October 13, 2010

U.K.'s National Media Museum and the Getty Conservation Institute Announce New Research Findings on World's Oldest Examples of Photography

Two Day Conference "Niépce in England" Sheds New Light on Early Image-Making Techniques

BRADFORD—The National Media Museum in Bradford, England, and the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) in Los Angeles today announced research findings that provide new evidence of the significance of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s contribution to the history of photography, including the revelation of a previously undiscovered method of image-making dating to the 1820s.

Recent technical analysis by GCI scientists Dusan Stulik and Art Kaplan has shown three of the photographic plates Niépce brought to England, which now reside at the National Media Museum, are not only his finest work, but also demonstrate a range of different photographic experiments—a portfolio of sorts—which he intended to show The Royal Society.

Of the three plates studied, one of the plates illustrated Niépce’s skill in copying prints of the day and included deep etching, done by the photographer, to enhance the original photograph. A second plate showed light etching over a photograph; however, the stand-out artifact is a third plate, long thought to be a photograph enhanced with etching, which is actually a photograph without any hand-tooling at all.

The secret process developed by Niépce? A pewter plate with a deposit of light-solidified material which resembles the resin obtained when heating lavender oil, which helped the plate accept the image. The image Niépce chose to reproduce on this plate is a copy of an illustration by Louis Daguerre, "Un Clair de Lune."

"Our findings are shining a different light on the early history of photography than has been previously described in literature. We have been able to create a fuller picture of Niépce and how he worked, and we can really demonstrate that everything related to photography that surrounds us today—digital cameras, film, TV, even 3D and videogames—go back to his inventions," said Dusan Stulik, Senior Scientist at the GCI. "This is a very good example of how new and significant information can be revealed when combining art history research with objective insight and the powerful tools of modern science."

In the beginning of the 19th Century, Niépce produced various image-making techniques now known to be precursors to modern photography his unique heliographs were created on pewter plates. In 1827, Niépce brought these plates to England to demonstrate his techniques to The Royal Society, hoping to be admitted. Unfortunately, during his time in England The Royal Society was in turmoil and Niépce was unable to share his experiments, his ambitions crushed. He died in 1833, leaving his sometimes collaborator Louis Daguerre to publicly reveal photography to the world in 1839.

Director of the National Media Museum, Colin Philpott said, "These findings demonstrate how important the nation’s collections are to understanding our cultural and scientific heritage, and the benefit of working in partnership with other major organizations in unraveling the story behind the objects."
Philippa Wright, Curator of Photographs at the National Media Museum, said, "We are delighted to have been able to work with the Getty Conservation Institute and Dr. Stulik’s team on uncovering some new revelations about these amazing examples of early photography."

The plates were examined using nondestructive Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy to identify the organic components of the image layer and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to determine the composition of the metal plates. High resolution digital microscopy also revealed details of the image structure. The research results were shared at a two-day conference being held at the National Media Museum on Niépce in England. Of the four known surviving plates taken to England by Niépce, three are in the National Media Museum’s Royal Photographic Society Collection, and one is on display at the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) at the University of Texas at Austin—considered the First Photograph. The GCI partnered with the HRC project team to study and analyze this image in 2002.

Un Clair de Lune, 1827. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833).
Photograph on pewter. The Royal Photographic Society Collection
at National Media Museum/SSPL.

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Melissa Abraham
Getty Communications
(310) 440-68617

Phil Oates
National Media Museum
(011)(44) 1274-203317

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