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ictures are a central part of our lives. Between capturing an important or significant moment or just wanting to share your day with your friends, photos have recently become the preferred medium that the average person uses to express themselves. Today taking a picture is as easy as taking out your phone and opening the camera app, but of course, it wasn’t always like this. Until quite recently(historically speaking), people didn’t have the technology to capture images, never mind capturing images as easily as we are able to do. Today we will look at how this invention came about and the story behind history’s first picture.

The Sun is the best Cameraman

Many theories about capturing images came before the early 1800s, but all had the same process behind it as the method used to create the above “Window at Le Gras.” A light-sensitive chemical was used in tandem with a ‘camera obscura’ to imprint an image on a surface.

Illustration of the camera obscura principle from 1755 in a book written by James Ayscough. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This process created what we now know as ‘negatives’ meaning a picture that displays dark areas as light and vice-versa. By using these two processes in tandem, an upsidedown negative of anything could be produced. The first person to successfully implement this theory was Nicéphore Niépce.

To create the famous picture in the thumbnail of this article Niépce used a plate of ‘pewter’, an alloy mainly composed of tin, and ‘Bitumen of Judea’, also known as ‘Syrian asphalt’, which is a naturally occurring asphalt. Niépce chose the ‘Syrian asphalt’ for his experiment due to its known light-sensitive quality.

Niépce coated the plate of pewter with the light-sensitive chemical and placed it in the camera obscure, which was pointing out of a window of his estate in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes known as “Le Gras”, hence the name of the photograph. The result of this process can be seen in the thumbnail of the article and below in differing levels of clarity.

Bringing a nearly-200-year-old picture back to life

Colorised reoriented enhancement of the original picture. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Manually enhanced version created by Rebecca A. Moss from the University of Minnesota. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Using modern techniques to enhance the old photo, we can start to see some of the detail captured in 1826. In the right picture above, windows on the left building can be made out clearly as well as a general shape of a structure on the right. On the colorized version, we can make out the roofs of the nearby buildings and a field in the background.

It is amazing to think that what is shown above is a direct representation of a scene seen by someone nearly 200 years ago. Although even after enhancing the picture isn’t very clear, it stands as a milestone in human development. From this point forward, more sophisticated methods of capturing photographs would be created, such as the ones used to create the first picture with humans in it, as seen below.

View of the Boulevard du Temple, a daguerreotype made by Louis Daguerre in 1838. A clear improvement was made in just over 10 years of innovation in this field. In the picture, we can see a man getting his boots polished. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Although technology improved rapidly in the years after the “Le Gras” picture. The buildings captured can be seen in much more detail, even though dynamic objects such as trees and people appear more blurred. At the time the above picture was taken, the street was busy, but due to the long exposure time required for such a photograph to be created, none of the people moving around were captured except for the two that can be seen due to them staying relatively still during the image-capturing process.

It is impressive the leaps humanity has made in this technology throughout the years. Going from an indiscernible image created after more than 10 minutes of exposure time to being able to take a high-definition photo in the blink of an eye, technological progress has made it so that anyone could now do something none could 200 years ago.

We must look back and put all of our luxuries into perspective to truly appreciate them. Remember, if it wasn’t for a French scientist in the early 19th century, we might not have the pictures of 19th-century events that we have today and even lack the ability to capture images with the same ease that we do now.

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