Chalon-sur-Saone: The Secret Birthplace of Photography

500 miles south of Paris can be found an unpretentious market town of 50,000 named Chalon-sur-Saone, famous among photographers as the birthplace of their passion's inventor: Joseph Nicephore Niepce.

Photography by the authors

Chalon-sur-Saône is a small, unpretentious town lying, of course, on the river Saône, a tributary of France’s second longest river, the Rhone. It’s hard to believe this little market town of 50,000 could attract visitors from all over Europe but they all have something in common: they are photography junkies. They have come to the home of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, the man who essentially invented photography.

Not all French people accept that notion because they have a second choice, also a Frenchman: Louis Daguerre. In fact the two men ultimately worked together on this new exciting concept, a way of permanently storing an image.

Niépce was born in Chalon-sur-Saône in 1765 of wealthy parents. For a time he was not sure what he wanted in life. He studied in a seminary but gave that up at the age of 22. He taught in school for four years then was commissioned into the army. Poor eyesight brought about his discharge.

He returned to the town of his birth in 1801 where his family fortune enabled him to become a self-taught scientist. He was curious about everything, dabbling in internal combustion engines, precursors of the bicycle and finally what he called heliography (“sun writing”). His statue dominates the river bank.

Niépce didn’t pioneer the concept that a lens or even a pinhole could project an image, albeit one upside down, for viewers to look at. That was the basis for the camera obscura (the “darkened chamber”) that had delighted people for almost a thousand years. Niépce’s contribution was experimenting with chemicals that could fix an image and thus store it. He was experimenting as early as 1793.

In 1816 he was working with silver chloride on paper to create negatives but he still couldn’t fix the pictures till he discovered if he spread a mixture of bitumen of Judea and essential oil of lavender on his silver-covered copper plates, dried -- then exposed — them, the image underwent permanent change.

His first photograph, an eight-hour exposure of the view from his window at Le Gras made in 1826, was lost for 50 years but photo-historian Helmut Gernsheim, behaving more like a detective, found it and it now lies donated to the permanent collection of the University of Texas at Austin. The version shown here is courtesy of UT and based on high tech processing by the Research Laboratory of the Eastman Kodak Company.

Niépce had a partnership with his brother Claude. Claude died in 1828, the two having exhausted the family fortune with their scientific research. Niépce began working with Louis Daguerre in 1829, a successful collaboration until Niépce’s death in 1833 from a brain hemorrhage at the age of 68. He left his widow and son in serious debt and died without getting much credit for his contributions to science. Now he is getting the recognition he deserves.

The Niépce Museum lies across the square from his statue beside the very friendly and well-run office of tourism. There is local talk the museum may move to larger quarters. On display are a collection of classic cameras, examples of Niépce’s views on photography and discussions of optics and photography history. The website of the museum is surprisingly devoid of images until you start clicking on the virtual tour!

Chalon is easy to get to, lying as it does less than 200 miles south of Paris. It was particularly easy for us: we went by a Uniworld river boat, the River Royale, and had a Sunday to wander the town, a day when -- despite the French 35-hour week -- both the tourist office and the museum were open.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the American Society of Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.