View from the Window at Le Gras
View from the Window at Le Gras is the oldest surviving camera photograph. It was created by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827 at Saint-Loup-de-Varennes and shows parts of the buildings and surrounding countryside of his estate, Le Gras, seen from a high window.
Niépce captured the scene with a camera obscura focused onto a 16.2 × 20.2 cm (6.4 × 8.0 in) pewter plate coated with Bitumen of Judea, a naturally occurring asphalt.1 The bitumen hardened in the brightly lit areas, but in the dimly lit areas it remained soluble and could be washed away with a mixture of oil of lavender and white petroleum.1 A very long exposure in the camera was required. Sunlight strikes the buildings on opposite sides, suggesting an exposure that lasted about eight hours, which has become the traditional estimate. A researcher who studied Niépce's notes and recreated his processes found that the exposure must have continued for several days.2
In late 1827, Niépce visited England. He showed this and several other specimens of his work to botanical illustrator Francis Bauer, who encouraged him to present his "heliography" process to the Royal Society. Niépce was unwilling to reveal any specific practical details of his process, so the Royal Society declined his offer. Before returning to France, he gave Bauer the specimens and a draft of the remarks he had prepared to accompany his presentation. After Bauer's death in 1840, the specimens passed through several hands and were occasionally exhibited as historical curiosities. The View from the Window at Le Gras was last seen in 1905 and then fell into oblivion.3
Historian Helmut Gernsheim tracked down the photograph in 1952 and brought it to prominence, reinforcing the claim that Niépce is the inventor of photography. He had an expert at the Kodak Research Laboratory make a modern photographic copy, but it proved extremely difficult to produce an adequate representation of all that could be seen when inspecting the actual plate. Gernsheim heavily retouched one of the copy prints to clean it up and make the scene more comprehensible, and until the late 1970s he allowed only that enhanced version to be published. It was apparently at the time of the copying that the plate acquired disfiguring bumps near three of its corners, causing light to reflect in ways that interfere with the visibility of those areas and of the image as a whole.
In 1963, Harry Ransom purchased most of Gernsheim's photography collection for The University of Texas at Austin, but the Niépce heliograph was not included in the sale. Shortly thereafter, Gernsheim donated it. Although it has rarely traveled since then, in 2012–2013 it visited Mannheim, Germany as part of an exhibition entitled The Birth of Photography—Highlights of the Helmut Gernsheim Collection. It is normally on display in the main lobby of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas.1
During a study and conservation project in 2002–2003, scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute examined the photograph using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, reflectance Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, and other techniques.4 They confirmed that the image consists of bitumen and that the metal plate is nearly pure tin, i.e., high-grade pewter. The Institute also designed and built the elaborate display case system that now houses the artifact in a continuously monitored, stabilized, oxygen-free environment.5
In 2007 scientists from the Louvre Museum published an analysis 7 of the photograph using ion beam analysis, with data taken on their 2 MV electrostatic accelerator. This showed the details of the oxidation process that makes the image.
- "The First Photograph". Harry Ransom Center. Retrieved 2012-01-14.
- Niépce House Museum: Invention of Photography, Part 3. Retrieved 25 May 2013.
- The Harry Ransom Center: The First Photograph: History. Retrieved 27 May 2013.
- Analyzing the world's first photograph. Precious image studied at Getty Institute in Los Angeles. National Public Radio, April 7, 2002. Retrieved August 26, 2008.
- Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. The first photograph: conservation and preservation. Retrieved August 26, 2008.
- "100 Photographs that Changed the World". The Digital Journalist. Retrieved 2012-01-14.
- "Towards truly simultaneous PIXE and RBS analysis of layered objects in cultural heritage"
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