Photography at a Crossroads

In this digital era, the future of historical photos is at stake

One summer day in 1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce placed a metal plate inside a black box in a sunny window at Le Gras, his country estate in the south of France. After 8 hours, Niépce found that with his primitive camera, he’d achieved a goal that he’d been striving after for years: He’d produced a permanent image recorded onto a photosensitive medium. It was the first successful example of “fixing permanently the image from Nature,” Niépce told members of the Royal Society when he traveled to England in 1827. However, when Niépce presented his invention, he wouldn’t fully divulge his process, and the society failed to confirm his discovery.

FIRST PHOTO. This pewter plate records the earliest photographic image, taken in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce from a third-floor window. The picture shows the lines of a roof and outbuildings. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center/ Univ. of Texas at Austin
PAST AND FUTURE. A mobile darkroom from 1855 used during the Crimean War (above) and a new digital printing kiosk (below). Hulton Archive


Today, it’s known that Niépce coated his plate with an asphalt called bitumen of Judea, which hardened under long exposure to the sun’s rays. He then washed the unhardened material from the plate with a mixture of oil of lavender and white petroleum, leaving the faint image of his courtyard in relief. Nonetheless, the fine details of this process died with Niépce in 1833.

Such murkiness is rampant in the history of photography. In the almost 180 years since Niépce made the world’s first photograph, inventors, artists, and photographers have used 150 or so chemical processes to create prints, says Dusan Stulik of the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. For many of these processes, no detailed technical account is available.

This problem is more than just a headache for historians interested in technological minutiae. Such knowledge is critical to the care and display of culturally, artistically, and historically important photographs.

That’s why Stulik and his colleagues have taken up the mission of unveiling the chemical mysteries of the first photograph, as well as those that followed it. With the accelerating pace of digital photography (see “On the Digital Edge,” below), documenting the obsolete processes used to make these photos has taken on a new urgency. This information could soon be gone, as those who still understand photographic processes die off along with the industry that supported them.

“This is the tremendous pivot point in the history of imaging,” says Jim Reilly of the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) in Rochester, N.Y.

New information that researchers have just revealed about Niépce’s “View from the Window at Le Gras” bodes well for their uncovering the secrets behind other early photographs.

A photo’s journey

Niépce’s famous photo has been on quite an adventure. On leaving England in 1828, Niépce placed the framed 16-by-20-centimeter image—or heliograph, as he called it—in the care of a friend, Francis Bauer, a botanical illustrator at London’s Kew Gardens. After Bauer’s death in 1841, the heliograph passed from one person to another.

More than a century later, photo historian and collector Helmut Gernsheim began a quest to find the photo. After 2 years of sleuthing, he traced its most recent purchase, in 1884, to the Pritchard family in London. Unfortunately, none of the Pritchard family members seemed to know exactly what had happened to the framed metal plate. Then, in 1952, Gernsheim received a letter from a Pritchard family member who had cleaned out a trunk that had been sealed since 1918. She had found what looked like a framed, tarnished mirror. It might be the lost photograph, she wrote, but unfortunately, the image of Le Gras appeared to have faded away.

Gernsheim rushed to London, where he discovered that the tarnished mirror indeed was Niépce’s heliograph. Even better, the image had not faded away. It had always been faint. To make it stand out, Gernsheim just needed to turn the plate this way and that in the light.

The woman gave Gernsheim the silver-gray plate, along with a document detailing Niépce’s presentation to the Royal Society. A decade later, Gernsheim donated the priceless photo to the University of Texas in Austin. Niépce’s heliograph went on display at the university’s Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, which now houses about 5 million photographic prints and negatives.

The museum staff this year turned its attention again to Niépce’s heliograph. “We were sitting here with this marvelous, unique picture,” says Ransom Center curator Roy Flukinger.

The center, which was renovating its lower two floors, planned to build a special new display for the heliograph. But since Flukinger and his staff didn’t know the chemical makeup of the heliograph, they weren’t sure what kinds of lighting, environments, and cases might be appropriate. No one even knew whether the current Plexiglas case, which had been filled with an inert gas in the 1960s, remained sealed or the heliograph had already been exposed to air and had undergone changes, says Ransom Center conservator Barbara Brown.

