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This earliest known surviving heliographic engraving, printed from a metal plate made in 1825 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce using his "heliographic process".[1] The plate was exposed under an ordinary engraving. Heliography was also used to capture a scene directly from nature with a camera.

Heliography (in French, héliographie) from helios (Greek: ἥλιος), meaning "sun", and graphein (γράφειν), "writing") is the photographic process invented, and named thus, by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce around 1822,[1] which he used to make the earliest known surviving photograph from nature, View from the Window at Le Gras (1826 or 1827), and the first realisation of photoresist[2] as means to reproduce artworks through inventions of photolithography and photogravure.


Comparison between the original engraving and the heliography of Joseph Nicephore Niépce. Left: Engraving of Portrait of Georges d'Amboise, 1650 right: Heliography (Heliogravure) of the engraving, 1826

Nicéphore Niépce began experiments with the aim of achieving a photo-etched printmaking technique in 1811.

He knew that the acid-resistant Bitumen of Judea used in etching hardened with exposure to light.[3] In experiments he coated it on plates of glass, zinc, copper and silver-surfaced copper, pewter and limestone (lithography),[4] and found the surface exposed to the most light resisted dissolution in oil of lavender and petroleum,[5] so that the uncoated shadow areas might be traditionally treated through acid etching and aquatint to print black ink.[6][7]

By 1822 had made the first light-resistant heliographic copy of an engraving, made without a lens by placing the print in contact with the light-sensitive plate. In 1826 he increasingly used pewter plates because their reflective surface made the image more clearly visible.

Niépce prepared a synopsis of his experiments in November 1829: On Heliography, or a method of automatically fixing by the action of light the image formed in the camera obscura[8][9] which outlines his intention to use his “Heliographic” method of photogravure or photolithography as a means of making lithographic, intaglio or relief master plates for multiple printed reproductions in ink.[10]

Although heliography did not achieve his intentions during Niépce's lifetime, it was further developed by his nephew Claude Félix Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor; in 1855, with the help of the copper engraver Lemaître, he succeeded in etching the heliographs and producing prints from them, laying the foundation for later photoengraving processes.

Camera pictures[edit]

View from the Window at Le Gras, by Joseph Nicephore Niepce, 1826 or 1827, France - Harry Ransom Center - University of Texas at Austin

After his return from London concentrated on making camera images, which, aware of their commercial potential, he ambiguously called “points de vue” in his letters to his brother. In 1816 he had limited success with light-sensitive paper coated with muriate (or chloride) of silver placed in a homemade camera obscura were conducted; impressions of views out of his workroom window. However the images were not permanent.[11]

It is certain that in the summer of 1826 Niépce succeeded for the first time in creating permanent photographic images projected by a lens onto the plate inside a camera obscura. Georges Poitonniée asserts, based on the Niépce brothers correspondence, that the first such image was produced as early as 1822.[12][13] The process used was low in sensistivity; Helmut Gernsheim estimated the exposure time might be eight hours, while Marignier,[14] based on his attempts to recreate the technique, as well evidence from Niépce’s letters, considered three or more days more likely.[15]

Precursor to the daguerreotype[edit]

The exposed and solvent-treated plate itself, as in the case of View from the Window at Le Gras, rediscovered by Gernsheim,[16] presents a negative or positive image dependent upon ambient reflection in the 20.3 × 16.5 centimetre pewter plate. By viewing the plate at an appropriate angle the viewer sees the shadow areas reflecting dark in contrast to the lighter film of bitumen, producing a legible, if elusive, positive picture of buildings, a tree, and the landscape beyond. In this regard it was not unlike the daguerreotype which itself was based on Niépce's discoveries taken up by Daguerre who in 1826 had heard through the Parisian opticians Charles and Vincent Chevalier that Niépce, who purchased sophisticated lenses from them, had been using bitumen of Judea to print images on pewter. By then, Niépce had begun using iodine vapors to darken the light parts of camera images produced on silver plates, rendering a positive image. Daguerre and Niépce corresponded, each hesitant to divulge the extent of his progress to the other.

Partnership with Daguerre[edit]

After both felt they could develop their work more quickly in collaboration, they formed a company on 14 December 1829.

Daguerre preferred the “negative” image obtained on bitumen, and together they invented a new process that rendered a single, unique image, the physautotype,[17] which exploited the photosensitivity of the residue from oil of lavender dissolved in alcohol, resulting in an image that, like the daguerreotype, appeared either positive or negative depending on the angle of reflected light.

Daguerre continued to perfect the process to render a unique image using iodine, not to intensify the image, but because of its photosensitivity when applied to silver plates as a vapor. This led Daguerre to the daguerreotype process, in which mercury fumes brought out the latent image in the silver iodide on plates exposed to light in a camera.

Daguerre probably produced his first successful daguerreotypes as early as 1834 and after Niépce’s death entered a new partnership with Niépce’s son, Isidore, on 9 May 1835, changing the name from “Niépce-Daguerre” to “Daguerre and Isidore Niépce.” On September 27, 1835 he announced the invention as his in the Journal des artistes.[11] Daguerre’s high successful eponymous process, in the specific chemicals and materials used, thus emerged directly out of his partnership with Niépce, whose own discoveries, never fully realised, sank into relative obscurity.


