Today is World Photo Day, a day to celebrate some of the best and most important photos of all time.
This photo, simply titled, “View from the Window at Le Gras,” is said to be the world’s earliest surviving photographs. And it was almost lost forever.
It was taken by Nicéphore Niépce in a commune in France called Saint-Loup-de-Varennes somewhere between 1826 and 1827.
The process of taking a photo used to be much more complicated.
To capture this moment in time, Niépce wanted to use a light-sensitive material so the light itself would “etch” the image for him. After much struggle and trial and error, he finally found the perfect formula. According to the University of Texas at Austin, he developed some sort of combination of bitumen of Judea, a type of asphalt, and spread it over this pewter plate:
After letting the image sit in a camera obscura for eight hours, the outdoor light eventually did all the work for him. Here’s the University of Texas’s description for how he did it:
When he let this petroleum-based substance sit in a camera obscura for eight hours without interruption, the light gradually hardened the bitumen where it hit, thus creating a rudimentary photo. He “developed” this picture by washing away the unhardened bitumen with lavender water, revealing an image of the rooftops and trees visible from his studio window.
And thus the first known photograph was born. Niépce himself called it heliography, or “light writing.”
While it was a revolution in technology, the plate itself went missing for quite some time. Eventually, it was found in storage, in an unknown crate, in 1952.
When you look at the photo, it’s nothing much: just a grainy view of a roof somewhere in France. And yet, you can thank it for the fact that you have thousands of photos on your iPhone today.
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