At the same time in Los Angeles, Stulik and his colleagues were considering the myriad photographs in a monumental project he’d begun in July 2001. In collaboration, the Getty, IPI, and the Research Center for the Conservation of Graphic Documents (CRCDG) in Paris aim to identify the defining characteristics of all major photographic techniques ever used, as well as variations on those methods.

“Every photographer is an experimenter,” notes Reilly. The groups plan to publish their results as a major reference volume.

It would be great, Stulik confided to his wife one day, if the project could include the fullest range of photography possible, even its earliest representation. Just two weeks later, he was surprised to receive an e-mail query from Brown. She was asking for help in preserving “View from the Window at Le Gras.”

The first photograph, it seemed, was coming to him.

Album of photo processes

The documentation of photo techniques is important, says Stulik, because the days of traditional photography may be numbered.

“We expect digital cameras to replace nearly all uses of film cameras at some point,” says Stephen J. Telfer of Polaroid, where efforts in photographic advances now focus on digital imaging. But with such exciting new technologies comes the potential for destructive forgetfulness.

“It’s so easy to lose information,” says Stulik. He likens the arrival of digital cameras to the introduction of Gutenberg’s moveable-type printing process in 1455.

“Everything changed,” says Stulik. Wouldn’t it have been nice, he suggests, if someone had sat down in 1460 and described the methods used by medieval scribes to create illuminated manuscripts before people forgot how to make them?

It was with such a scenario in mind that the three art-and-research facilities joined forces to use sophisticated, nondestructive techniques to analyze thousands of photographs. When the compendium of photographic methods is finished in about 3 years, photo curators everywhere should be able to use its descriptions to identify photos in their collections, says Stulik.

Currently, most curators and conservators don’t have the money, equipment, or knowledge to judge how each picture in their collection was made. They therefore don’t really know how best to prevent or monitor damage from humidity, temperature, light, and other environmental factors.

Just as red and white wines need different storage conditions, Stulik says, so do various types of photographs. For now, says Reilly, “curators [often] just scratch their heads and say, ‘What is that?'” and then use practices that seem reasonable, if not optimal.

Brown did more than scratch her head. Last spring, she accompanied the Plexiglas case containing the world’s first photograph to the Getty Center for a 2-week battery of tests.

Just as Brown had suspected, the photograph’s casing was no longer sealed. Tests on gas extracted from the case revealed that it closely resembled the air outside. On a more positive note, a nondestructive analytical technique called X-ray fluorescence spectrometry definitively revealed the composition of the plate. It’s pewter—an alloy of tin and lead with traces of copper, iron, and nickel. Although pewter had long been suspected, pure tin, zinc, silver, and some other materials had also been proposed, says Brown.

The researchers used infrared spectrometry to analyze the heliograph’s bitumen layer, too. The goal now is to see whether the material has deteriorated over the years. The team is comparing the layer’s spectroscopic signatures with those of other samples of bitumen, including specimens from near Niépce’s country estate, says Brown. Some of these other samples are being artificially aged with light, she adds. These studies are continuing even though the photograph has returned to Texas.

During its sojourn in Los Angeles, “View from the Window at Le Gras” was itself well photographed for the first time. Gernsheim had tried unsuccessfully to reproduce the hard-to-see image decades earlier, even asking for help from Kodak and Scotland Yard.

The Getty work also confirmed the best way to display the heliograph: in a dark room with only a single source of light. Even so, visitors to the Ransom Center will need to walk up to the photo and move around to catch a good glimpse of it, says Flukinger. When the image does pop out at the viewer, “it is somewhat magic,” he says.

More research and data analysis on the first photo are continuing, says Stulik. He and his colleagues anticipate presenting their results at a symposium in Austin next fall.

Meanwhile, the heliograph will go on display by March. Stulik and others at the Getty are designing the image’s new case. Their plans take into account the newly identified chemical composition of the photograph and will include sensors for detecting oxygen concentration, humidity, and other environmental conditions. Brown will be able to watch these vital signs at the Ransom Center, while one of Stulik’s colleagues can observe them in Los Angeles via the Internet.

Researchers are undertaking similar systematic study of other early photographs. There is no time for delay, they concur. “Twentieth-century photography is on the verge of becoming history,” says Reilly.

