Roger Cicala: Imaging before photography, Part II – The Aristocrat: Digital Photography Review

OK, I lied a bit. I said the second chapter would be more fun than the first, but it’s not more fun. It’s kind of sad, actually. This one focuses (yes, pun intended) on Joseph Nicephore Niepce. You may know him as the man who took the first photograph. But back in his day people knew him as . . . . . actually they didn’t know of him at all, really.

After Wedgwood’s efforts around 1800, there was a gap where people weren’t working on making images. There was too much other stuff going on. Most of the world was at war for the first 20 years of the new century. The U. S. fought Britain and the Barbary States, while writing the script for Hamilton, the Musical, and buying Louisiana. The British fought the Spanish and then the French, the Russians fought the Persians and then the Turks, and Napoleon fought basically everyone in Europe at least twice. Most Caribbean, Central, and South American colonies revolted. The Holy Roman Empire was dissolved, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire formed. Also, the steamboat, electric battery, gaslights and locomotives were invented. Beethoven wrote some symphonies, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and trumpets got valves.

Locomotion No. 1 On display for many years at Darlington Bank Top station. Image by Gillett’s Crossing circa 2012 placed in public domain.

You didn’t know that about trumpets, did you? Heinrich Stölzel did that about 1815, although better trumpet valves got invented soon after. Anyway, there was a lot going on and none of it involved making photographs. But around 1820, interest in making images resurfaced because of a couple of Frenchmen. Today I’ll tell the rather sad story of the first of them.

Sure, you’ve heard of Niepce

I’ll bet, though, that you don’t know a lot about him. Joseph Nicephore Niepce was an interesting guy, the younger son of a wealthy French lawyer who was educated to become a Priest (which younger sons tended to become in those days). Then the French revolution came along and changed his plans. His family fled France. He joined the French Army, served in Italy for several years, and received a medical discharge. In 1795, he was made administrator of the district of Nice, but resigned (or was forced to resign, depending on who you believe) around 1800.

Niepce retired to the family estate, Le Gras, near Chalon-sur-Saone, got married, and became a gentleman farmer.

Le Gras, the home of Nicephore Niepce, still stands in 2014. Image by Arnaud 25, creative commons license.

He and his older brother Claude were tinkerers and inventors. In 1807 they received a French patent for the Pyreolophore* (read the footnote, this thing was seriously cool), arguably the first internal combustion engine. By the time they had improved the pyreolophore enough to be practical, though, their French patent had expired. In 1816 Claude left for Paris and then London, attempting to get financial backing and a British patent for their invention.

Patent drawings for the pyreolophore. Images in the public domain,

But what about making images?

Somewhat before that time, Nicephore had grown bored with the pryreolophore and became fascinated by lithography; printing from images etched onto flat metal or stone plates. Since he had no artistic talent at all, his son, Isidore, made lithographic plates for him. When Isidore was called for military service, Nicephore became determined to create images himself using sunlight.

Like Wedgwood and Davy, he first attempted to make contact prints. He started by making wax impressions of etchings, placing paper saturated with silver salts on them, and exposing them to sunlight. This did produce images, but they quickly faded. He found he could use nitric acid to fix the images somewhat. By 1818 he wrote of an image remaining fixed for 3 months, but the images were still blurry and still eventually faded.

From his pyreolophore work Niepce was familiar with oils and tars. He had noticed that Bitumen of Judea was easily dissolved in solvents, but hardened and no longer dissolved after being exposed to bright sunlight, so he tried using bitumen instead of the silver salts. The bitumen hardened where exposed, but remained liquid and could be washed off from unexposed areas, giving a permanent image.

What is this Bitumen of Judea of Which You Speak?

Bitumen is the thickest form of petroleum, what we usually call tar or asphalt. Bitumen of Judea is a specific variety of tar found in large deposits around the Dead Sea area. It was used by the Egyptians to preserve mummies, by the Romans to caulk their trade ships, as an adhesive and mortar, and for waterproofing. It was considered valuable enough that Cleopatra manipulated Marc Antony to force Herod the Great to cede the bitumen of Judea rights (along with some other stuff) to Egypt. Today, you can find it in art and craft stores; mixed with varnish or thinner it gives an aged-looking patina to wood and some metals. If you bought some fake ancient artifacts on eBay or in a souvenir shop, chances are good you already have some Bitumen of Judea.)

