THE FIRST PHOTOGRAPH
On a summer day in 1827, Joseph Nicephore Niepce developed the first photographic
image with a camera obscura. Prior to Niepce, people just used the camera obscura for
viewing or drawing purposes, not for making photographs. By letting light draw the
picture, Niepce’s heliographs, or sun prints as they were called, were the prototype for
the modern photograph.
Niepce placed an engraving onto a metal plate coated in bitumen and then exposed it to
light. The shadowy areas of the engraving blocked light, but the whiter areas permitted
light to react with the chemicals on the plate. When Niepce placed the metal plate in a
solvent, gradually an image, until then invisible, appeared.
However, Niepce’s photograph required eight hours of light exposure to create and
would soon fade away.
Fellow Frenchman, Louis Daguerre was also experimenting with ways to capture an
image, but it would take him another dozen years before Daguerre was able to reduce
exposure time to less than 30 minutes and keep the image from disappearing afterwards.
Daguerre was the inventor of the first practical process of photography. In 1829, he
formed a partnership with Niepce to improve the process Niepce had developed. In 1839,
following several years of experimentation and Niepce’s death, Daguerre developed a
more convenient and effective method of photography and named it after himself.
Daguerre’s daguerreotype process started by fixing the images onto a sheet of silver-
plated copper. He then polished the silver and coated it in iodine, creating a surface that
was sensitive to light. Then, he put the plate in a camera and exposed it for a few
minutes. After the image was painted by light, Daguerre bathed the plate in a solution of
silver chloride. This process created a lasting image that would not change if exposed to
In 1839, Daguerre and Niepce’s son sold the rights for the daguerreotype to the French
government and published a booklet describing the process. The daguerreotype gained
popularity quickly and by 1850, there were over seventy daguerreotype studios in New
York City alone.