The First Colors of Paris: When Photography Got Vivid

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The First Colors of Paris: When Photography Got Vivid
From neolithic cave painters to the mid-19th century invention of the camera, stopping time and capturing images has fascinated humanity. We are hardwired to express ourselves. The human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than words, and the language of photography has allowed humankind to pictorially record our history.  While there was no defining moment that photography was invented, the basic idea existed for centuries and developed over the ages as technology progressed. The earliest cameras such as the camera obscura weren’t used so much to take pictures as they were to study optics. They demonstrated how light can be used to project an image onto a flat surface. The Arab philosopher Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040), a mathematician, astronomer, and physicist, is considered the father of modern optics. He studied reflection, refraction and the nature of images formed by light rays. But the actual chemistry needed to record an image was not available until the 19th century.  “Front page of the Opticae Thesaurus, which included the first printed Latin translation of Alhazen’s Book of Optics. The illustration incorporates many examples of optical phenomena including perspective effects, the rainbow, mirrors, and refraction.” Public domain, via Wikimedia commons The earliest photograph was created by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (French, 1765–1833), produced with the aid of a camera obscura. It was a real breakthrough, after years of developments. Niépce photographic experimented with photography in order to record everyday life. As early as 1816 he produced images, or points de vue, while using a mixture of chemicals, materials, and techniques, creating héliographie, or sun writing. He dissolved light-sensitive bitumen in lavender oil and applied it on a silver plate, then inserted the plate beneath his camera obscura and positioned it near a workroom window. Exposure to sunlight would create an impression on the plate of the courtyard, outbuildings, and trees outside. Ten years later, in 1826, Niépce produced the first “photograph”, View From the Window at Le Gras, the oldest one known in the world today.  Point de vue du Gras, the oldest conserved photograph. Credit: Nicéphore Niépce in 1827. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons In 1829 Niépce established a commercial relationship with the French artist and inventor Louis Daguerre (1787–1851), who owned the renowned Diorama in Paris. He and Niépce both sought ways of using chemistry and light to fix permanent images, but while Niepce’s process remained inefficient due to the slowness and complexity of the various operations, Daguerre produced the first sophisticated photographic process, the daguerreotype, and a more efficient camera. Daguerreotypes are created by covering a copper plate with silver, sensitizing it with iodine, then exposing it to hot mercury. Even though his photographs captured the forms of nature with beautifully rendered detail, and were wildly successful worldwide, they still failed to capture and retain their color. 

Lead photo credit : A family in the rue du Pot de fer, Paris. Autochrome from Albert Kahn's Archives de la planète. 24 June 1914. Photo Credit: Stéphane Passet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque and Provence. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.


  • Joanna Valentine
    2024-01-18 06:23:26
    Joanna Valentine
    Wow, excellent overview of origins of photography and the advent of color photography, thank you.