Bitumen has a complex and varied structure of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (linked benzene rings), containing a small proportion of nitrogen and sulphur; its hardening in proportion to its exposure to light is understood to be due to further cross-linking of the rings, as is the hardening of tree resins (colophony, or abietic acid) by light, first noted by Jean Senebier in 1782. The photochemistry of these processes, which has been studied by Jean-Louis Marignier of Université Paris-Sud since the 1990s,[18][19][20] is still to be fully understood.[11]

Alternative meanings[edit]

The word has also been used to refer to other phenomena: for description of the sun (cf. geography), for photography in general, for signalling by heliograph (a device less commonly called a heliotrope or helio-telegraph), and for photography of the sun.[21]

Although named “héliographie” by Niépce, in the later 19th century “heliography” was used generally for all “sun-printing;” with “heliographic processes” coining to mean specifically the reprographic copying for line, rather than continuous tone, images.[11] The abbreviations héliog. or héliogr., found on old reproductions, may stand for the French word héliogravure, and can then refer to any form of photogravure.

Other early photographic procedures[edit]


  1. ^ a b "The First Photograph — Heliography". Archived from the original on 2009-10-06. Retrieved 2009-09-29. from Helmut Gernsheim's article, "The 150th Anniversary of Photography," in History of Photography, Vol. I, No. 1, January 1977: ...In 1822, Niépce coated a glass plate... The sunlight passing through... This first permanent example... was destroyed... some years later.
  2. ^ Dyson, R. W. (Robert William), 1942- (1987), Specialty polymers, Blackie ; New York : Chapman and Hall, p. 102, ISBN 978-0-412-01551-9{{citation}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  3. ^ Vogel, Hermann Wilhelm (1876). The chemistry of light and photography in their application to art, science, and industry (revised ed.). H. King. p. 12.
  4. ^ Michael Peres (2007), The Concise Focal Encyclopedia of Photography From the First Photo on Paper to the Digital RevolutionPaperback (1st ed.), Focal Press, p. 85, ISBN 978-0-240-80998-4
  5. ^ M. Hepher (Fellow) (1964) The Third Fishenden Memorial Lecture: The Photo-Resist Story—From NiéPce to the Modern Polymer Chemist, The Journal of Photographic Science, 12:4, 181-190, DOI: 10.1080/00223638.1964.11737246
  6. ^ Krongauz, V. V. (Vadim V.), 1953-; Trifunac, A. D. (Alexander D.), 1944- (1995), Processes in photoreactive polymers, Chapman & Hall, ISBN 978-0-412-98401-3{{citation}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ Morrish, David; MacCallum, Marlene (2015), Copper plate photogravure : demystifying the process, Focal Press, ISBN 978-1-138-13124-8
  8. ^ Bonnet, M., & Marignier, J.-L. (2003). Niépce, correspondance et papiers. Saint-Loup-de-Varennes: Maison Nicéphore Niepce
  9. ^ "Niépce Correspondance et papiers, accessible en ligne". Musée Photo Maison Nicéphore Niépce (in French). 2012-01-09. Retrieved 2019-08-23.
  10. ^ Ostroff, E. (1969). 'Etching, Engraving & Photography: History of Photomechanical Reproduction.' In The Journal of Photographic Science, 17(3), 65-80.
  11. ^ a b c d Ware, Mike, 'Positives: Minor Processes.' In Hannavy, J. (2008). Encyclopedia of nineteenth-century photography. New York: Routledge.
  12. ^ Potonnieée, Georges (1936). The history of the discovery of photography (in French). New York: Tennant And Ward. OCLC 1075124933.
  13. ^ Eder, Josef Maria, Epstean, Edward (1945). History of Photography. doi:10.7312/eder91430. ISBN 978-0-231-88370-2. OCLC 1104874591.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  14. ^ "Dr. Jean-Louis Marignier : Researcher at the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) University of Paris Sud 11 Orsay". Institut de Chimie Physique. Retrieved 2022-08-06.
  15. ^ Marignier, Jean-Louis (1996). "Heliography: The Photographic Process Invented By Nicéphore Niépce Before His Association with Daguerre, New Light on the invention of Photography". The Daguerreian Annual: 53–63.
  16. ^ French: “Gernsheim reviendra en 1982 sur cette datation, et admettra la date de 1827, proposée en 1967 par P.-G. Harmant et P. Marillier, " Some Thoughts on the World's First Photograph ", The Photographic Journal, vol. 107 (4), avril 1967, p. 130-140 (paru en français en 1972 sous le titre : " À propos de la plus ancienne photographie du monde ", op. cit.) ; cf. H. Gernsheim, The origins of Photography, Londres, New York, Thames and Hudson, 1982, p. 34., which means “in 1982, Gernsheim goes back on his dating, and validate the date of 1827, proposed by P.-G. Harmant et P. Marillier in 1967
  17. ^ Marignier, Jean-Louis (2002). "The Physautotype: The World's Second Photographic Process, Invented by Niépce and Daguerre in 1832". The Daguerreian Annual: 350–362.
  18. ^ Marignier, Jean-Louis. "L'invention de la photographie." Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Sciences-Series IIB-Mechanics-Physics-Chemistry-Astronomy 325.7 (1997): 415-420.
  19. ^ MARIGNIER, Jean-Louis (1998). "L'invention de la photographie par Nicéphore Niépce : apport de la voie expérimentale". www.openbibart.fr. Retrieved 2019-08-23.
  20. ^ Marignier, J. L. (2003). Niepce: l'invention de la photographie. Belin, Paris.
  21. ^ Descriptions of the sun, photography in general, and signalling by heliotrope: Oxford English Dictionary 2nd ed. (1989) s.v. "Heliography". Photography of the sun: As used by and in discussion of Hiroshi Yamazaki.

Other Sources[edit]