If you know me (on the internet, or even in real life) you know how completely intrigued I am with photographs from the past. Daguerrotypes, tintypes, CDV’s, silver gelatin prints – I love it all. Personally, photographs tell a story not only through the subject matter, but also through the tangible print. I love feeling the old papers (or metal) and creating little stories in my head about the photographer and the potential thought process they experienced when creating their photographs. Sometimes I even take out my loupe and look super duper close at each individual grain on the print. I even remember when I studied abroad, one of our German professors (who must’ve had the same love for vintage prints) randomly passed out a photo to each of the students and asked us to write a 3 page paper on it. At the time, it seemed pretty impossible. How was I supposed to write a three page paper about a man in a photo that I never, ever knew? But the more time I spent with the print, the more I stared and really studied it, clues about the man’s life starting revealing themselves and before you knew it I had five pages that needed to be summarized into three!
With that said, and with college six months in the past, I am still striving for a way to discover history through photography. I wanted to add a page to Good Exposure’s blog that talks about historically significant photographs, processes, and photographers. I think sometimes, with the ease and mass availability of digital photography we can sometimes forget what a grueling and expensive process photography once was. And although camera’s are more convenient than ever before, the talent of a photographer, is still the main variable in creating a successful photograph.
It would only be right to start with the very first photograph ever permanently fixed.
View from the Window at Le Gras, Nicéphore Niépce, 1826
I suppose the many this photo seems a bit hum-drum. Yawwwwwwn. What are we looking at again? OH YEAH! No biggy, it’s just the first photograph EVER taken, that didn’t disappear into thin air!
You see, when photography was first being invented, photographs were being made, but they didn’t last. Photographers were searching for a way to help the likeness they created simply stay on the surface in which they created it. In 1826, a man by the name of Nicéphore Niépce did just that. He set up his camera, pointing it through a window, and exposed this photograph for eight hours! Yes, folks, eight whole hours to make one single photograph. How can we tell? If you look carefully, the building on the left is illuminated on it’s right side, the one in the middle is illuminated on the roof, and the one on the right is illuminated on the left. This is the normal light and shadow patterns created when the sun is rising, at high noon, and setting. How wonderful right?!
Here is a modern photograph documenting the original metal plate used to create View from the Window at Le Gras. It is housed today in Austin, TX.
Coolest part of this whole story? You can still visit Nicéphore Niépce’s house in France. We did it when we were studying abroad in 2007. You can still go up to his attic where he stored all of his chemicals, and best of all, you can still look out of the window at Le Gras!