Nicephore Niepce Photography invention Chalon Sur Saone

Photographic memories and some history

Chalon sur Saone – now a small city in the Bourgogne countryside with a modern day population of about 45,000 is where in 1822, that Joseph Nicephore Niepce first discovered how to capture an image. A vague shadowy image it was.  Although there were a number of earlier attempts to record images onto various light sensitive surfaces  none were successful or survived. Niepce’s research produced a method  of permanently fixing, therefore the ability to store an  image. Shortly after Niepce’s first ‘photograph ‘ a partnership was struck with Louis Daguerre, a Parisian who had been experimenting with similar technology, but unfortunately Niepce died in 1833 before his discovery was more widely known. . Working on parallel lines, but completely unknown to each other, an Englishman, WH Talbot also discovered a fixer, a chemical we use today to stabilise the image and make it light fast.  Through the middle of the 19th century several researchers working on similar pathways refined the process and chemistry of stabilising an image and printing Daguerreotypes commercially enabling image to ink.  So, this early research by people unknown to each other happening in several countries means that, to be fair, we cannot attribute the’ discovery’, or invention  of  photography to any one person but for his part with very early photography, Nicephore Niepce definitely deserves due recognition nearly 2 centuries later.

Enormous technological change has happened in the world of photography during the 200 years since Niepce’s time including moving from wet to dry plate photography. This discovery revolutionised the job. There was now no rush to process the picture as the dry plate could remain unprocessed for days. Also, it made photography more portable with there being no need for the operator to pack in pounds of chemicals. This job could all be done later even off site by a technician. Early dry plate cameras still required great photographic experience and skill as exposures were very much by feel. How much time was enough to properly expose the plate?

Roll film didn’t become main stream until the early 20th century but dry plate officianados still commanded image quality, sharpness and contrast. Because technical image quality depends, in great part upon image capture size, the large dry plate cameras which could, by this time accommodate sheet film, would be the choice of serious practitioners.  The actual invention of roll film probably dates from the last few years of the 19th century. Kodak claimed the invention but were forced by the US Court to settle a claim for an earlier patent. Public demand from commercial and hobbyist photographers continued to drive development of film with higher light sensitivity and cameras with aperture choice to suit the light conditions of the moment.  More sophisticated shutters with speed options were required too. The smaller negative size  of 35mm and 120 film required better lens design to still enable high resolution comparable with the much larger image produced by the dry plate film. Eastman Kodak is the company we all know and have probably owned several Kodak cameras over the years. George Eastman coined the name ‘Kodak’ – only 2 syllables and easy to remember in multiple languages. Eastman’s vision was a camera in every house so they had to be affordable, reliable and simple to use. Enter the Brownell Company who designed and manufactured the Brownie box camera for Eastman Kodak. Simple in use, robust and capable, these lived on until the 1960s in various iterations.

George Eastman died in 1932 leaving his photographic legacy living today. Kodak cameras dominated the industry through the first half of the 20th century with folding cameras and high quality medium format. Other companies such as Plaubel, Contax , Carl Zeiss, Voigtlander and Leica also had a strong presence but were nowhere near as prolific or as visionary as Eastman.  Voigtlander is the oldest name associated with optical instruments when the company founded in 1756. The Voigtlander company is really famous for it's many lens designs, but those which grace the 1950s Voigtlander medium format folding cameras, especially the 80 and 105mm Color-Skopars are especially outstanding. The perennial Leica first model appeared in 1925, revered by professionals everywhere for it’s mechanical excellence and unobtrusive design. Candid photography was born with the Leica. German technology was to the fore up until WWII, after which Japanese manufacturing brought 35mm cameras to all who wanted to buy. Through companies such as Nikon, Canon, Asahi, Minolta, Konica, Yashica everyone who could afford the now reasonable prices could be a photographer. The Japanese output was of improving quality and considerably cheaper than the German competition. Film cameras, especially 35mm format but also medium format continued to become more sophisticated through the later third of the 20th century with digital imaging appearing through the 1990s. Kodak was still there with early digital but they failed to move forward with this technology thinking it would be limited to a few Government and large company users who could afford the then extreme gear prices. Early digital equipment was very expensive and could not equal  the image quality of film, but, of course as with all technology, innovative development lowered prices significantly and within the last 10 years the quality crossover between film and digital has been reached, especially medium format digital able to produce enormously detailed pictures. Film is still loved by many and good quality film cameras have many decades of useful life with film negatives having a storage life of over 100 years. Wouldn’t Niepce have marvelled at this, so let us fondly remember these early researchers, scientists and enthusiastic inventors who have bequeathed us this rich photographic legacy.