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  • New Details of First Photograph Revealed
Nov 2003
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 24 -- In June 2002, the world's first photograph, Joseph Nicephore Niepce's "View from the Window at Le Gras," was moved from The University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Center to the Los Angeles-based Getty Conservation Institute to undergo the first extensive scientific tests since it was taken in 1826.

UNRETOUCHED: New official image of the first photograph, minus manual retouching. Joseph Nicephore Niepce's "View from the Window at Le Gras," c. 1826. Gernsheim Collection, Harry Ransom Center/University of Texas at Austin. (Photo: J. Paul Getty Museum.)

The photograph is a unique image produced upon a pewter plate; it records the view from an upper story window of Niepce's home in the village of St.-Loup-des-Varennes. The early photographic process, called "heliography" by Niepce, required an all-day exposure upon the pewter plate, which was 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.

ROOM WITH A VIEW: Rediscovered in 1952 by photohistorians Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, the known image of the first photograph was retouched prior its international release. Joseph Nicephore Niepce's "View from the Window at Le Gras," c. 1826. Gernsheim Collection, Harry Ransom Center/University of Texas at Austin.
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, nondestructive tests to determine its chemical makeup and inherent physical and structural challenges. Findings from the tests were presented last week at the Ransom Center/Getty Conservation Institute symposium, "At First Light: Niepce and the Dawn of Photography," which was attended by international scholars, art historians and conservators.

The joint initiative revealed new information and conservation strategies for the photograph's long-term preservation:

-- Researchers photographed the image to produce a new, unretouched reproduction.

-- Using nondestructive x-ray fluorescence spectrometry, researchers 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 reflectance fourier transform infrared (FTIR) analysis of the image layer revealed a complex composition of bitumen and oil of lavender.

-- Microscopic examination showed that the image layer of the first photograph is not a continuous layer, but has a random dot pattern.

-- The metal plate of the photograph does not have consistent thickness, nor are its dimensions uniform.

-- Evaluations of the photograph's earlier protective enclosure revealed an urgent need to design and build a new oxygen-free enclosure to protect the artifact.

CLOSE-UP ANALYSIS: Getty Conservation Institute Senior Scientist Dusan Stulik and Harry Ransom Center Photography Conservator Barbara Brown assess the elemental spectra being recorded by an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer.
   The photograph went on permanent display with the opening of the new Ransom Center Galleries in April. Scientists at the Getty have designed and built a new, environmentally controlled case for the artifact. The case provides a continuous, computer-based monitoring system of the protective atmosphere, that automatically sends an alert when internal environmental parameters exceed preprogrammed safety limits. Through an automated network, the Ransom Center and the Getty can monitor conditions in the protective enclosure from individual computers.

FLIR VIEW: Getty Conservation Institute Scientist Herant Khanjan and Barbara Brown position the first photograph for reflectance fourier transform infrared (FTIR) analysis.
   Housed in its original Empire frame and sealed within an atmosphere of inert gas in an airtight steel and a 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 -- not due to fading, but to Niepce'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.

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