“On a late summer day in 1826, after several days of exposure, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce held the oldest photograph in his hands (which he himself called a heliography) which has survived to this day. The purely virtual, the previously incomprehensible became real, immortalized, and transportable on a tin plate coated with light-sensitive asphalt varnish”.

from the book “Camera Obscura Tübingen”, 2004 by Przemek Zajfert, Carsten Kauth and Wolfdietrich Müller with a foreword by Walter Jens

Przemek Zajfert in seinem Atelier in Stuttgarter Westen

“When I take this metal plate out of the bowl, which is covered with a delicate asphalt image that is not yet fixed, I know that I am holding something concrete in my hands. At the same time I have the feeling that I am touching another dimension, another time. A world that is magical and completely strange to me.”

2019, Przemek Zajfert in his studio in the west of Stuttgart. More at: zajfert.de

On the trail of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, the inventor of photography

with Martin Hein, March 2015

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce – * 7 March 1765 in Chalon-sur-Saône, France; † 5 July 1833 in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes.

Niépce, who had a sister and two brothers, was an officer in the French army from 1789 to 1811; he administered the district of Nice between 1795 and 1801, and devoted himself to mechanical and chemical work as well as lithography with his brother Claude Niepce in his father’s town from 1815. From 1816, Niépce was engaged in the production of images with a Camera Obscura.

“To reproduce the images taken by the camera obscura with the gradations of tones from black to white by the action of light itself” from the “Notice sur l’Héliographie, 1829.

For his first experiments, he positioned sheets of paper coated with silver salts on the back of a camera obscura. It was known that silver salts (silver chloride) darken when exposed to light. In May 1816, he produced the first picture of nature: a view from the window. It was a negative and the image was not durable. After opening the camera, the exposure process continued, the image increasingly blackened and eventually disappeared completely. Niépce called this process “Retina”. The recording technique from the project “THE 7th DAY” is based on this process. Disappointed that there was no way to make this first photograph durable, Niépce turned his attention to other processes.

In March 1817, Niépce focused his attention on guaiac resin. This yellow resin changes color to green when exposed to daylight. It is also sparingly soluble in alcohol. In principle, it could be used to make permanent photographs. However, this property of the resin is only caused by UV light. The glass lenses of his camera obscura largely filtered out this light and the guaiac resin did not change its properties in the camera. Contact prints in direct sunlight were possible, but unfortunately no photographs were taken with his camera obscura.

Disappointed, Niépce turned to other substances, especially natural asphalt, also known as “Bitume de Judée”. The tough black-brown mineral was extracted from the Mine du Parc at that time, a mine near Seyssel, located about 100 kilometres from his country home in France. Finely powdered natural asphalt is dissolved in lavender oil and applied very thinly to metal plates (copper, tinplate), stone or glass. After drying on a hot iron plate, the coated material can be exposed. The exposure time for contact prints is several hours with sunlight. In a camera obscura the exposure takes several days. Depending on the amount of light, the asphalt hardens to different degrees. After exposure, the softer areas (where less light reached) can be washed out with a mixture of lavender oil and white oil. He describes his method in detail in his “Notice sur l’Héliographie”.

More: Auf den Spuren von Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

View from the study of Le Gras (French title La cour du domaine du Gras “The courtyard of the estate of Le Gras” or Point de vue du Gras “View of Le Gras”) is the first successfully taken and preserved photograph in the world. It was produced in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in Saint-Loup-de Varennes, France.


  • Helmut Gernsheim, «Vorstufen und frühe Entwicklungen», in Helmut Gernsheim (Hg.), Geschichte der Photographie. Die ersten hundert Jahre (Frankfurt a. M.: Prophyläen Verlag 1983), 11–41.