From 1817 to 1825 Niepce experimented with coating plates of copper, pewter, paper, limestone, or glass with Bitumen of Judea dissolved in Oil of Lavender. Most of his effort went into making contact prints of etchings. After exposure (which took hours or days) he washed the plates with turpentine, removing the unexposed bitumen and creating a permanent negative image. He then etched the negative plates with acid and used them as lithography plates in a printing press.

He called the process Heliography (literally ‘writing with sunlight’) and was able to make some pretty good images in this fashion. The technique was essentially the same as modern photoengraving (photogravure), but Niepce was never able to market it successfully.

Heliograph reproduction of a 17th century engraving. Joseph Nicophore Neipce, 1825. Image is in the public domain.

By 1826, he’d used Heliography to make some lithographic plates sufficiently detailed to make decent paper prints. The best is probably the “Image of Cardinal d’Amboise” shown below. He may (or may not, it’s arguable; everything is arguable) have cheated a bit with this image, ‘improving’ the photo-etching by hand engraving for further emphasis. The image that most people have seen of this heliograph (top), is quite different from the actual image he made, which still exists today (bottom).

Le Cardinal d’Amboise, 1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. This is the image commonly shown. (Image is in the public domain.)

Le Cardinal d’Amboise, 1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce The Royal Photographic Society Collection.

Niepce wasn’t just making contact prints, however. He replaced the ground glass viewing screen of his camera obscura with bitumen coated plates. By 1824, he had made an image using a camera obscura on a limestone plate (limestone was often used for lithography), but the exposure time was ‘5 days of good sunlight’.

“View from the Window at Le Gras” Nicophore Niepce 1827. Original plate on the right (Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin); Helmut Gernsheim’s ‘retouched version’ circa 1952, on the left. Both images from the public domain.

By 1827, he had created the better known “View from the Window at Le Gras” made with Bitumen of Judea coating a pewter plate. The image is commonly said to have taken at least 8 hours of exposure, largely because the sun exposes the entire image from left to right. At least some researchers now believe that, like his earlier images, the exposure time may have been several days.

Another Aside

Helmut Gernsheim was a German / English photographer and art historian who assembled the world’s most important collections of early photographs and literature; another person who’s life would make a good book. Niepce gave The Window at Le Gras to English illustrator Francis Buaer, along with other heliographs and his notes. Bauer died in 1840 and the images were sold from his estate, occasionally shown as curiosities, and disappeared entirely around 1905. Helmut Gernsheim found the original ‘View from the Window at Le Gras’ plate and purchased it in 1952.

He had copies made at the Kodak Research Laboratory, then heavily retouched one of those copies by hand. Only that copy was exhibited or published for many years. In the 1960s, when Gernsheim donated the original plate, it was found that the original had been damaged (note the 3 dimples in the image above). For whatever reasons, Gernsheim apparently didn’t want anyone to know about the damage, which occurred during his possession.

Another image, of a set table, was made using a glass plate, which created a negative. The plate no longer exists, but a halftone print of the image still does. The date is not known (speculated to be around 1830), but the improved quality of the image shows Niepce had refined his techniques significantly. From his notes and other information, though, it is known the exposures still took hours in good sunlight.

Still Life with Bottles.Joseph Nicephore Niepce. Lithograph print from Heliograph. Image is in the public domain.

Niepce had other things going on, too…

In 1826, Niepce received some bizarre correspondence from (and about) his brother Claude. Among other things, Claude claimed he had invented a perpetual motion machine and requested more money for its development; but Claude already had control of the Niepce bank accounts. Niepce travelled to London in 1827 where he found Claude had squandered the family fortune, had become insane (it’s unclear which event preceded which) and was physically quite unwell.

