Photography and the Constancy of Time

View of the Boulevard du Temple

Nicéphore Niépce spent five years trying to create permanent photographic images, few of which survived, because although he could make photographic images appear on glass and metal plates, he lacked a good method for fixing the pictures permanently. Exposed to light, they faded with time. His work was brilliant but ephemeral, and most if it is lost.

Five years into his experiments, Niépce died unexpectedly of a stroke. At the time of his death he was so penniless and destitute that he was buried in a pauper’s grave. Luckily, he left his notes to his partner, Louis Daguerre, a fellow artist and scientist who would perfect the chemical process Niépce started by creating what become known as the daguerreotype.

What made the new process revolutionary is that Daguerre figured out that if you removed the silver halide crystals from the surface of the exposed photograph, the image would be come permanent. To do so, he used a chemical called sodium thiosulfate, known today as fixer.

In 1938 he created the photograph you see at the top of this post. It’s a scene from a street in Paris called the Boulevard du Temple. The photograph required a long exposure of about ten minutes. Therefore, what was at the time a very busy street in Paris is rendered deserted. That’s because during a long exposure, only those objects that remain stationary can be exposed long enough to show up in the photograph. Everything else disappears: the people, the horses, the carriages, the stray dogs. They all moved on with their lives, disappearing into the depths of time.

All but two. At the bottom of the photograph you can see two tiny figures, one standing, once sitting. A man is presumably having his shoes polished. We can’t see any detail, and we’ll never know who these two men were, but they were the first in the history of civilization to be fixed onto a photograph for all time.

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