Joseph Nicephore Niepce  - Pioneer Photographer

 Joseph Nicphore Nipce - Pioneer Photographer

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[ABOVE] An idealised posthumous portrait of Joseph Nicphore Nipce (1765-1833), painted by the artist Lonard-Franois Berger in 1854, some 20 years after the inventor's death.

Joseph Nicphore Nipce (1765-1833)

Joseph Nipce was born on 7th March 1765 in Chalon-sur-Sane, France, the son of a wealthy landowner who had served as a King's Counsellor and a Royal Tax Collector. At school, Joseph developed a strong interest in physics and chemistry and in adult life he became an amateur scientist and inventor. In his early twenties, Nipce dropped his biblical Christian name of Joseph and adopted Nicphore as a first name. ( The name Nicphore was derived from the Greek words nike phoreo meaning "Victory Bearer" ). After serving as an officer in the French Revolutionary Army, Nicphore Nipce returned home in 1801 to manage the family estate at Chalon-sur-Sane with his elder brother Claude. Since the mid 1790s, Nicphore and Claude Nipce had been working together, conducting scientific experiments and inventing various machines, including a type of internal combustion engine, which the two brothers eventually patented in 1807.

During a visit to Sardinia in 1797, Nicphore Nipce and his brother Claude discussed the idea of capturing images of nature through the agency of light. Around 1816, on his estate in Chalon-sur-Sane, Nicphore Nipce began his first serious experiments in photochemistry. Using a specially made camera, Nipce managed to produce an image on sensitized paper, but he was unsuccessful in permanently fixing the resulting negative. After attempts to make positive pictures by contact printing from the negatives, Nipce abandoned the idea of using negatives and concentrated instead on creating positive images inside a camera.

In the early 1820s, because of his interest in lithography (printing from images fixed on stone), Nicphore Nipce began experimenting with a resinous substance called "bitumen of Judea", a kind of asphalt. For Nipce, bitumen of Judea had particular properties which would prove useful in the production of positive images - bitumen of Judea hardened when exposed to light and as it hardened the bitumen turned pale grey. Nipce also discovered that any of the bitumen material which was unexposed could be dissolved in lavender oil and then washed away.

In his early experiments with bitumen of Judea, Nipce used the light sensitive properties of the substance to reproduce line drawings and engravings. He would dissolve the bitumen of Judea in lavender oil and then coat a glass plate with the mixture. A line drawing or engraving on paper would be made translucent with oil and then placed face down on the specially coated glass. The picture on the glass plate was then exposed to strong sunlight. Where the light shone through the blank areas of the picture, the bitumen hardened. The dark lines of the drawing or engraving shielded the areas of the sensitized plate below and the mixture in these parts remained soft. The soft, soluble areas of the coating could be then washed away with lavender oil, leaving a positive image behind.  Nipce realised that by basically using the same process, he could produce a positive image inside a camera.


The "Sun Pictures" of Nicphore Nipce

[ABOVE] A reproduction of an engraved portrait of Cardinal d'Amboise. Heliographic plate on tin by Nicphore Nipce (1825). This image was produced by direct contact in sunlight rather than made with a simple camera or camera obscura. The image was then etched on the tin plate with the use of acid. This picture is therefore an early example of photomechanical reproduction.

[RIGHT] A reproduction of an engraving entitled "Landscape with Figures". Heliograph on a zinc plate by Nicphore Nipce (1825).

Nicphore Nipce called his invention "heliography" or "sun drawing". To begin with, Nicphore Nipce was mainly interested in using his "heliographic" process for the reproduction of prints. Employing bitumen of Judea, Nipce intended to transfer drawings and engravings on to metal plates, which could then be etched with acid to produce printing plates.  Between 1823 and 1825, Nipce began experimenting with different metals to act as supports for his "heliographs" or "sun drawings". After trying zinc, tin and copper, Nipce finally chose to work with pewter, an alloy of tin (the largest constituent) and copper, mixed with lead and other hardening agents such as antimony or bismuth.


The Earliest Surviving Photograph created by Nicphore Nipce

Following his experiments with "heliography" as a type of photo-engraving technique, Nicphore Nipce set out to "take views from nature" using the camera obscura. Nipce's aim was to capture "pictures reflected in the camera obscura in gradated tones from black to white solely with the help of light." Nipce concluded that of all the metals he had used to support his "heliographs", pewter was the best suited to produce "views from nature". In May 1826, Nipce wrote that he had "made new pewter plates, and this metal is much more adaptable to my object, principally for views from nature, owing to the greater reflection of the light, the image seems more sharp."