While in England, Niepce called on Francis Bauer, a well-known illustrator, and showed him his heliographs hoping he would arrange a presentation to the Royal Society, and perhaps obtain funding for Niepce’s work. The presentation never happened, partly because Niepce was hesitant to reveal his methods, but mostly because the Royal Society was in some disarray. Humphrey Davy (who had worked with Wedgwood, and would certainly have been interested) was the President of the Royal Society, but was both physically ill and unpopular. There was ugly infighting at the Society, Davy was forced to resign, and the Society was basically not functioning during Niepce’s time in London.

Nicéphore Niépce, attributed to Léonard Berger.

Niepce was basically crushed by this visit; his brother died, he discovered he was broke, there was no apparent interest in the imaging processes he’d spent a decade working on, nor in the inventions his brother had obtained English patents for. He returned to France, actually leaving most of his heliographs behind. This is fortunate for us, since Bauer kept them carefully stored, and these are the majority of Niepce’s images that survive today.

Niepce returned to France, and perhaps because of his difficulties, he met with Louis Daguerre. The two had been introduced by Charles Chevalier, a Paris lensmaker who both used. Niepce had declined several invitations by Daguerre to discuss their mutual interest in creating images, but had met with him on his way to England. On his return from England he met with Daguerre several more times and in 1829 the two entered into a partnership to share techniques and develop (see what I did there?) photography together.

Although Daguerre visited Niepce’s home several times, they collaborated mostly by letters sent in code. (I’m not sure why, after no one had shown any interest in Niepce’s images, they felt secret codes were necessary, but they did.) Niepce was financially ruined, however, and his health rapidly failed. He died of a stroke in 1833 and his financial situation was so bad that the city had to pay for his tombstone. His son, Isidore, sold the le Gras properties piecemeal to pay off the debts Nicephore and Claude had accumulated.

Niepce was a bit like the chemist Scheele and many others; a man who had superb ideas and made significant advances without getting any recognition for his work during his lifetime. The pyreolophore* was not as powerful or as useful as the steam engine, but it was the first use of both fuel injection and water-jet propulsion, neither of which Niepce tried to patent. His heliography process didn’t lead directly to photography, but it was the precursor to the Talbot-Klic photogravure process commonly used today. He also developed several agricultural techniques including obtaining indigo dye from woad (a type of cabbage) and starch from giraumon (a gourd). But he never got recognition for any of this during his lifetime.

If we define “who invented the camera” as “who made the first photograph”, it was clearly Niepce. But his method for actually creating photographs (although they weren’t called that yet), was crude and impractical. Much more work would have to be done before photography could be considered more than a curiosity.

Isidore continued the partnership with Daguerre, but when the camera was finally developed and released, Niepce received very little credit. Only in the 20th century were his contributions widely appreciated.

Speaking of Daguerre, though, that colorful showman is up next.

Click here to read Part 1 of this article series

*The pyreolophore is supposedly a combination of the Greek words for fire, wind, and ‘to produce’. It was designed specifically as a boat engine. There were basically a series of controlled explosions about 12 times a minute: a bellows pushed air and powdered fuel into an explosion chamber, a lighted wick rotated into the chamber, and the exploding gases exited through a pipe underneath the boat, expelling water backwards and moving the boat forward.

Their French patent was granted for 10 years in 1806, but it was 1816 before they had an efficient enough engine to be practical. What made the engine efficient was that Claude Niepce invented the fuel injector. The engine had previously been powered by coal dust mixed with dried lycopodium (a dried fungus) spores. The fuel injector allowed them to use oil which provided far more power.

By this time their French patent was expiring and Claude Niepce headed to London. He succeeded in getting the British patent, but around this time American inventor Robert Fulton had adapted steam engines, which were more practical, for use in boats. Oddly enough, Fulton (an American) worked in France, and the first successful steamboat trial was made up the river Seine. (The trial went fine, although the boat sank at the end of it.)

Niepce was obviously a visionary inventor. His attempts to keep the pyreolophore patents active are understandable. He thought the steam engine, which required a complex boiler, was inferior to his simpler design.


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