Daguerre and Niépce Invent Daguerreotype Photography Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Jacques Daguerre and Nicéphore Niépce developed a fixed-image technology that would soon be called photography. Their first images, called daguerreotypes, were produced by means of radiant energy such as sunlight, on photographic plates. The images not only amazed but also repelled and frightened many people during the technology’s early years.

Summary of Event

An inventor who managed his family’s estate near Chalon-sur-Saône, France, Joseph Niépce was intrigued by the art of lithography, a printing technique in which images on inked stones are transferred to paper, allowing many copies to be produced quickly. Lithography became popular in France after its invention in 1798. By 1813, Niépce had begun experimenting with other methods to copy images. By 1824, Niépce had developed a light-sensitive varnish that allowed him to copy transparent images of engravings to a printing stone. In the summer of 1826, Niépce combined his latest light-sensitive material, a polished pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea (a derivative of asphalt), with a camera obscura, a box that uses a small lens on one of its walls to project an image from outside the box onto an opposite wall inside the box. Artists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had used the camera obscura to help them accurately sketch landscapes, correctly incorporating perspective into their paintings. Daguerre, Jacques Niépce, Nicéphore Daguerreotype photography Photography;daguerreotype [kw]Daguerre and Niépce Invent Daguerreotype Photography (1839) [kw]Niépce Invent Daguerreotype Photography, Daguerre and (1839) [kw]Invent Daguerreotype Photography, Daguerre and Niépce (1839) [kw]Daguerreotype Photography, Daguerre and Niépce Invent (1839) [kw]Photography, Daguerre and Niépce Invent Daguerreotype (1839) Daguerre, Jacques Niépce, Nicéphore Daguerreotype photography Photography;daguerreotype [g]France;1839: Daguerre and Niépce Invent Daguerreotype Photography[2075] [c]Photography;1839: Daguerre and Niépce Invent Daguerreotype Photography[2075] [c]Art;1839: Daguerre and Niépce Invent Daguerreotype Photography[2075] [c]Inventions;1839: Daguerre and Niépce Invent Daguerreotype Photography[2075] Arago, François

Niépce set his camera obscura in a window of his house. Unlike modern films, Film which capture images within small fractions of a second, Niépce’s first “photograph” (from the Greek words photos, meaning light, and graphein, meaning to draw or write) required exposure times of eight hours in the sun. After eight hours passed, Niépce removed the pewter plates and washed them with mixtures of oil of lavender and white petroleum, which dissolved areas of the bitumen that were not hardened by exposure to the sunlight. Niépce called his new process heliography, from Helios, the Greek god of the sun, because sunlight produced the image. He had produced the world’s first photograph.

Daguerreotype of former president John Quincy Adams, the earliest U.S. president to be photographed.

(Library of Congress)

Niépce took his photograph to England in 1827 and attempted to garner interest in his process from London’s Royal Society Royal Society;and photography[Photography] , which was widely regarded as the leading group of scientists in the world at that time. However, the rules of the Royal Society prohibited publicity for a secret process, and Niépce, not wanting others to copy his technique, refused to reveal how he made his photograph. He returned to France, where he met the French artist Jacques Daguerre.

Daguerre had worked as a stage designer and scene painter for the opera, and was known for creating realistic sets. He used a camera obscura as an aid to painting in perspective, and he had sought a way to not only capture but also record the camera obscura’s image. Daguerre is believed to have begun experimenting with photography before he met Niépce, whose work Daguerre learned of in 1826, but there is no surviving evidence of Daguerre’s early experiments. In January of 1829, Daguerre and Niépce became partners to find a way to improve the photographic process, and Niépce gave Daguerre access to all his techniques.

Over the next four years, Daguerre and Niépce worked to modify the heliography process, eventually using kerosene Kerosene;and photography[Photography] fumes to develop the image. Daguerre invented a new type of photographic plate, which used silver-iodine Silver;and photography[Photography] as the light-sensitive material. This process, however, still required hours of exposure in bright sunlight before an image would appear on the plate.

Daguerre and Niépce’s partnership ended with Niépce’s death in 1833. Working alone, Daguerre continued his experiments. His most significant discovery apparently was made by accident. He reportedly put one of his exposed silver-iodine plates into a cupboard, where he kept his chemical supplies. Days later, Daguerre found that the exposed image had “developed”; that is, it became visible on the plate, even though the exposure time had been too short for the image to appear the traditional way. Daguerre concluded that the image had developed because the plate was exposed to mercury vapor, which came from a broken thermometer in the cupboard. This developing process reduced the exposure time significantly, producing images in only tens of minutes instead of several hours.

Daguerre announced this discovery in the Journal des Artistes. These early images, though, were quick to fade. Daguerre needed a way to “fix the plates,” that is, to stabilize a given image so that it would not fade and disappear. The fix came in 1837, with Daguerre’s discovery that a solution of hot table salt would fix his images. Having found ways to record, develop, and fix an image, Daguerre named this new process daguerreotypy.

Daguerre’s next move was to find a way to make money from his invention. He attempted to sell the process, but he could not find a buyer. In 1838, Daguerre approached François Arago Arago, François , an influential French physicist and politician, and persuaded him to show daguerreotypy to his colleagues at the French Academy of Sciences. Arago immediately recognized the significance of this new technique. In January of 1839, Arago announced Daguerre’s discovery, although the process was not described in detail because Daguerre, protecting his method, was still trying to sell his invention. In pointing out the significance of Daguerre’s invention, Arago used the following example to illustrate photography’s import: He noted that copying the millions and millions of hieroglyphics on the great monuments of ancient Egypt would require the efforts of a team of artists working for many years, but a single photographer using the daguerreotype process could accomplish the same task in a few years.

