The University of Texas dominates Austin. The campus consumes a good portion of downtown, and the 51,000 students dominate the culture. Even its museums are the best in town. The UT Blanton Museum specializes in real art, from ancient sculpture to modern painting. The Harry Ransom Center is different, with a very diverse collection of art, maps, literature, and photography. Photography is the one today. Historian and collector Helmut Gernsheim left his wonderful collection to UT, including, believe it or not, the first photograph ever taken. Yes, the first photograph ever taken on this planet. Joseph Nicephore Niepce, the French gentleman who did it, referred to it as "the first successful experiment of fixing permanently the Image from Nature." He did this in 1826, a dozen years before Monsieur Daguerre came up with a commercial process. Niepce mounted the plate in a camera obscura and exposed it for eight hours on a sunny day. Imagine, a film slower than Kodachrome I.
When we first arrived here ten years ago, we did a museum tour, and I saw this plate then. There was a special booth just inside the lobby where you could view the plate in just the right low-light conditions. It was astonishing. I had seen prints of the first photo many times over the years in books and magazines. I assumed that such a cultural treasure was hidden in the bowels of the Louvre or the British Museum. No, it's in Texas. What on earth is such a sacred object doing in a profane place like Texas?
The first photograph to be taken. Ever. At least on this planet.
Gernsheim was a photographer and historian who collected many old pictures. He knew of the Niepce photo from some records and letters. It had been exhibited once and then lost. He looked for it for years and finally found it in 1952, in a trunk in the estate of a family in Britain, where it had been lost for more than fifty years. There was a small media sensation when it was discovered. The exhibit at the Ransom Center includes many of the papers, letters, and news articles surrounding the photo and the long search for it.
The photograph itself is a pewter plate with a thin layer of a chemical that hardened under exposure to sunlight. The image is hard to see. You have to look at it from a narrow angle with the light coming from above. The image is of the roofs of several out-buildings of his house and a tree in the distance. Doesn't sound like much, until you consider that some very inventive and persistent person did this TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO.