WAACNewsletter
September 2002 Volume 22 Number 3

A Brief Interim Report on the GCI/HRC Collaborative Project on the First Photograph

By Barbara N. Brown

On the morning of June 13, 2002, the carefully packed and crated World’s First Photograph — Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s heliograph, View from the Window at Le Gras — was loaded as the sole cargo into the climate-controlled trailer of AnR Transport art shipping company’s eighteen-wheeler. It was bound on a 30-hour road trip straight from the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRC) at the University of Texas at Austin to the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) in Los Angeles. Acting as Photograph Conservator/courier, I rode along in the cab of the truck, accompanying the heliograph during its travels and the two weeks of examination and analysis at GCI.

This joint project between the HRC and GCI is the first time and opportunity there has been to conduct an analysis of the heliograph and its components, in order to learn more about the heliographic process and this object itself, as well as its condition and requirements for long-term preservation. Preservation of the World’s First Photograph also will contribute to its presentation and to making the experience of viewing the image more feasible and accessible.

I worked with GCI Senior Scientist Dr. Dusan Stulik and other Getty scientists and staff to examine the heliograph and its components. Before opening its protective case, samples of the atmosphere inside the case were extracted. The samples were analyzed to determine the composition of the atmosphere inside the case. The results of this analysis revealed that the atmosphere was basically that of the ambient environment — confirming our suspicions that the seal on the case was not functioning as intended to maintain the inert argon gas atmosphere inside. This will not be a problem with the new, oxygen-free, protective case being constructed by GCI for the heliograph, Drs. Stulik and Maekawa have assured us. (See Research in Conservation: Oxygen-Free Museum Cases, Shin Maekawa, editor; published by GCI, J. Paul Getty Trust, 1998.)

Other non-invasive, analytical tests conducted included XRF (x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy) and reflectance FTIR (Fourier Transform Infra-Red spectroscopy).XRF examination of the heliograph confirmed our previous understanding about the composition of the plate, conclusively showing that the metal is pewter (an alloy of tin plus some lead; with in this instance, traces of iron, copper and nickel), and not pure tin, or zinc or another metal. The bitumen layer on the plate was examined in several areas using reflectance FTIR.

Microscopic examination and digital microphotography of the heliograph’s surface were also carried out. Visible reflectance spectroscopy of the bitumen layer was carried out in Dusan Stulik’s lab by Tram Vo, using a Spectrocam® scanning spectrophotometer. The Getty scientists are currently analyzing the spectra obtained during these examinations. While the heliograph was out of its frame, Getty Museum photographers devoted their expertise, facilities, and a day and a half of their time to capturing the elusive image of the heliograph through both large format film and high-resolution digital photography.

Getty Museum Frame Conservator Gene Karraker will repair the gilt wood frame while the new protective case is being constructed. General initial examination of the frame by Mr. Karraker indicated that it dates stylistically to the time period in which the heliograph was made. This information is consistent with previous observations about the structure of the framed heliograph, and provides additional supporting evidence to the date and provenance of the piece.

Roy Flukinger, HRC’s Senior Curator of Photography and Film, joined the team at the Getty during the last week of June, and delivered a lecture on “Gernsheim at Texas: The Collection at the Academy.” Earlier that day, several experts in photography, photographic conservation, and the history of photography — including Francois Cheval, Curator of the Musée Nicéphore Niépce; Michel Frizot, noted French photo-historian and Director of the Centre d’Etudes Niépcéennes; Jean-Louis Marignier, Head of Research at the Centre National de la Recherchs Scientifique, Paris; James Reilly, Director of the Image Permanence Institute, and Bertrand Lavédrine, Director of the Centre de Recherches sur la Conservation des Documents Graphiques — met with Roy Flukinger, Dusan Stulik, and me to view and examine the heliograph while it was out of its protective case.

Further examination and analysis will be carried out at the Harry Ransom Center, with Drs. Stulik and Maekawa, prior to the reinstallation of the heliograph in its frame and into its new protective enclosure. The heliograph will be on display in the new galleries of the HRC when the first two floors (currently under renovation) of our building are re-opened to the public in Spring 2003. I will keep WAAC and its members posted on further information, including notice of a symposium on this project (post prints will be published) to be held within the next year. (For those attending the AIC PMG Winter Meeting in March 2003, an updated report will be presented there.)

There are so many people to thank and acknowledge that I fear I may inadvertently leave someone out if I try to list everyone here. However, I want to extend thanks and appreciation to the administrations, staff, and colleagues at the HRC, in particular Thomas F. Staley, Director, James Stroud, Head of Conservation, and Roy Flukinger, Senior Curator of Photography and Film. I also want to thank the Getty (Conservation Institute, Museum, and Trust), particularly Timothy P. Whalen, Director of the Getty Conservation Institute and Dr. Dusan Stulik, Senior Scientist, for their interest, support and efforts in this project. Thanks especially to Douglas Nishimura of Image Permanence Institute for connecting us with Dusan Stulik at GCI, otherwise this project probably would not have come into being.

We look forward to the next phases of this project and to the opportunity to share our findings with the conservation, photo-history, and curatorial communities as well as the general public.

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