Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Iconic Images: The First Photograph

A short time ago I posted some amazing and beautiful photographs taken by the Hubble Telescope on its voyage through space and sent back to us here on Earth. Yesterday I reprinted an article about a space probe that is about to land in outback Australia after a 4 billion kilometre journey to an asteroid where it landed, investigated and returned, with repairs also being carried out from home. TV sets are now being sold that are 3D.

What makes all this so much more amazing is that the above image, The Window at Le Gras dating from 1825, only 185 years ago, is the earliest known surviving photograph. It was created by Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), a French inventor and pioneer in the field of photography, as a result of his experiments to find a way of preserving images in that his hand was not steady enough to copy the inverted images from his camera obscura.

A camera obscura, meaning “darkened room”, is a device that enabled an image to be reproduced in a darkened room by means of light entering the room through a small hole. The image so produced was inverted but could be righted by use of a mirror. A smaller hole produced a sharper image but dimmer. Artists used portable camera obscuras to produce scenes which could then be drawn. The principle is the same as light entering a camera through a lens. Niepce called his process Heliography, meaning “sun writing”.

Niepce experimented with the preservation of images from 1793. In 1825 he used a pewter plate coated with bitumen and subjected it to at least an 8 hour exposure (some experts believe it was up to a 36 hour exposure) in his camera obscura.  The photograph was taken from the window of Niépce's workroom in his country house and shows at left the "pigeon house", at centre, beyond the sloping rooftop, a pear tree and at right another wing of the house. The photograph was displayed until 1898, then disappeared until rediscovered in 1952.

From1829 Niepce worked with Louis Daguerre and together they developed a technique using lavender oil. Niepce died in 1833. Daguerre named his images Daguerreoptypes and in 1839 sold his process to the French government. Daguerre actively undermined Niepce’s contribution towards the development of photography and it is now believed that he was the person responsible for Niepce’s early images becoming lost. Historians have corrected that injustice and today his heliography is recognised as the first successful example of what we now call photography, an image created on a light-sensitive surface, by the action of light.

A recreation showing the angles and structures image reversed) in the photo The Window at Le Gras.

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