First Photo Symposium

Pierre-Yves Mahé, founder and CEO of Spéos Paris Photographic Institute, discusses his documentary film on the first systematic investigation of the house where View from the Window at Le Gras was made. Photo: ©Harris Fogel.

Last November the GCI and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin organized an international symposium on research related to View from the Window at Le Gras (1826)—the world’s first permanent photograph from nature—and the work of its creator, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.

Attended by more than one hundred participants, the symposium, entitled “At First Light,” was held at the Ransom Center. The center’s newly renovated exhibition space includes a permanent display of the first photo and a special exhibit of artifacts and rarely seen historical documents related to the work and its rediscovery in 1952 by photo historian Helmut Gernsheim.

During the four-day symposium, a number of new research initiatives and ongoing research projects were presented. The GCI provided results from the first in-depth scientific examination of the first photo, conducted at the Getty Center in July 2002 (see Conservation, vol. 17, no. 2). In addition, the Institute gave details of its design of a new, oxygen-free protective enclosure for the photo, which will enhance its long-term conservation and allow for constant monitoring of the enclosure’s internal environment. Also discussed was the development of a working hypothesis about visual changes of the photograph due to aging.

Interlaced among the research projects were art historical, historical, scientific, and art conservation presentations related to the first photo. These included presentations on the preservation history of the first photograph, an in-depth investigation of the home where the photo was taken, Niépce’s career as an inventor and scientist, Niépce’s correspondence and letters, and Niépce’s place among early researchers in photography.

The new, official reproduction of the first photo—the first unmanipulated image of the photograph—was also unveiled. It is the result of work by photographers and scientists from the GCI and the J. Paul Getty Museum who utilized classical, ultraviolet, infrared, and digital photography in their effort to capture the image.

The symposium concluded with a panel discussion examining the many unresolved scientific and historical research issues regarding the first photo. Also considered were the needs and direction of future research and scholarship on Niépce and early photography.

Proceedings from the “At First Light” symposium are scheduled to be published by the University of Texas. For more information on View from the Window at Le Gras, visit the Harry Ransom Center Website.

The Getty Conservation Institute Newsletter 19.1 (Spring 2004)