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Niépce, Joseph Nicéphore

plate bitumen image silver

[nyeps] (1765–1833) French inventor of photography.

Although several individuals made major contributions to black-and-white photography as we now know it, Niépce has the best claim to be regarded as the first photographer. From 1792 he attempted with his brother Claude to record the image formed in a camera obscura by chemical means, assisted by Joseph’s son Isidore. By 1816 he had some success, using a paper sensitized by impregnation with silver chloride and an exposure time of about an hour. The resulting image showed light and shade reversed and had to be viewed by candlelight to avoid further darkening. Even so, this result was an advance on and was some years ahead of comparable results . By the 1820s Niépce turned from silver salts to the oddly named bitumen of Judaea as his light-sensitive material. A coating of this on a glass or metal plate is hardened and made insoluble by light, and he used this to obtain photocopies by superposing an engraving, made transparent by oiling, on a glass plate coated with the bitumen.

The first photograph in the modern sense was probably made by Niépce in 1826 or 1827, using a bitumen-coated pewter plate in a camera obscura, and showed the view from his workroom window. The image was fixed by dissolving away the unhardened bitumen in lavender oil. Niépce met Daguerre in 1826 and in 1829 a partnership with him to exploit ‘heliography’ was agreed and a contract signed. Niépce’s cameras are the earliest known and include a focusing tube and iris diaphragm for the lens, and bellows to adjust the length. Hoping to convert his result into a printing-plate, Niépce began in 1829 to use a silvered copper plate as base and blackened this with iodine vapour to improve its contrast. In this way, rather indirectly, he was led to a satisfactory photosensitive surface of silver iodide, which his partner Daguerre later found by chance in 1835 could be developed with mercury vapour and in 1837 fixed with a solution of common salt: this gave the ‘daguerrotypes’ which soon became famous. But Niépce had died in 1833 before this success, and his efforts in 1827 and later to interest King George IV and the Royal Society in his ideas had failed, largely because he kept his methods secret. It was left to Daguerre, combining his improvements in method with his skill as a publicist, to first achieve real renown, and to Talbot and his friend to devise a widely useable system.

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