Arago immediately approached officials in the French government and suggested that the government should buy the rights to the daguerreotype process. In July of 1839, Daguerre and Niépce’s son, Isidore, Niépce, Isidore who had taken over Niépce’s interest in the partnership, sold the rights for the daguerreotype process to the French government. On August 19, 1839, the French government announced that daguerreotypy was being made freely available to the world of science and art, allowing would-be photographers to make daguerreotypes without royalty payments. In addition to Arago’s Arago, François going public with the process, Daguerre, along with Isidore Niépce, published a booklet on the subject, and Daguerre gave public lectures.

The first improvement to Daguerre’s process came almost immediately. In 1839, Sir John Herschel Herschel, John found that hyposulphite of soda was far superior for fixing the image than was the salt solution used by Daguerre. Herschel also coined the term “photography” to describe the process of “light writing.”


Photography’s impact on art has been immeasurable, and photographs have changed how humans perceive the natural world. Many people believed that photography provided an accurate view of what naturally existed because the camera was thought to record the world exactly as it was. For the first time, the camera allowed people to “see” exotic sites and remote places without artists’ renderings.

By 1840 the photographic process began to assume a role important in science. In that year the American astronomer Astronomy;and photography[Photography] John Draper Draper, John took what is thought to be the first astronomical photograph, a daguerreotype of the moon. A few years later, in 1845, two French physicists, Armand Fizeau Fizeau, Armand and Jean-Bernard-Léon Foucault Foucault, Jean-Bernard-Léon , took the first photograph of the sun, with an exposure time of only one-sixtieth of a second. Before the development of photography, astronomers and others could not determine if the prominences (the cloudlike mass of gas projecting from the sun’s chromosphere) seen during eclipses were actually associated with the sun or if they occurred in the atmosphere of the earth. The first daguerreotype of a solar eclipse, Eclipses;photographs of taken on July 28, 1851, showed the prominences and the solar corona, and thus resolved that question.

The daguerreotype technique gained popularity so quickly that there were more than seventy daguerreotype studios in New York City by 1850. As the demand for photographic equipment increased around the world, so did the demand for higher-quality lenses. Thus, photography promoted research into the design and production of lenses as commercial products.

Comparing two photographs to detect the relative motion of objects in the sky was critical to the discovery of Pluto Pluto, discovery of and also was a method used in the twentieth century to discover numerous asteroids and comets.

Photography also had a major impact on the political process. The Civil War Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);photography in created a tremendous demand for news in the United States. The telegraph provided newspaper accounts of battles, sometimes while they were still in progress, and photography showed the public the casualties and devastation of the war. Mathew Brady Brady, Mathew , who opened a portrait gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1844, traveled to the front lines and photographed the Battle of Bull Run (1861), the first major battle of the Civil War. Brady’s eyesight was failing, so he sent other photographers, each with his own traveling darkroom, to accompany the troops. The photographers produced more than ten thousand prints that showed camp life, war preparations, and the aftermath of battle. Because the exposure time was still long in midcentury, few actual scenes of the battles exist.

Ferdinand Hayden Hayden, Ferdinand Vandeveer , the head of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, invited American photographer William Henry Jackson Jackson, William Henry to participate in a survey of the Wyoming Wyoming;survey of Territory in 1871. Jackson photographed the spectacular waterfalls, the geothermal eruptions, and the rugged, untouched landscapes of what is now Yellowstone National Park National parks, U.S.;Yellowstone Yellowstone National Park . Jackson’s dramatic photographs, and the watercolors of artist Thomas Moran, were the centerpieces of an exhibition that Hayden set up in the U.S. Capitol as he campaigned for passage of a bill establishing Yellowstone as the first national park in the United States in 1872.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barger, M. Susan, and William B. White. The Daguerreotype: Nineteenth Century Technology and Modern Science. 1991. Paperback ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Traces the history of the chemistry of daguerreotype photography and discusses the restoration and preservation of these fragile artifacts. Includes illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bisbee, A. The History and Practice of Daguerreotyping. Dayton, Ohio: L. F. Clafting, 1853. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1973. An early and very clear description of the process used by Daguerre. This little book was written for the American public at the crest of the enthusiasm over the technology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fouque, Victor. The Truth Concerning the Invention of Photography: Nicéphore Niépce, His Life, Letters, and Works. Translated by Edward Epstean. New York: Arno Press, 1973. Originally published in 1935, this 165-page collection looks at Niépce’s life through his works as well as his letters. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldberg, Vicki. Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988. A comprehensive, 570-page collection of essays on the development, art, and science of photography, including chapters on Niépce and on the daguerreotype’s influence on American society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hirsch, Robert. Seizing the Light: A History of Photography. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. A clear, 528-page history of photography describing photography’s role in the sciences, culture, and art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002. A 528-page work that examines the intersections between culture and photography. Includes illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1982. A classic history of photography, including the history of the daguerreotype process and its social and cultural impact.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roosens, Laurent, and Luc Salu. History of Photography: A Bibliography of Books. New York: Mansell, 1989-1996. A massive resource with about eleven thousand entries. Includes an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sullivan, George. In the Wake of Battle: The Civil War Images of Mathew Brady. New York: Prestel, 2004. Contains more than 350 photographs of the Civil War taken by Brady and other photographers employed by him. The photos are arranged by battle site and event, with introductory essays about the battles, and archival information about the images and photographers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vaucoulers, Gerard de. Astronomical Photography, from the Daguerreotype to the Electron Camera. New York: Macmillan, 1961. This 100-page introduction to astronomical photography provides many classic photographs, including the first daguerreotype of the sun.

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Categories: History