Long before the first public announcements of photographic processes in 1839, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a scientifically-minded gentleman living on his country estate near Chalon-sur-Saône, France, began experimenting with photography. Fascinated with the craze for the newly-invented art of lithography which swept over France in 1813, he began his initial experiments by 1816. Unable to draw well, Niépce first placed engravings, made transparent, onto engraving stones or glass plates coated with a light-sensitive varnish of his own composition. These experiments, together with his application of the then-popular optical instrument, the camera obscura, would eventually lead him to the invention of the new medium.
In 1824 Niépce met with some degree of success in copying engravings, but it would be two years later before he had success utilizing pewter plates as the support medium for the process. By the summer of that year, 1826, Niépce was ready. In the window of his upper-story workroom at his Saint-Loup-de-Varennes country house, Le Gras, he set up a camera obscura, placed within it a polished pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea (an asphalt derivative of petroleum), and uncapped the lens. After at least a day-long exposure of eight hours, the plate was removed and the latent image of the view from the window was rendered visible by washing it with a mixture of oil of lavender and white petroleum which dissolved away the parts of the bitumen which had not been hardened by light. The result was the permanent direct positive picture you see here—a one-of-a-kind photograph on pewter. It renders a view of the outbuildings, courtyard, trees and landscape as seen from that upstairs window.
An ultimately doomed attempt to interest the Royal Society in his process—which he called "Heliography"—brought Niépce and the first photograph to England in 1827. Upon his return to France later that year, he left this precious artifact with his host, the British botanist and botanical artist, Francis Bauer, who dutifully recorded the inventor's name and additional information on the paper backing of the frame that held the unique plate. Niépce formed a partnership with the French artist, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, in 1829, but produced little more work and died, his contributions chiefly unrecognized, in 1833.
Thereafter, the nineteenth century would see the first photograph pass from Bauer's estate and through a variety of hands. After its last public exhibition in 1898 it slipped into obscurity and did not surface for over half a century. It was only in 1952 that the photohistorian, Helmut Gernsheim, was able to follow the clues, establish the work's provenance, and discover where descendants of the plate's last recorded owner had forgotten that it was stored away. He verified the photograph's authenticity, obtained it for his collection, and returned Joseph Nicéphore Niépce to his rightful place as the first photographer. When Harry Ransom purchased the Gernsheim Collection for The University of Texas at Austin in 1963, Helmut Gernsheim subsequently donated the Niepce heliograph to the institution. It is this heliograph—the world's earliest-known, permanent photograph from nature—that remains the cornerstone not only to UT's Photography Collection but also to the process of photography which has revolutionized our world throughout nearly two centuries. Because of its uniqueness and its significance to the fine arts and humanities, it is among the world's and The University's rarest treasures.
The First Photograph, housed in its original presentational frame and sealed within an atmosphere of inert gas in an airtight steel and plexiglas storage frame, must be viewed under controlled lighting in order for its image to be visible. In general, this procedure also requires viewing within a darkened environment free of other incidental light sources. This effect, suggestive of Gernsheim's fIrst viewing of the mirror-like effect of the pewter plate, attempts to give each viewer the chance to experience the effect of discovery from which the image can be seen to seemingly emerge from the original heliograph plate.
The first attempt to reproduce the First Photograph was conducted at Helmut Gernsheim's request by the Research Laboratory of the Eastman Kodak Company in Harrow, England, in March of 1952. After three weeks of work utilizing strong side lighting, high contrast film and the identical angular displacement of the camera and enlarger lenses, the lab produced this copyprint. However, because of the sharpness of the lens and the camera's objective nature of precisely copying the texture and unevenness of the plate itself, Gernsheim declared this negative-like version to be a "gross distortion of the original" and forbade its reproduction until 1977.
This most famous reproduction of the First Photograph was based upon the March 1952 print, produced at Helmut Gernsheim's request by the Research Laboratory of the Eastman Kodak Company in Harrow. The pointillistic effect is due to the reproduction process and is not present in the original heliograph. Gernsheim himself spent eleven hours on March 20, 1952, touching up with watercolors one of the prints of the Kodak reproduction. His attempt was meant to bring the heliograph as close as possible to a positive representation of how he felt Niépce intended the original should appear. It is this version of the image which would become the accepted reproduction of the image for the next fifty years.
The view, made from an upper, rear window of the Niépce family home in Burgundy, in the village of Saint-Loup-de-Varennes near Chalon-sur-Saône. Representationally the subject matter includes [from left to right]: the upper loft (or, so-called "pigeon-house") of the family home; a pear tree with a patch of sky showing through an opening in the branches; the slanting roof of the barn, with the long roof and low chimney of the bake house behind it; and, on the right, another wing of the family house. Details in the original image are very faint, due not to fading—the heliographic process is a relatively permanent one—but rather to Niepce's underexposure of the original plate.
When Niépce left England in 1827, he gave his host and sponsor, Francis Bauer, FRS, many materials relating to his work, including the First Photograph. Bauer, ever the dutiful scientist and friend, added two important inscriptions on the paper backing of the original frame that held the piece:
Les premiers résultats
par l'action de la lumiere.
Par Monsieur Niepce
De Chalon sur Saone.
Monsieur Niépce's first successful
experiment of fixing permanently
the Image from Nature.
Bauer also signed his name and address, Kew Green, at the bottom of this record. The denotation of the year of 1827 is generally accepted as Bauer's reference to the date of presentation and not as the year of Niépce's production of the plate. Helmut Gernsheim himself favored the 1826 date as the year of its creation.
Fifty years after its rediscovery by Helmut Gernsheim, Niépce's First Photograph received critical scientific diagnosis, when it traveled to the Getty Conservation Institute in California. For over two weeks in the summer of 2002, scientists and conservators at this prestigious facility subjected the artifact, its frame, and support materials to extensive and rigorous non-destructive testing. The result was a very complete scientific and technical analysis of the object, which in turn provided better criteria for its secure and permanent case design and presentation here in the lobby of the newly-renovated Ransom Center.
The plate also received extensive attention from the photographic technicians at the Institute, who spent a day and a half with the original heliograph in their photographic studios in order to record photographically and digitally all aspects of the plate. The object was documented under all manner of scientific lights, including infrared and ultraviolet spectra. In addition, the photographers also followed in the footsteps of the Kodak Labs a half century earlier and produced new color film and digital/electronic copies of the plate, in an attempt to reveal more of the unretouched image while still providing a sense of the complex physical state of the photograph.