Nonetheless, the first photo will always hold a special place in the world. The Niépce image is the beginning of “everything,” says Flukinger. Movies, television, and video all followed in its wake. And as the world moves away from conventional chemical photography, “we’re now entering a digital era that will trace back to this, too,” he says.

On the digital edge

Making quick prints as good as the old-fashioned ones

As conventional chemical photography fades into history, new digital technologies have raced to the forefront of research. Ironically, one of the digital-photo industry’s challenges focuses on the output that has been the whole point of traditional photography—the print.

“There’s an argument that with digital cameras, people won’t even want hard copies,” says Stephen J. Telfer of Polaroid in Waltham, Mass. “I don’t think that’s true because there are currently about 80 billion [prints from conventional film] made annually, and it’s hard to imagine that all 80 billion—or a significant proportion of the 80 billion—will go away when people switch over to digital cameras.”

People can already get digital prints with the look and feel of traditional prints, but “the word isn’t getting out to the consumer,” says Chad Munce, director of digital imaging markets for the Photomarketing Association in Jackson, Mich. Most people print digital images at home on inkjet printers, which are of varying quality.

In fact, more than 90 percent of people still print their digital-camera pictures at home, rather than at a store, says Kathy Rauschenberg of Kodak’s Atlanta office.

Adds Nick Riviezzo, product manager for Fujifilm’s Printpix kiosks, getting high-quality digital images can be as simple as ordering conventional prints.

Many retail stores print digital images on photo paper using traditional chemical processing in a semi-automated minilab behind the counter. Some also offer kiosks where customers make their own prints. The kiosk prints are created with a variety of techniques, including high-quality inkjet printing or methods that employ heat and dyes.

Fujifilm’s Printpix machines have been in use for more than 2 years. Found primarily in Ritz camera stores, they produce images without the messy chemical processes required for making prints from regular film. Instead, Printpix uses heat to bring out dyes already built into the print paper.

Fujifilm introduced a faster version of Printpix this year. However, there is still less choice of print size at the kiosks than in the minilab behind the counter.

Telfer says that even faster printing of digital photos could make kiosks more attractive. With current kiosk, ink-jet, and minilab printing, the wait for the first print can take several minutes; subsequent prints follow more quickly.

Even so, that’s too slow, says Telfer. The goal, he says, is “ATM-like convenience, where you can get prints right away” and almost anywhere—in airports, hotel lobbies, amusement parks, or even cruise ships.

Currently, Polaroid is introducing a new system called the Polaroid Instant Digital Printing Kiosk. It prints one photo every 2 seconds. Again, there’s little choice in size.

A more streamlined, and potentially less expensive, process was described by Telfer and his coworkers at Polaroid in the Aug. 30 Science. Called acid-amplified imaging, it’s more sophisticated than the technology behind other kiosks and can create prints of any size.

The new method prints a photo using a single sheet of paper that contains layers of different chemicals. A projector, driven by files on a computer disk or other digital medium, shines light onto the paper to generate a small amount of an acid. A heating step then converts that into a second acid that activates the dyes. This heating step currently takes about 20 seconds, but the researchers are striving to improve the process until it’s as fast as the system in Polaroid’s new kiosks, says Telfer.

If customers take to these high-speed kiosks, Polaroid may begin to commercialize its more advanced system, says Telfer.

But will people flock to kiosks to print photos from their digital cameras?

To answer that question for itself, Kodak in October began a 9-month study of consumers’ digital-printing preferences. Participants must choose from a self-service kiosk, a station where they order prints and return in an hour, or an overnight printing service.

The study monitors people’s behavior at 500 digital-printing locations in Atlanta, including drugstores, grocery stores, and electronics stores, says Rauschenberg.

The company already has thousands of its Picture Maker kiosks nationwide. These can enlarge, crop, and copy conventional prints as well as print digital files on paper of a set size. Kodak is also currently working with Hewlett-Packard to develop a fast inkjet system for minilabs to use when printing from digital images.

Whatever the ultimate printing process, photography is returning to its roots. Creating hard copies from digital images remains as full of chemistry as the processes by which the first photographs were taken almost 2 centuries ago.


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