Joseph Nicephore Niepce
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Joseph Nicephore Niepce (1765-1833)
By Vi Whitmire For The International Photography Hall of Fame
While many inventive men had experimented with the photograph, solving the mystery of fixing the camera image had eluded them until the success of Joseph Nicephore Niepce.
Niepce came from a wealthy French family in the city of Chalon, France. He was educated for the Catholic Priesthood and for a period of time was an instructor at the seminary. Niepce joined the French military in 1791 and served in Italy until he contracted typhoid fever in 1794. He retired to Nice, where he married and became active in local politics.
Niepce and his brother, Claude, two years his senior, were inventors with some degree of success. In 1807 they obtained a patent from the Napoleonic government for a motor for large boats. They named their invention the Pyrealophare. He constructed his first camera in 1816; he created an image on white paper but was unable to fix it. He continued experimenting with different cameras and chemical combinations for the next decade.
The Niepce family declared the date of 1822 as the birth of photography; a plaque in his home bears this date, but unfortunately, there is no physical evidence to substantiate it.
There is record of a successful asphaltum copy on glass which contained an engraving of Pope Pius VII. It was given to Niepce’s cousin, General Poncel, who dropped and broke the plate while showing it to friends.
In the year 1827, Niepce produced the first lasting record of his work. Using a plate coated with bitumen he recorded an eight-hour exposure from his bedroom window. The plate was then washed with a solvent and placed over a box of iodine, producing a plate with light and dark qualities. Niepce named the resulting image a Heliograph. Today this image resides in the Gernsheim collection, in the research center at the University of Texas at Austin.
The same year it was recommended to Niepce that he meet with Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre. a painter of theater scenes, to discuss his invention. Niepce and Daguerre became partners securing a ten year contract; unfortunately, Niepce died four years later.
There is a statue and a museum dedicated to Niepce’s memory in Chalon, France. Niepce was one of the first photographers inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame at its inception in 1966.
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