Is Niépce's first photo art?

Is Niépce’s first photo art?

A somewhat blurry photo. Is that art? Or is it the idea that is linked to this photo? This blurry photo was taken by Nicéphore Niépce. Was this the start if a new art form? The art of photography?

Yes, the photo isn’t of the best quality and cannot be compared to the many other beautiful photos taken in the years that followed 1826. 1826 was the year this photo was taken. Until now, this is the oldest example of a photo that hasn’t faded. This was the most serious problems for those who wanted to capture images in a way that was different from drawing or painting.

For many centuries drawing and painting were the only options to save something for others to look at, apart from sculpturing. In the nineteenth century, the first photography experiments were performed. One of these pioneers was Nicéphore Niépce. He was an inventor who started to experiment with photography. Nowadays, he is considered the inventor of photography. Actually, the technique he used what we called heliography. It helped him to make a print of a photo engraved printing plate.

Niépce did something that was done before though. He used the technique of the Camera Obscura to capture an image. Instead of using a dark chamber or box that projected an image (so that it could be painted over), he used a very primitive camera. This Camera Obscura wasn’t a novelty for Niépce, as it was introduced many centuries before he started experimenting. There was one big difference: the images could be saved using the right techniques. Techniques that needed perfection and were modernized as the years moved on. Thus creating a new art form: photography.

View from the Window at Le Gras, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce
View from the Window at Le Gras, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. This photo is an enhanced version by Helmut Gersheim.
Source: Wikimedia.


There isn’t just one type of photography that is “the art form photography.” There are many examples of photos that can be considered as art. It’s hard to decide what’s art and what’s not. In some way, even the modern-day selfies can be art too. Especially when people take their time to complete them. However, we don’t see this as art. We see it as a way to express yourself in the online world. It shows more than what Niépce could show the world. His photo of 1826 showed the view from the window of Le Gras, an estate in the French township Saint-Loup-de-Varennes (Burgundy department). You have to look closely to see all the details.

Eight hours

It took Niépce about eight hours to capture this image. It’s needless to say that photography techniques such as these could not be used for photographing humans or animals. It would have demanded them to remain motionless for quite some time. But it didn’t take long before people were captured in photos. In 1828 Louis Daguerre made his world-famous photo of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. Yes, there are only two people visible in this photo. That is because it also took a period of eight hours to take this photo. Only those who didn’t move can be seen in this photo. It makes you think why these people must have been standing there for quite some time. There is actually a good reason: one of them is a shoeshiner, the other his customer. The moving traffic at the street isn’t visible, due to the long exposure.

Boulevard du Temple
Boulevard du Temple, 1828.
Photo Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre.
Source: Wikimedia.


Robert Cornelus (1839)
Robert Cornelius in 1839.

In 1839 Robert Cornelius did something that others think was impossible. He was able to capture his own image. A selfie of the nineteenth century. It took him ten to fifteen minutes to take the picture, thus demanding him to remain quiet the whole time. The feeling must be tremendous when Cornelius saw his own image.

In 1840 the first female was captured on photo. It was taken by the scientist (amongst other things he did) John William Draper. It shows us his sister, Dorothy Catherine Draper.

Dorothy Catherine Draper
Dorothy Draper around 1840.
Photo: John William Draper

From that moment on, more and more people were photographed. And if you think a colour photo was something that was introduced in the twentieth century, well you are wrong. Below you can see one of the first examples of colour photography. It was taken by James Clerk Maxwell in 1861. What he did was fairly simple. He took three black and white photos of a ribbon. Each time he took a photo, he placed a colour filter before the lens: red, green and blue. He then projected the three photos over each other and there was the first colour photo. Not everyone will agree with this technique as the start of colour photography.

The photo of James Clerk Maxwell
The photo of James Clerk Maxwell of 1861.

When is photography art?

Now to answer the most difficult article: When is photography art? Or maybe a better question: Is the photo taken by Niépce art?

If you consider this photo as the start of all that what happened in the centuries that followed: photography becoming a form of art, then this photo is art. If you just see a blurry scenery that happens to be one of the first photos that are still around, then it’s not art. It’s a start of a new form of art that sprung creativity since then.

The beauty of photography is that it’s diverse. It’s not all art, but it can be quite satisfying, helpful or even sparkle emotions.