The First Photograph in History, Taken in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

Discover “View from the Window at Le Gras,” the first photograph in history, created by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826.

Author: Marco Crupi

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View from the Window at Le Gras, reproduction made by the photography historian Helmut Gernsheim in around 1952.

This article is part of our “History of Photography” section. Click here to explore.

The first photograph in history, “View from the Window at Le Gras”, was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France. This image marks a turning point in the history of photography and can be considered the birth of photography as we know it.

Niépce used a camera obscura and a 16.2 cm x 20.2 cm pewter plate coated with Bitumen of Judea, a type of natural asphalt. The exposure technique was innovative for its time: the prolonged exposure, lasting several days instead of the traditionally estimated 8 hours, allowed the bitumen to harden in the areas illuminated by sunlight, while remaining soluble in the shadow areas, which could then be washed away. This created a permanent image of the view from Niépce’s window at Le Gras.

At the end of 1826, Niépce visited the United Kingdom. He showed this and several other proofs of his work to botanical illustrator Francis Bauer. “View from the Window at Le Gras” was the only example of a photograph made with a camera; the rest were contact-exposed copies of artworks. Bauer encouraged him to present his process of “heliography” to the Royal Society. Niépce wrote and presented a paper but was unwilling to disclose the specific details, so the Royal Society rejected it based on a rule that prohibited presentations on undisclosed secret processes. Before returning to France, Niépce handed over his paper and samples to Bauer. Niépce died suddenly in 1833 from a stroke.

After the photographic processes pioneered by Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot were publicly announced in January 1839, Bauer championed Niépce’s right to be recognized as the first inventor of a process for creating permanent photographs. On March 9, 1839, the samples were finally exhibited at the Royal Society. After Bauer’s death in 1840, they passed through several hands and were occasionally displayed as historical curiosities. “View from the Window at Le Gras” was last publicly shown in 1905, then fell into obscurity for nearly fifty years.

In 1952, historians Helmut Gernsheim and his wife, Alison Gernsheim, rediscovered the photograph and helped reaffirm Niépce’s role as the inventor of photography. The original plate had been damaged over time, and various attempts at restoration and scientific analysis were conducted to preserve it. In 2002-2003, the Getty Conservation Institute examined the photograph using various techniques, confirming the composition of bitumen and pewter on the plate. Further studies by the Louvre in 2007 revealed details of the oxidation process that was damaging the image.

Today, “View from the Window at Le Gras” is preserved at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, in a stabilized, oxygen-free environment. In 2003, Life included it in its list of the “100 Photographs that Changed the World”, highlighting its historical and cultural significance. This photograph not only marks the beginning of the era of photography but also represents a significant advancement in humanity’s ability to capture and preserve moments of visual reality.

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