In 1826, Nicphore Nipce succeeded in capturing a view from his study window with the use of a camera and a polished pewter plate coated in bitumen of Judea. The specially coated pewter plate was attached to the back of a camera. The camera was then placed on a window-sill, with the lens of the camera pointing towards the courtyard outside. The camera was left on the window-sill all day. After about eight hours the metal plate was removed from the camera. Where the light had fallen on the pewter plate, the bitumen of Judea had hardened and turned pale grey. The remaining areas which had not been affected by the sunlight remained soft and could be dissolved with lavender oil and washed away with turpentine. Treated with iodine vapour, the metal base of the heliograph darkened, giving the impression of shadows, while the areas of pale, hardened bitumen took on the appearance of highlights.

The resulting image, entitled "View from the Study Window", was not sharp or distinct by modern standards, yet it was possible to make out the main features of the view from the window - the the sloping slate roof of the barn, the small dark openings in the pale wall of the "pigeon-house" and the dark outline of the pear tree against the light sky on the horizon (see the copy of Nipce's heliograph on the right).

In 1827, Francis Bauer, the famous botanical artist and member of the Royal Society, labelled the heliograph of the outbuildings and courtyard as "Monsieur Nipce's first successful experiment of fixing permanently the image from nature." Today, "View from the Study Window" by Nicphore Nipce is generally regarded as the earliest photograph to have survived into modern times.

After receiving information about Nipce's success in taking images with light-sensitive metal plates and cameras, Louis Jacques Mand Daguerre (1787-1851), an artist and showman who had been conducting his own experiments in photochemistry, approached the inventor of "heliography" and suggested they formed a partnership to perfect the process of making permanent photographs * from nature. On 19th August1839, some six years after the death Nicphore Nipce, Daguerre announced that he had invented an improved method of making photographs on metal. The Daguerreotype Process became the first practicable method of obtaining permanent images with a camera and marked the birth of commercial photography.

* The term "Photography" (drawing with light) was coined by the British astronomer Sir John Herschel (1792-1871) in 1839. Nicphore Nipce preferred to use the word "heliographie" (sun drawing). The photographic images on a silvered copper plate, which were introduced by Louis Jacques Mand Daguerre, were dubbed "daguerreotypes" in honour of the inventor.

"View from the Study Window at Maison du Gras", a copy of the heliograph ("sun drawing") made on a pewter plate by Nicphore Nipce made around 1826. This view taken from a window on the third-floor of his house at Le Gras in the village of St Loup de Varennes in Burgundy is regarded as the earliest surviving photograph ever made. The frame of the open glazed window can be seen on the left of the picture. Immediately behind the window frame is a loft known as the "pigeon-house" and to the right of that is a pear tree. In the centre of the picture is the slanting roof of a barn. On the far right is another wing of the family house. A pewter plate, coated in bitumen of Judea, was attached to the back of a camera and placed on a window-sill, with the lens of the camera pointing towards the courtyard outside. The camera was left on the window-sill all day. Because the image took around eight hours to make, the light appears to fall on the buildings from both directions. As the camera exposure lasted all day, the sun had time to move from east to west and shine on both sides of the bulding.



The Real Face of Nicphore Nipce ?


[ABOVE] A portrait of Joseph Nicphore Nipce (1765-1833) painted by the artist Lonard-Franois Berger (1799-1873). This portrait was completed in 1854, some twenty years after Nipce's death.

[ABOVE] A portrait of Joseph Nicphore Nipce which might have provided the model for Lonard-Francois Berger's painting of the inventor.

[ABOVE] A portrait of Nicphore Nipce as a young man. This drawing in pencil, ink and watercolour was made by the French artist Laguiche around 1795, when Nicphore was about 30 years of age.

[ABOVE] Portrait of Joseph Nicphore Nipce, from an engraving based on Berger's painted portrait.

[ABOVE] An engraved profile portrait of Joseph Nicphore Nipce

[ABOVE] Portrait of Joseph Nicphore Nipce, an engraved illustration from a French book on photography published in 1888.

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