The first photograph in history (1826) is the attempt to fix the view from a window, taking advantage of the bitumen-blackening ability of Judea on a pewter plate, with a laying of about eight hours.
Its author Nicéphore Niepce, interested above all in lithographic reproduction, looks for a partner and finds it in Philippe Daguerre, Parisian scenographer obsessed by the mechanical reproduction of reality. Daguerre is already famous in the capital for his diorama shows and has good political adhesions.
When he developed, together with Niepce’s son, the daguerreotype, the deputy Jean-François Aragon presented the invention to the Academy of Sciences (1839) asking for an annuity for the two inventors in exchange for the public acquisition of the patent.
In those years photography is actually in the air. From Great Britain, Henry Fox-Talbot hastens to publish his invention, the calotype, a photographic negative on paper that allows the printing of multiple copies. Fox-Talbot thus solves some of the most serious problems of the daguerreotype, fragile and expensive in materials and above all in a single copy, but unparalleled in terms of sharpness.
Another Parisian, Hippolyte Bayard developed at the same time his own technique that allows the reproduction of several copies, but Aragon, determined to favor Daguerre, takes him away from the limelight: the most famous photo of Bayard made with his technique is a photographic self-portrait in which appears as a drowned person, explaining the sarcastic sense in the caption.
However, it is a scientist who sanctions the advent of photography and its name (also the terms “negative” and “positive”): Sir John Herschel establishes the method of fixing the latent image with sodium hyposulfite, the definitive solution to the problem of image stability.
In the meantime, photography helps painting by portraying one of its fields of use and artistic expression in the portrait. In Scotland it is the painter David Octavius Hill together with Robert Adamson to use photography for the preparation of a large fresco celebrating public commissioning (1843), a painting soon forgotten contrary to the vibrant portrait of Scottish society (two thousand photographs) released by the study of a couple of artists.
The genre is however destined to grow and find great performers: in America it is the enterprising Mathew Brady who opens the most famous studio in New York and leaves us the portraits of Edgar Allan Poe and the young deputy Abraham Lincoln, whose photograph, published in propaganda leaflets distributed for the election as president, will favor their victory. In Paris, the portraitist of French culture is Gaspard Félix de Tournachon, called Nadar, an authentic bohemian and famous caricaturist before becoming a photographer.
Courageous and enterprising, when his studio is now renowned (Charles Baudelaire, Sarah Bernardt, Gérard de Nerval are just some of the subjects portrayed with surprising intensity), Nadar ventures into the impossible feat of photographing with artificial light the undergrounds and catacombs of Paris. Aficionado of ascending flight (he founded a company to promote its diffusion) he also inaugurated aerial photography by publishing a series of images of Paris taken from above by his balloon, Le Géant.
Another natural field of use of photography in these early years is travel documentation. Archeology, whose mysteries enliven nineteenth-century culture and fantasies, is at the center of the photographic undertaking of the writer Maxime Du Camp, who travels for three years (1849-1851) in the company of Gustave Flaubert between Egypt, Syria, and Palestine (publishing a selection of 125 images), and of the Englishman Francis Frith, who travels to the same places in 1856 and publishes with great success two volumes with seventy images in total, printed and glued by hand on each copy.