Chapter 77
The Oldest Photo
The Tales of Texas

1a - The Mysterious Ski Rack
1b - Wheres the Other Half of That Moose
1c - The Waiter Who Didnt Yall
1d - Scorpions, Scorpio
2a - Diet Soda
2b - Riding into the Sunrise
3 - Modest Magazines
4 - Down to Houston
5a - What Does That Sign Say
5b - Just Follow Your Nose
5c - They Call It the Sunbelt
5d - The State Tree
6 - The New House
7a - Billboards
7b - Billboards Again
8 - Stereo Upgrade
9 - Wineries
10 - Unintentionally Left Blank
11 - CBW in TX
12 - Ice House Radio
13 - Goats and Cotton
14 - Dig We Must
15 - Dan Moody
16 - Dry Heat
17 - Dead Animals
18a - Bookstore Culture
18b - On the Open Road
19 - Weather
20 - Sightings in Bertram and Buchanan
21 - Too Many Birds
22 - Road Hazards
23 - Sightings to and from Houston
24 - The Great Wall of Train
25 - In the Heat of the Day
26 - Bite Me
27 - Bid on This Skeleton
28 - Willie
29 - Rural Countryside
30 - SUV SUX!
31 - Kinky on the Texas Monthly Hour
32 - Strange Yellow Sky
33 - Football is a Serious Enterprise in Texas
34 - Remember the Alamoo!
35 - What's That on the Radio
36 - Trip to Houston through the small towns
37 - Shoe Story, an Austin Anecdote
38 - Unintended Fireworks
39 - Flash Flood Warning
40 - Sin City
41 - Live music in Austin, but in theaters not in clubs
42 - Fear of Overpass
43 - The Big Sneezy
44 - New Texas
45 - Front Ended by the French Fry Mobile
46 - Dirt Farm
47a - Heard at the Texas Book Festival 2008
48a - Texas Book Festival 2009
49 - Central Time Sucks
50 - Temple Texas
51 - Christmas in Austin
52 - Pennants in the Wind
53 - The Road Less Traveled
54 - Texas-size Thunderstorm
55 - Cool Van
56 - Your New House Is That-A-Way
57 - C.S.I. Austin
58 - New MTV Game Show
59 - Equine Technology
60 - Look at That Prairie
61 - Get Your Water Here
62 - Corporate Anniversaries
63 - College Sprawl
64 - Hire These Guys
65 - Preparing for Winter
66 - Careful What You Overhear
67 - Bonnie Raitt
68 - Perfume
69 - Questionable Skills
70 - All-American Day
71 - Read Me
72 - Weird Fog
73 - Overpackaged Food
74 - What Town Was That
75 - Texas Book Festival 2010
76 - Bulletproof Roof
77 - The Oldest Photo
78 - Cheesesteaks Part 1
79 - Cheesesteaks Part 2

Say Fromage!


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?

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.