear. Would that look high tech in the same sense high tech has today to ourselves? The wood, brass and glassware was very much like scientific instruments, but so was the alchemists apparatus too. Difficult to guess how much of a circus atraction or esoteric atmophere a daguerreotype setting would look to the public that cluttered around the first demonstrations.

The day I visited there was a Yan Pei-Ming solo show called “d’après photo” (after photo). One of his paintings, made after a famous picture from Eddie Adams, is certainly ranked among the most iconic images of Vietnam war. It was sharing the room with vintage images and equipment. It was there prompting visitors to think what is the status of photography today. Was there any major change? Would photography still today represent a direct access to reality? Why would an artist paint an image that already exists as a photograph? Why paint a war document?

If we admit the idea that photography was so contaminated by ideals and the world vision brought by Enlightenment, it may be time to ask what is the future of photographic images in our society. The question makes sense because Enlightenment, for all its broken promises, is undergoing revision and criticism and formerly considered obscure ways of thinking have found new breaths of life. The so much advertised unbiased representation of reality, key feature of photographic image, will stop being one of its major strengths as people will no longer care very much for a scientific view of anything. Pictures will be overly retouched, subject to all sort of manual interventions. The pristine surface, the transparent media, for which photographers so much cared about, will yield to stains, drying marks, irregular emulsion marks, uneven development marks, filters will deliberately add noise, crude sharpening and tonal range distortions will be a hallmark of digital images. Extremely long exposures will eliminate again all that moves. Shifts and tilts will obscure size impression. Lenses that add blur, lenses used beyond the field they were designed for and exhibit all sort of aberrations will be seen as very fit. People will start to appreciate and procure what previously was considered failures in the process. Also the permanence of images, a major concern for photographers in former times, will  no longer be a problem. The lapse you see a picture is the only moment that counts and if you don’t see it again you just move to the next one. Photographers will play with processes in which images fade away by themselves, like Anthotypes, or will let them sink in timelines of social networks to be forever forgotten. We will trade  without blinking real persons for avatars and computer made props and scenery. Those are all symptoms that after a hundred and fifty years or so our image driven culture moves to new territories.

 

***

I visited  many museums related to photography, but the Musée Nicéphore Niépce in Shalon sur Saône is the one that by far I liked the most. It is like an open discourse, exactly what I think a museum has to be. Not a singleminded view edited by a curator, nor a collection of antique inventory indifferently amassed throughout the years. I vividly recommend to anyone a visit.

Exhibition room featuring other paintings by Yan Pei-Ming

 

Bookstore – has a very good DVD by Michel Frizot about Nicéphore Niépce.

 

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