Friday, December 23, 2011

Genesis Moment

It is incredibly faint– ghostlike. Moving your gaze about in the dim shrine, you occasionally catch a glimpse of something long gone. Attempting to refocus, you strain your eyes to see something that might not even be there. A certain patience is required to see something so rare as this...

Estate at Le Gras
Support the Nicéphore Niépce House–
© Spéos
Nearly two centuries ago in rural France, Nicéphore (Joseph) Niépce climbed the stairs in the early morning hours into the second story of his family's country estate and set up a scientific experiment, the likes of which the world had never before seen, and which would change the world forever. Just inside the window, he set up a camera obscura consisting of an imaging lens mounted on a wooden box, with a special pewter plate at the rear. He had previously coated the plate with a thin layer of a unique material– bitumen of Judea dissolved in oil of lavender. After carefully focusing the lens, he could easily see on the pewter plate the upside-down, lit image of the roof and farm buildings outside the window.

Nicéphore had previously experimented with such photo-sensitive plates in his successful attempts to reproduce graphical materials (mainly artistic engravings) through the use of light imaged through a lens. Wherever the brightest light of an image struck the special coating on the plate, the bitumen became solid and permanent, forming a long-lasting material image. Now, he sought to reproduce not just simple graphics, but the physical, natural world itself through the medium of light. What an audacious dream– to reproduce what the world looked like, through the agency of nature itself, and without the intervention of an artist's skill and tools! Could such an enterprise be possible? It seemed too good to be true.

Satisfied that the focused image was as clear as possible, he settled back on a wooden chair and girded up his patience, knowing that this would take the entire day. As he waited, the brilliantly sunlit scene outside poured its photonic energy through the window. The scrambled beams of light were precisely redirected and reordered as they pushed their way through the glass lens, finally impinging upon the sensitive surface of the polished metal plate.

Nicéphore continued waiting, eating his lunch while the sun rose high in the French-blue sky overhead. The foreshortened shadows on the ground eventually began to lengthen, and still the photons in the image were building up a physical, material image on the plate. Thin layer upon thin layer of solid, permanent bitumen were formed in the brightest regions of the image.

Hungry again as the sun descended in the west, he supped on bread and sipped on wine, waiting the fullest extent of time for the image that was developing on his plate. Finally, the sun sank below the horizon and he removed the plate from the rear of the box. Working in the dim, golden light of a few oil lamps, he carefully rinsed the surface of the plate with more oil of lavender, hoping to see a real, physical image on the substrate.

He dried the remaining solvent and then examined the plate in the light of the lamps. At first, the metal surface seemed as it had before– simply a shiny gray, metallic gleam. But as he turned and tilted it in the light, something finally caught his eye...was that an image? He couldn't quite decipher what he was looking at until he turned the plate 180°– he had been looking at it upside down, forgetting that the projected image on the plate had been inverted!

Having now seen something that the world outside had not yet imagined,  Nicéphore set himself to refining his process. He began collaborating with Louis Daguerre, who would ultimately stand in the spotlight of public celebrity as the pioneer of photography. Nicéphore Joseph Niépce eventually receded into obscurity, remembered by only a handful who appreciated his foundational role in the invention.

His original photographic plate, containing the image of the estate at Le Gras was given to an admiring botanist and artist in England, Mr. Francis Bauer. Bauer wrote a detailed description on the back of the photograph in both French and English, proclaiming it to be the first artifice "...fixing permanently the image from Nature."

In the mid-twentieth century Niépce had been generally acknowledged as the inventor of photography, although there was no known physical evidence of this work. But Helmut Gernsheim, photographer and photographic historian and collector, and his wife Alison, devoted three years to researching and tracking down such evidence– if it still existed. Tantalizing, obscure references in the literature beckoned them to press on in the pursuit. Through hard work and perseverance they would track the possession of this treasure through at least a half-dozen separate individuals who had owned it through the period of more than a century.

Niépce's "View From the Window at Le Gras"
©, Harry Ransom Center and J. Paul Getty Museum
In February 1952, the culmination of their search took them to the final owner, a Mrs. Pritchard of London, England. Although her family had previously expressed to Gernsheim that the plate had been stolen or otherwise permanently lost from them, it had recently been rediscovered. The long sought image had been found in a dusty old trunk beneath "old clothes, books, and other family relics." A meeting between Mrs. Pritchard and the Gernsheims was at last arranged and they would have the opportunity to see it with their own eyes. As Mrs. Pritchard handed the ornately framed article to Helmut, she expressed her dismay that the image had totally faded away. Looking at the back, he first noticed the clearly worded description of the transaction of this item from Niépce to Bauer. Turning it over, he saw what appeared to be simply a dark, polished metallic plate. But where was the photographic image?

Just as Niépce had done more than a century before, he turned and tilted the plate in the light streaming through the window, until he finally began to see what was there– an image of the country estate at Le Gras, outside the upper floor window. His heart pounded as he realized the fruition of his quest.

Sometime later, the plate passed into his own possession, and eventually into the archives of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, a part of the University of Texas at Austin. The "First Photograph" is currently and permanently on display in the lobby of the Harry Ransom Center.
The First Photograph Shrine,
in the lobby of the Harry Ransom Center

If you possess a serious interest in photography (or the arts and communication in general), and you find yourself in the vicinity of central Texas you should seriously consider a pilgrimage to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin. The Center, itself, is reason enough to visit the area but the "First Photograph" makes it mandatory. This relic is simply the Holy Grail of photography. Like viewing the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution in the National Archives, this is a unique and memorable experience.

As I reflected in the opening lines of this post, the image is difficult to see and at first glance it appears to be nothing more than a mirror. However, your patience will be rewarded as you find the proper angle to observe it, and Niépce's family estate at Le Gras reveals itself once again. A photograph of this photograph (as can be seen above in the Getty photo) is always less than satisfying, and it can only truly be seen in person. This is an experience that should not be missed.

one of only five complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible
in the United States, Harry Ransom Center lobby
While you are in the lobby of the Center you can view another amazing genesis of modern communication– one of the very few existing complete copies of Gutenberg's printed Bible. This was where printing, as we know it, began so many centuries ago. To see these two incredible inventions in the same room at the same time is a priceless experience.

Finally, read the details of the amazing journey that Helmut and Alison Gernsheim took to rediscover the "First Photograph,"

and discover for yourself the intriguing new finds at Niépce's family estate (and now a photographic museum) in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France.

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