A Brill Calendar: March 7
Niépce and the Dawn of Photography
Few artefacts spawned as many discoveries as the typographical book.
The road from Gutenberg to solid-state lap-top displays may be indeterminable and wildly winding, but that path didn’t encounter unassailable chasms. Realized improvements and extensions of its potential always became embryonic for new perspectives.
Along this track, production of the first permanent photographic image is a milestone. That landmark was erected by the inquisitive mind of Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce (March 7, 1765 – July 5, 1833; both in Châlon-sur-Saône, France). In the grand sequence of Typographia’s progeny, Niépce’s wizardry is the first-born child of lithography; as soon as that technology became generally available after many years; and trendy to boot.
Toying with his ideas, Niépce couldn’t lay his hands on the right Bavarian limestone, needed for Senefelder’s accidental discovery. Unable to draw convincingly from life – being no artist at all – he sought, and found, assistance in the venerable ‘camera obscura’, then surviving as a public attraction on country fairs and, since the 16th century, also as an ingenious optical aid for drawing pictures; with some of Johannes Vermeer’s remaining pictures as superior examples of the method.
Niépce’s fascination didn’t only result in rendering nature by light, but also in the first photomechanical reproduction. It is seldom that a quaint physical property – the effect of light through a pin-hole in a darkened room, already observed in ancient China – generated such a gamut of application; from ‘photography’ (Niépce called his work still ‘heliography’) via moving pictures by the Lumière brothers and television to the digital images lurking in a world-wide-web.
Niépce is less famous than Daguerre, because he couldn’t shorten exposure times lasting seemingly forever. The idea that the pace of life continues to accelerate may originate in the dawn of photography during the second third part of the 19th century.