New on Niépce

For many years since its re-discovery by Helmut Gernsheim, a view taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce from his upper-story workroom at his Saint-Loup-de-Varennes country house, Le Gras, has been regarded as the world’s first photograph, but the process, heliography,  has been dismissed as incapable of producing anything but the crudest results.

Niépce brought it, along with several other examples of his heliography to England to show the Royal Society in 1827, but circumstances prevented this, and he left the metal plates with his host in Kew. On his death they were sold, later sold again and in 1884 when they came up for auction again they were split into two lots. Three ‘heliographic reproductions’ of engravings and what was though to be an etching made using a heliograph on the plate as a guide were bought by the notable photographer H P Robinson, and on his death went to the collection of the Royal Photographic Society (and were lent to the Science Museum in London for display.)  The second lot, of one ‘heliograph’ and Niépce’s words on the process was bought by the Editor of the PHotographic News, H Baden Pritchard, and later disappeared from view.

Helmut Gernsheim attempted to enlist the help of the Times newspaper in 1948 to find the Pritchard family, but they refused to print his letter about the missing image – and did so for a second time in 1950. But a few months later, when he was contacted by the Observer newspaper about the photography of Lewis Carroll he had rediscovered, he got that paper to print his appeal for news.

Pritchard’s son immediately got in contact but only with the bad news that the family had no idea what had happened to it. But a year and a half later after the son’s death he got more news from the widow. The metal plate had been found in an old trunk – but unfortunately it had faded and there was no picture on it.

Gernheim knew this could not be true, as the process was extremely permanent, and was able to show her the faint image that could be seen if the plate was looked at carefully from the correct angle. He persuaded Mrs Pritchard that  rather than put the plate up for sale – when it would probably be sold at a very high price to a private collector and disappear again – she should make a gift of it to the Gernsheim collection – and later, when that collection was sold to the University of Texas, it was also as a gift.

You can read more about that familiar picture at the Harry Ransom Center site, and also on National Public Radio.

But now a new example has emerged among early photographs, and certainly it is a better image than the Le Gras window view. New tests on the image that was previously thought to be a hand-worked etching on a heliotype plate have shown it is actually a camera-produced image without any extra work, leading to a re-assessment of the process.

Since ‘Interior of an Abbey in Ruins’ is dated c. 1827, it seems likely that the Gernsheim image remains the first, but it does show how Niépce was able to develop his process further.

I read about the discovery in the BJP,  which has a reproduction of the image, but more details should be given today and tomorrow at the conference Niépce in England being held at the UK National Media Museum in Bradford. On the conference web page you can hear Dr Dusan Stulik of the Getty Conservation Institute waxing a little too lyrical about the import of the new discoveries from his investigation of this image.

But I don’t think many of us will be abandoning digital to become heliographers.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.