pre photography in 1826

backyard at the home of Nicéphore Niépce at Le Gras, France c 1826

Toronto. We take photography for granted today. A smartphone, or a digital camera and a computer is all you need to see and share your photos. Your printer can even make hard copies if you wish. But this was not always the case. Most of us used film and chemistry to take and print photos up until this current century began.

In 1826, a Frenchman took was has been considered the very first “photo” before the name “photography” was even coined. The Frenchman, Nicéphore Niépce, was an inventor determined to improve on the lithography process. He wanted a means to capture a scene by sunlight and circumvent any need for manual effort to draw the scene before it was ready for printing via lithography.

The famous view from his back window took eight hours to capture on a pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea (asphalt) and developed in an oil that washed off any asphalt not hardened by sunlight creating a rather fuzzy image. He sent the plate to a relative in England the following year. He joined forces with another Frenchman, Louis Daguerre. Sadly, Niépce died in 1833, six years before the world was electrified with the new process called Daguerreotypy. The world little realized just  how disruptive the new art of photography would become!

And the 1826 plate? It disappeared in 1898 only to surface a half century later in 1951 when a trunk was opened before the contents were auctioned. The trunk had been in storage since 1917!

My thanks to George Dunbar who found the story in an old issue of LIFE dated April 21, 1952 on page 18.

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