One of the most celebrated objects in the history of photography is featured in a permanent exhibition just inside the main entrance to the Harry Ransom Center. The untitled photograph—the earliest known surviving photograph made with the aid of the camera obscura—was produced in 1827 by the French scientist and inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce using a process he called héliographie. Permanent exhibitions are never really “permanent,” however; objects may remain in place, but their meanings are always evolving, and exhibitions are periodically revised to reflect those advances.
Over the summer the exhibition formerly known as The First Photograph has been refreshed and reintroduced with a new title, The Niépce Heliograph, and with an updated introductory text that aims to inspire curiosity and invite new questions.
The heliograph became popularly known as “The World’s First Photograph” at the middle of the twentieth century, largely due to the efforts of British collectors and historians Helmut and Alison Gernsheim. The Gernsheims tracked the photograph down in 1952, nearly fifty years after its last known exhibition. They sent press releases announcing their “Re-Discovery of the World’s First Photograph” to Life and other popular magazines, and, in 1955, dedicated a full chapter to Niépce titled “The First Photographer” in their groundbreaking 400-page text The History of Photography. In their History, the Gernsheims acknowledged that scientists such as Thomas Wedgwood had made photographs in the late eighteenth century, and that Niépce had made photographs as early as 1816; nevertheless, their artifactual approach to the medium’s history, along with their particularly restrictive definition of “true” photography, supported their claim of owning “The World’s First Photograph.”
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the Gernsheims promoted the heliograph as “The World’s First Photograph” in extensive touring exhibitions of their collection. Without further context, most exhibition visitors would have reasonably understood this to mean that the heliograph was the very first photograph ever produced, and that Niépce was the very first person to make a photograph. When the famed heliograph was purchased by the Ransom Center in 1963 along with the entire Gernsheim Collection, it arrived with its own fully formed historical narrative, one that suggested firm answers rather than encouraging further questions. The revision of today’s permanent exhibition at the Ransom Center acknowledges that the origins of photography are complex, unresolved, and open to exploration, creating a richer context for Niepce’s contributions.
Before detailing the most immediate changes, it may be useful to consider updates to the way the Gutenberg Bible has been described since the Ransom Center acquired its copy in 1978. Through much of the twentieth century the Gutenberg Bible was commonly known as the “World’s First Printed Book” and Johaness Gutenberg was hailed as “The Inventor of Printing.” Today’s visitors to the Ransom Center’s permanent exhibition of the two-volume Bible will not find it described as “The First Printed Book,” however, but rather “the first substantial book printed with moveable metal type.” This more nuanced description positions Gutenberg’s achievement within a series of developments in printing technology, and accounts for methods that had emerged outside Europe prior to Gutenberg’s advances.
The Ransom Center has taken a similar approach in its update to the exhibition of the heliograph, describing it as “the earliest known surviving photograph produced in the camera obscura,” or a variation on that phrase, rather than “the first photograph.” As is the case with the Gutenberg Bible, each element of the revised description is significant. The word earliest is more accurate than first, since the heliograph was not the first photograph ever made. The word surviving acknowledges that other photographs were made before this one, though they have been lost. The word known acknowledges that other earlier photographs could certainly still exist, yet to be discovered or correctly identified. Finally, the word camera distinguishes the heliograph from earlier photographs, still extant, but made without the optical device then most popularly employed as a drawing aid, the camera obscura. The new name of the exhibition—The Niépce Heliograph—is descriptive rather than supportive of a particular historical claim.
At the Ransom Center, we encourage new conversations and new research, and remain responsive and open to expanding bodies of knowledge. Going forward, the Ransom Center’s interpretation of Niépce’s well known heliograph will make room for a more nuanced history that allows it to be studied as one point in the trajectory of Niépce’s experiments, as well as along a larger continuum of ideas and objects.
(Top image credit: Pete Smith)