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The First Photo

By Katy Sommerfeld

We live in a world now where 95 million photos are posted to Instagram every day. We carry cameras around in our pockets, and everyone is an amateur photographer with sophisticated editing software available at our fingertips that is easier to use than a calculator. Photos rule our world. Sayings like, “pics or it didn’t happen” reflect the significance of photographic evidence to our culture, and tagging friends in photos on social media or giving “photo creds” has become massively important.

With the way that photography permeates our lives today, it can be hard to imagine a time when cameras weren’t even in existence.

What was the catalyst that inspired inventors in the 19th century to create the camera? For those individuals who worked on creating a device that could capture a moment in time in a two-dimensional image, what inspired them to imagine such technology? What was the first photo ever produced? History tells us the answers.

Although there likely were inventors and thinkers prior to the nineteenth century who were interested in the idea of capturing real-life images in two-dimensional materials, there were no successful attempts at accomplishing this before the 1800s. It wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that it was discovered some substances became visibly altered as a result of exposure to light, and this discovery was absolutely integral to the formation of the first camera. This discovery, paired with the phenomenon called “camera obscura,” is what brought inventors to create the first photograph. Camera obscura occurs if you have an image or a scene positioned in front of a box with a small opening (also called a pinhole) for light. That image or scene will be projected through that small opening, appearing to be reversed and upside down on the back wall of the box. 

The first photograph to have survived to today is the Niépce heliograph, created by the Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1827. Niépce was an early camera inventor who was determined to create a long-lasting photographic image in order to make a living for himself and to gain recognition. He worked on multiple photographic experiments over the years, having the most success with his fleeting camera pictures that he called “points-de-vue.” In 1827, however, he made an astonishing advancement in his inventing career. Niépce fashioned a camera obscura and placed a pewter plate which he had coated in bitumen, a light-sensitive chemical, in the back of the box. He placed the box with its pinhole facing toward a window in his workshop. After leaving the camera obscura and bitumen-coated pewter alone for a few days, Niépce looked at the pewter plate and was surprised to see that there was an impression of the scenery outside his window left on the plate. The image showed trees, a courtyard, and other buildings from outside the workshop window. 

This first photograph gave inventors the key to creating a type of camera that utilized the camera obscura phenomenon and light-sensitive substances such as bitumen or silver nitrate to create impressions on various surfaces, such as metallic plates. The Niépce heliograph, as the first photograph eventually became known, was quickly outdated as newer processes such as daguerreotypy became widely used, but the basic methodology remained the same. In fact, even digital cameras today utilize basic photographic methods like the camera obscura phenomenon. 

Joseph Niépce’s discoveries and inventions gave us the tools to create the sophisticated photographic technology that we have today. The first photograph captured a casually beautiful and personal scene - the view from a man’s workshop window in France. How many photographs of sceneries have been taken since? How many pictures do you see of a beautiful sunset, or of a peaceful balcony view on your Instagram feed every day? The first photograph reflected the same desire for aesthetic beauty that we still have and are still capturing today. Although the world has changed in millions of ways since 1827, perhaps what connects us and makes us human hasn’t changed all that much. 

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