This is the photo that symbolises the birth of photography, a medium that a few decades after its creation in the mid 1820s, would transform the world and how we see it. Click on the image to see a larger version on Wikipedia.
The French inventor Nicéphore Niépce (1765 – 1833) created the picture and is credited as one of the inventors of photography, and one of its early pioneeers.
It was made using a camera obscura, the ‘darkened room’ or box used by artists to project an image of a scene, over which they would trace a drawing.
The difference here is that the inventor had developed a method of capturing and then fixing the image. Instead of the artist as intermediary, the actual light reflected by the scene was used to make the picture.
Originally he suggested calling the effect ‘heliography’ or ‘sun writing’ but the term photograph or ‘light writing’ became established.
Considering this is the oldest surviving photograph in history, it is remarkably clear and quite detailed. I find it very pleasing as a work of art.
Already we can see the so-called ‘rule of thirds’. The photographer has placed the horizon in the upper third of the frame. Of course, the ‘rule of thirds’ along with many other compositional guidelines had already been used in painting for centuries. That’s why I recommend photographers to go to art galleries and gain inspiration.
But here, the inventor took the decisive step away from an image crafted by human hand and instead allowed the light to make the image itself.
The architectural details are striking – two towers to the left and the right with pitched roofs that echo each other. The sloping roof in the centre adds an air of dynamism. We can just see the indistinct form of buildings beyond it, and in the distance, we are looking across the countryside of France towards the horizon.
We are looking literally through a window into the France of the 1820s? Only recently had the country seen the turmoil of the French Revolution. There were still no railways. The Impressionists had not yet been born.
I find this photograph fascinating, from many different points of view, aesthetic, historic and also technical. We have to admire the vision and ingenuity of the man who developed the process. Did he have any idea of the revolution that would follow in the wake of his invention?
Niépce had experimented with various ways to record light and eventually used bitumen to produce this photograph. The exposure time was eight hours!
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