The classics

The inventors of photography

It is part of our daily lives, and since the arrival of smartphones, every human practice; but photography is not yet 200 years old.

The Camera Obscura

At the heart of photography are the optical principles of reducing reality on a flat surface. Known since ancient times, the Camera Obscura is an optical device. Widely used in the Renaissance to solve perspective problems, the Camera Obscura is simple: we let the light through a tiny hole in a place completely sealed to light and an inverted image of the external scene is created on the wall opposite to the orifice.

At the end of the 18th century this optical principle is used for mass productions. Around 1760, the Frenchman Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), controller of finances in Paris, uses the Camera Obscura to realize the profile of his customers.


In 1786, Gilles-Louis Chrétien (1754-1811) invented the “Physionotrace”. This device allows him to engrave on copper the silhouettes of the heroes of the French Revolution. William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1826) then Charles Chevalier (1804-1859) improved this process.


But these are only optical evolutions. Photography is also a matter of chemistry.

Le sel et l’argent

The action of light on certain surfaces has been known since ancient times. Many centuries before Christ, painters use them to quickly fix colors. At the beginning of the 18th century, Johann Heinrich Schultze (1687-1744) demonstrated that silver salts react to the action of light. In 1879 Jacques Charles, a French scientist, managed to freeze, but temporarily, a silhouette obtained by the process of the Camera Obscura on paper soaked with silver chloride. Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805) made similar experiments with silver nitrate and John Herschel (1791-1871) in 1819 described the properties of sodium hyposulphite, which became the fixer.

Since then, photography has been born but it remains to be perfected. Different routes then open in Europe and especially in France.

French inventors

Three personalities can be associated with the birth and the first evolutions of photography.

Joseph Nicephore Niepce (1765-1833)

Located in the center of France, in Chalon-sur-Saône, Joseph Nicephore Niepce is interested in the processes of reproduction of images; a market in vogue. In 1824 he explains one of his discoveries:

The discovery that I made and which I designate under the name of heliography consists in reproducing spontaneously by the action of the light, with degradations of hues from black to white, the images received in the Camera Obscura.

Joseph Nicephore Niepce

For this he coated a copper plate of Judea bitumen that he exhibited in a dark room. After “a long time”, it plunges this plate into a solvent that reveals the image. The first photograph dates from 1826 (or 1827) and represents a street in Chalon-sur-Saône.

Point de vue du gras – 1826(27?)

Louis Mande Daguerre (1787-1851)

The discovery of Niepce interests, a few hundred kilometers further north of France, in Paris, an artist who exploits the Diorama. It is a show consisting of giant and trompe l’œil reproductions lit up or down. To make these painted reproductions, Louis Mande Daguerre uses the Camera Obscura and thinks that the discovery of Joseph Nicephore Niepce can help him in this tedious task. He sent him a letter in 1826 in which he proposed an association on a false statement; he states indeed to have himself made photografts. After years of correspondence, Niepce and Daguerre meet and sign, in 1828 a partnership for a period of 10 years. But Joseph Nicephore Niepce died in 1833. Since then Daguerre is active to develop the invention of his late partner. He hardly modifies it and uses the discoveries of John Herschel to fix the images. Louis Mande Daguerre pompously deposits his “invention” under the name of Daguerreotype. On January 7, 1839, an official communication is made to the Paris Academy of Sciences and the French state grants a comfortable rent to Daguerre, forgetting Isidore, the son of Joseph Nicephore Niepce.

Daguerreotypes are used for twenty years to make engravings, but they suffer from a major disadvantage, they are unique.

Boulevard du Temple

Hyppolite Bayard (1801-1887)

Modest employee of the Ministry of Finance, Hyppolite Bayard advances photography by producing a photographic exhibition on paper on June 24, 1839; a world first. Indeed, well before the communication at the Paris Academy of Sciences, he uses paper sensitized to silver chloride soaked in potassium iodide. Beyond the chemical invention, Hyppolite Bayard is today recognized as an artist in its own right, often on the verge of surrealism in these works. Works that were totally sidelined by the critics of his time.

Le noyé (The drowned)

Niepce, Daguerre and Bayard produce only unique images, it is to the English William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) that we owe a process called “Calotype“, patented in 1841. It allows to obtain a image, not to the shooting, but to the development. And from this image, an infinite reproduction is possible.

The photograph is born.


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Nicolas Beaumont is a photojournalist, director and writer specializing in social and humanitarian photography. Among our clients are the French Red Cross, Emmaüs, Handicap International, Secours Mag, Dimatex, Actusoins. We make films, photographs and articles around the world on current topics: migration, war, displaced, natural disaster, flood etc...

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