In June, the world's first photograph, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's View from the Window at Le Gras (1826), arrived at the Getty Conservation Institute for two weeks of scientific analysis in conjunction with the Conservation of Photographic Collections project—a collaborative effort of the GCI, the Image Permanence Institute (IPI), and the Centre de recherches sur la conservation des documents graphiques (CRCDG) in Paris (see Conservation, vol. 17, no. 1).
Niépce's work, part of the photographic collection of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, is the first example of a permanent image created by exposing a photosensitive plate in a camera-like device. As such, it has been characterized as the beginning—or foundation—of photography, film, and television by Roy Flukinger, senior curator of photography and film at the Ransom Center. From written records, researchers know that Niépce's process, which he called "heliography," included utilizing a polished pewter plate coated with bitumen, prepared in lavender oil, and dried in the dark. After extensive exposure to light—as much as eight hours or more—the plate was dipped into lavender and petroleum oils to wash away any unexposed and unhardened bitumen.
Although Niépce's process was generally documented, the image itself had never before been scientifically analyzed. Because the GCI's role in the collaborative project is focused on the identification of photographic materials, the Ransom Center asked the Institute to conduct the first scientific study of the heliograph's material makeup and to determine the object's state of conservation. Accompanied by Ransom Center photograph conservator Barbara Brown, the work arrived at the GCI in mid-June.
The GCI scientific team—including scientists Dusan Stulik, Herant Khanjian, and Cecily Grzywacz, and GCI consultant Tram Vo—used noninvasive analytical techniques, including X-ray fluorescence (XRF), Fourier transform infrared spectrometry (FTIR), and reflection spectrophotometry to study the image. The XRF analysis confirmed the plate to be pewter, composed of lead, copper, nickel, and iron. FTIR and microscopic analysis confirmed the image layer to be bitumen—though not a solid layer as presumed but, rather, a layer of microdots. This unexpected discovery raises new questions about the image's creation and its preservation.
The scientific team, together with Getty Museum photographic conservator Marc Harnly, found the overall state of conservation of the photograph to be good; only small areas of corrosion were noted around its edges. Analysis was also conducted of the photograph's frame, which was found to date from the late 1820s, making it contemporaneous with Niépce's photograph and possibly the work's original frame. The frame is being conserved by Getty Museum frames conservator Gene Karraker. Staff from the Photographic Services Department of the Getty Museum—including Jack Ross, Ellen Rosenbery, and Anthony Peres—assisted by GCI scientist Eric Doehne, undertook the challenge of photographing the heliograph.
In the coming months, the project team will continue to analyze the data gathered. This information will contribute both to the GCI's collaborative project and to the Ransom Center's body of knowledge regarding the heliograph—how it was made, the condition of the plate, and how best to preserve the object for the future. As part of the agreement between the Ransom Center and the GCI, GCI scientists Shin Maekawa and Dusan Stulik will also design and test an oxygen-free protective enclosure, which will allow for better access and presentation of the photograph when it goes on permanent display in the Ransom Center galleries in early 2003.