Since the discovery of light, people have made images to record what was illuminated – and have worked tirelessly to de-labourise the process since then. A myriad of mechanical, optical, and most recently digital, devices have been invented along the way to improve the speed, accuracy and permanency of this record; all to freeze what our eyes, memories and stories have captured, stored and shared for millennia.
Modern photography is an infant born in 1825, the brainchild of a French inventor named Nicéphore Niépce who successfully made the first permanent photograph from nature – a grainy picture of a broken down building and the surrounding countryside of his estate seen from a high window – now the world’s oldest surviving photograph.
He captured the scene with a camera obscura (from the latin: dark chamber), a wooden box with a hole on one side and a chemically coated light-sensitive metal plate on the other. Inconveniently, the camera obscura required an exposure time ranging from 8 hours to several days, followed by a laborious chemical developing process.
Clearly inconvenient for most practical purposes, Niépce teamed up with a French theatre illusionist named Louis Jacques-Mandé Daguerre when the latter was introduced to him by his optician. Locally famous as a promoter of illusionistic theatre called the Diorama, Daguerre worked with Niépce to experiment with new metallic compounds that eventually reduced the camera’s exposure time to a relatively lightning-fast ten minutes.
Working hard to develop this one-hit wonder into a practical and commercially viable process, Daguerre developed the prototype into what is now known as Daguerreotype in 1838. The first image he captured features a Parisian street. Because of the required ten-minute exposure, the picture failed to feature any passing horse-drawn carriages as they were moving too fast; however, the camera did capture a man having his boots polished on the sidewalk, making it the earliest known candid photograph of a person.
Sadly, Niépce died four years before the fruit of his labours bore even the most remote hints of commercial success. Financially ruined by the semi-delerious spending of a seriously ill elder brother Claude with whom he conceived and invented the world’s first internal combustion engine, Niépce passed into relative obscurity – his family fortune squandered. His son and heir Isidore proved similarly unlucky, when Daguerre misled him about the value of the invention to personally claim any yet unrealised profits. In one of the most glaring examples of “missing the boat”, private investors failed to see the promise of the Daguerreotype, and how it, like the invention of the wheel, in fact could and would change the world.
Daguerre went public with the invention in 1839. The images were enthusiastically praised as nearly miraculous and news of the Daguerreotype quickly spread. Still finding no commercial backers, Daguerre traded his patent rights to the French Government in 1839, in exchange for lifetime pensions for himself and Niépce’s son. In turn, the French Government presented “to the whole world this discovery which could contribute so much to the progress of art and science.” Complete working instructions were published as a manual to be freely used and shared by anyone.
In a scene that might resemble the most recent iPhone release, France was soon caught in the grips of “Daguerreotypemania”. Within months, Daguerre’s instruction manual, translated into a dozen languages, helped to spread the knowledge of the invention and the ability to reproduce it around the world. And spread it did – eventually leading to the ubiquitous modern camera and the myriad of revolutionary descendant inventions – too many to mention. This is a development that anyone who has ever enjoyed taking, looking at, learning from, or being even remotely moved by, a photograph owes a debt of gratitude.
Daguerre died a dozen years after his invention was made public. A monument marks his grave on the outskirts of Paris, and his name is one of 74 names inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.
The images in this post were digitally post-processed to imitate the look, if not the subject, of early Daguerreotype photographs.