Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s contribution to the history of photography has been elevated after the National Media Museum and the Getty Conservation Institute revealed new findings stemming from three of Niépce’s photographic plates.
The findings have been announced at a two-day Niépce in England conference at the National Media Museum in Bradford.
"Recent technical analysis by Getty Conservation Institute 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," say the two organisations involved in the findings.
At the heart of the discovery is the Un Clair de Lune plate, which was made in 1827. While that plate was long thought to have been enhanced with etching, it is actually a photograph without any hand tooling at all, the researchers say. "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 plate is the first and only known example of this process.
Commenting on the discovery, senior scientist Stulik says: "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."
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.
Niépce brought the plates to England in 1827 to demostrate the 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," explains the National Media Museum.
"Of the four known surviving plates taken to England by Niépce, three reside in the National Media Museum’s Royal Photographic Society Collection and one is on display at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin – known as the First Photograph."