It took at least eight hours to produce the first photo ever taken. Known as “View From the Window at Le Gras,” the first known photograph was a result of experiments conducted by French inventor and photographer Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.
Using a process called heliography — which involved exposing a polished pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea to light — and a camera obscura device, the square photograph depicts a simple scene: the wing of a house, a dovecote, and a barn roof.
Known as the world’s earliest surviving photograph, “View From the Window at Le Gras” depicts rooftops, a tree and the surrounding landscape. Niépce took the first-ever photograph in 1826 or 1827 from an upstairs window of his estate in Saint-Lop-de-Varenees, Burgundy, France, using a camera obscura and a bitumen-coated pewter plate. He exposed it for several hours. In 1827, Niépce wrote that, while the process needed more work, it marked “the first uncertain step in a completely new direction.”
The earliest photograph was almost lost to time, and Niépce’s contributions to photography were almost overshadowed by French photographer Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s work.
In the 1950s, the efforts of historians and researchers, such as Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, led to the discovery of “View From the Window at Les Gras.” Helmut Gernsheim’s "The History of Photography" played a crucial role in bringing attention to the photograph’s significance.
After being a part of private collections in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin purchased the heliograph.
What Is Heliography?
Heliography, considered one of the earliest forms of photography, is a photographic process that Nicéphore Niépce developed. Heliography derives its name from the Greek words for “sun” and “writing” or “drawing.”
Niépce used a photosensitive substance, such as bitumen, and applied it to a surface, typically a metal plate or glass. He then exposed the coated surface to light, allowing the sunlight to interact with the photosensitive material. The areas exposed to light would harden or become insoluble, while the unexposed areas remain soluble.
After the exposure, Niépce used a solvent, such as lavender oil, to wash away the soluble parts of the photosensitive material, revealing a latent image on the plate. He could then treat the image with various chemicals to make it visible and more permanent.
While a groundbreaking photographic process, heliography had its limitations. For example, it required very long exposure times, often hours.
What Is Camera Obscura?
The term “camera obscura,” or “dark chamber” in Latin, refers to a device or optical phenomenon that artists, photographers and more have used for centuries to project an external image onto a surface within a darkened room or box.
The camera obscura works on the principle of light rays traveling in straight lines. When light passes through a small hole or aperture in a darkened space, an inverted and reversed image of the scene outside forms on the opposite surface.
Originally manifested as a room with small holes in one wall, artists later developed portable cameras obscurae. The camera obscura greatly influenced the development of photography. It served as a precursor to the camera and provided valuable insights into the behavior of light.
6 Famous First Photographs
Photography has undergone a remarkable evolution since Niépce took the first photograph, “View From Window at Le Gras.” It has transitioned from a cumbersome and time-consuming process to color photography to high-resolution images, such as a self-portrait that even an amateur photographer can capture on a digital camera.
First photographic portrait image: In 1839, Robert Cornelius took the first self-portrait using the daguerreotype process. He took the selfie outside his family’s Philadelphia gas lighting business. The photo is a part of the Library of Congress’ Marian S. Carson collection.
First-known photograph of a U.S. president: President John Quincy Adams became the first-known U.S. president to sit for a photo. Philip Haas took the daguerreotype photograph in a photo studio in 1843.
First aerial photograph: Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar, took the first aerial photograph in 1858. He documented Petit-Bicétre in France. Aerial photography has evolved to encompass drones and satellite imaging.
First aerial image in the United States: Two years after Nadar, James Wallace Black took the first aerial photograph in the United States from a hot air balloon. The photographer shot an overhead view of Boston Common.
First news photograph in the U.S.: In 1880, The Daily Graphic became the first U.S. newspaper to publish a photomechanical reproduction of a photograph. Before the newspaper photo became a standard practice, publications contracted artists to sketch illustrations.
First digital photograph: In 1957, Russell A. Kirsch, a computer scientist at the National Bureau of Standards, created the first digital photo. He used a rotating drum scanner to capture the image of his 3-month-old son.
Other photographers, like Daguerre, who captured “Boulevard du Temple” and portraits, and Roger Fenton — the first-known war photographer — made significant contributions to the medium.
This article was created in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.
Please copy/paste the following text to properly cite this HowStuffWorks.com article: