Niépce's View From The Window, The Making Of

View from the window at Le Gras, 1826, Joseph Nicephore Niepce

The world's first photograph, a persistent image made by exposing chemicals to light, was taken in 1826 by Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce. [NEES-uh-fore NYEHps]

It's the view from a window of his house in Le Gras. It was made by projecting the view through a camera obscura onto a small pewter plate coated with bitumen and developed with lavender oil. The exposure took several days [The sun can be seen hitting opposite sides of the buildings.] Niépce called it a heliograph.

Niépce eventually partnered with Louis Daguerre who was also working to fix images chemically, but Niépce died, his less inventive son stepped into the partnership, and thanks to some branding jiujitsu, Daguerre basically crossed the history finish line alone in 1839 as the inventor of photography. [Niépce son did write a pamphlet in 1841 titled, Historique de la Découverte Improprement Nomée Daguerreotype, procédé d'une notice sur son véritable inventeur feu, M. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (History of the discovery improperly misnamed daguerreotype, preceded by a note from its real inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.) So there's that.]

niecpe_view_flipped.jpg
An enhanced view of Niepce's View, flipped to match the actual view

View from the window at Le Gras, known as Point de vue de Gras in French, was lost until 1952, when the historian/collector Helmut Gernsheim tracked it down. It's now in the collection of the Ransom Center at UT Austin.

Niépce's house, in a village called Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, is now a museum, open for visitors in July and August [and other times of the year for a flat EUR150 get out of bed fee.]

The property was divided in the mid-19th century, but the house is largely intact. Yet it was unclear exactly from which window the image had been made. Gernsheim thought it was from the attic. This French site discusses all sorts of details about maps, lenses, exposure times, focal lengths, angles, and suggests it was on the 1st floor.

Or maybe that window's not even there anymore. A restoration project at the house in 1999 found evidence of a remodeling that moved the window on the 1st floor sideways by 70cm. Here's a short video about the investigation, trapped inside a tiny Flash window.

Alas, you can't try to recreate Niépce's photo yourself, because photos are not allowed in the photography museum. The operators have sold exclusive rights to some agency. Here's the sign on StreetView.

niepce_street_view.jpg

View from the Window at le Gras [wikipedia]
Niepce house museum [niepce.org]

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: July 20, 2013.

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