From the Outside In: First photograph, "View from the Window at Le Gras," Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, ca. 1826
By Harry Ransom Center
The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.
One of the most renowned items in the Ransom Center’s collections is the first photograph, which has been reproduced on the Center’s south atrium window. A French inventor named Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took this first photograph from the window of his studio in France in the early 1820s, and due to a fortunate series of events, the photograph is part of the Ransom Center’s collections.
Niépce was born in 1765 at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when great innovations were taking place around Europe. One of these innovations was the art of lithography, a form of printing that involves using chemicals on a flat, smooth surface to transfer images. Niépce became entranced by the lithographic process and began toying with its potential. A poor draftsman, he depended on his artistically inclined son Isidore to create illustrations for his lithographic pursuits. Isidore, however, was drafted into Napoleon’s army, leaving Niépce unable to create lithographs. Intent on finding a way to create images without having to draw them, Niépce turned to the camera obscura, a device developed in the Renaissance in which an image could be projected through a small hole into a darkened box or room. Inside this darkened space an image would be cast as a realistic, albeit upside down, projection. Niépce thought to capture this image using a light-sensitive material so that the light itself would “etch” the picture for him. In 1826, through a process of trial and error, he finally came upon the combination of bitumen of Judea (a form of asphalt) spread over a pewter plate. When he let this petroleum-based substance sit in a camera obscura for eight hours without interruption, the light gradually hardened the bitumen where it hit, thus creating a rudimentary photo. He “developed” this picture by washing away the unhardened bitumen with lavender water, revealing an image of the rooftops and trees visible from his studio window. Niépce had successfully made the world’s first photograph.
Excited with his new method of capturing images from life, Niépce hurried to present his invention of heliography, or “light writing,” to the Royal Society of London. Yet, the invention’s potential was not recognized, and he was turned away. Niépce was undeterred, and he joined with Louis Daguerre to continue refining his heliographic process. Although Niépce passed away before photography became an everyday staple, Daguerre kept experimenting and created the daguerreotype in 1839, which introduced the concept of photography to the wider world.
This important image came to the Ransom Center in 1963 from the photo historian Helmut Gernsheim. The First Photograph had gone missing after 1905. Gernsheim tracked it down in 1952 in the possession of the descendants of the previous owner, who found it in storage, sitting unknown in a crate all that time. A decade after this discovery, Gernsheim generously donated the one-of-a-kind object to the Center after its purchase of his photography collection. For more information on the First Photograph and its history, visit the First Photograph web exhibition.
The Gernsheim collection features many other prominent photographs, covering the history of photography through the 1960s. The Ransom Center also houses the Magnum Photos archive of nearly 200,000 photographs from the 1950s to the present, and other prominent works, making the Center a fruitful place for research.
Ransom Center volunteer Holly Hansel wrote this post.
Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.