AUSTIN, Texas—In June 2002, the world’s First Photograph, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s “View from the Window at Le Gras,” traveled from The University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center to the Los Angeles-based Getty Conservation Institute to undergo its first-ever extensive scientific tests.
The joint initiative between the Ransom Center and the Getty Conservation Institute, an international leader in the conservation and preservation of the visual arts, revealed new information and conservation strategies for the long-term preservation of the First Photograph, including a new, unretouched image of the historical photograph.
A protective closure had previously prevented any study in detail about the First Photograph, one of the most important images in the history of photography. At the Getty, the photograph was subjected to a variety of scientific, non-destructive tests to determine its chemical make-up and inherent physical and structural challenges. The results of the tests were announced on Friday, Nov. 21, at the Ransom Center and Getty Conservation Institute’s symposium “At First Light: Niépce and the Dawn of Photography,” a gathering of international scholars, art historians and conservators.
Highlights of the testing results included the following:
Rediscovered in 1952 by photohistorians Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, the known image of the First Photograph was retouched prior to its international release.
- The First Photograph was photographed to produce a new, unretouched reproduction of the image.
- Microscopic examination showed that the image layer of the First Photograph is not a continuous layer, but rather has a random dot pattern.
- Using a nondestructive X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF) it was determined that the First Photograph was made using a pewter plate containing a high concentration of tin alloyed with lead, copper and iron.
- A nondestructive infrared analysis of the image layer of the First Photograph revealed a complex composition of bitumen and oil of lavender.
- The metal plate of the First Photograph does not have consistent thickness nor are its dimensions uniform.
- Evaluations of the First Photograph’s earlier protective enclosure revealed the urgent need to design and build a new oxygen-free enclosure to protect the artifact.
Created by Niépce around 1826, the First Photograph is a unique image produced in camera upon a pewter plate and records the view from an upper story window of Niépce’s home in the village of St.-Loup-des-Varennes. The early photographic process, called “heliography” by Niépce, required an all-day exposure upon the pewter plate, which had been coated with a light-sensitive substance called bitumen of Judea. The resulting image, the earliest known permanent camera image taken from nature, was rediscovered in 1952 by photo historian Helmut Gernsheim.
Getty Conservation Institute Scientist Herant Khanjan and Harry Ransom Center Photography Conservator Barbara Brown position the First Photograph for analysis.
In April the First Photograph went on permanent display with the opening of the new Ransom Center Galleries. Scientists at the Getty have designed and built a new, environmentally controlled case for the artifact. The case allows for a continuous, computer-based monitoring system of the protective atmosphere as well as automatic notification when internal environmental parameters exceed pre-programmed safety limits. Through an automated network the Ransom Center and the Getty will be able to monitor conditions within the protective enclosure from their individual computers.
Housed in its original Empire frame and sealed within an atmosphere of inert gas in an airtight steel and Plexiglas storage frame, the photograph must be viewed under controlled lighting in order for its image to be visible. Details in the original image are faint, due not to fading but to Niépce’s underexposure of the original plate.
The Ransom Center acquired the image in 1963 as part of the Gernsheim Collection, a major photo historical archive. Today the strength of the Ransom Center’s photography collection is in its documentation of the history, art and evolution of the medium. Photography holdings amount to more than five million prints and negatives, supplemented by manuscripts, archives and memorabilia of significant photographers of the past two centuries.
One of the university’s treasures, the Ransom Center houses one of the world’s finest cultural archives, specifically 36 million manuscripts, one million books, more than 100,000 works of art and design, and its extensive photography collection.
For more information contact: Jennifer Tisdale, Harry Ransom Center, 512-471-8949.