Friday, August 19, 2016

The Very First Photograph


In 1826, Joseph Niepce invented a process by which the sun could make its own pictures, so he called it a "heliograph" after Helios, the sun.

It was the quest of the ages, to eliminate the middle person, usually an artist, and to have the light of nature make its own pictures.  So, it became known as "photography", drawing with light.  But the name "heliography", the sun drawing its own pictures, is probably closer to the spirit and philosophy of the discovery of photography.  You can read Susan Sontag and other authors about Photography and its intentions and relationship to Truth -- it is admissible as evidence in a court of law.

The remarkable thing is that it was a chemical invention (can we get STEM funding?).  The three parts of paint are 1) pigment, 2) vehicle/medium, and 3) binder/glue.  What pigment was sensitive enough to light to turn quickly enough into self-actuating images?  Silver.  Silver halide combined with sulfur to blacken it swiftly in chemical reactions. 

The glue was Mercury, and there were "urban legend" stories that circulated for years that Niepce died at a young age, along with many young French photographers, from Mad Hatter's disease, mercury poisoning, but research and better biographies in the past quarter century have overcome those tales.  Niepce lived to be 68 and was a business partner of Louis Daguerre, who made the photographic process faster and less deadly.

The first heliographs took hours to make.  The image above, believed to be the very first photograph in 1826, took 8 to 10 hours of exposure.  Daguerre's early images took 4 to 6 hours to expose.  So the technological advances of photography sought faster exposures, down to micro fractions of a second that allowed Dr. Edgerton to capture the crown of a drop of milk.  Cameras with "manual" shutters were capturing 1/2000 and 1/5000 second exposures  a hundred and fifty years later.


In the 190 years since Niepce's breakthrough, Eastman, Land, Oscar Barnack of Ernst Leitz, and others have improved the mechanisms and chemistry and science of photography until the advent of the digital age.