Heliograph (Niepce)

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Date initiated April 2011
Contributors Stephanie Watkins, Kim DuBoise


Heliograph

Historical Facts

The first "permanent" photographic method, heliography was so named using the classical Greek terms meaning sun drawing, used a pewter printing plate coated with bitumen of Judea. This method originated from Nicephore Niepce's attempt to produce an image that could be reproduced mechanically and profitably. The basis was Senefelder's lithographic methods and began during 1813 - 1815. It was this technique that led to Niepce's decision to use the camera obscura as the device to obtain a lithographic plate (stone) by capturing an image that could eventually be inked and printed.

From 1816-1828, Niepce worked with various techniques and materials before obtaining some images on pewter. (link#) One surviving photographic plate, "View from the Window at Le Gras" (1826-27), is owned and housed in the Gernsheim Collection at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, USA. (http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/permanent/wfp/). Three other examples are in the collection of the National Media Museum, Bradford, UK. Heliographs remain extremely rare.

Technique

From 1816 to the final use of bitumen of Judea, a type of asphalt substance that had actinic, or light reactive, properties. This was achieved by the differential changes of the amount of light striking the plate coating in relation to reflected light, much as silver-based photography is made. This light hardened the bitumen in proportion, making the darker areas more soluble in certain essential oils, in this case oil of lavender was used. Niepce experimented with various substances and chemical processes on various supports ranging from lithographic stone, to metal lithographic printing plates, other plates (pewter), to copper plates that were plated with a layer of polished silver.
He was using the camera obscura for his first efforts, but then realized that a lens could bring more & sharper detail to the projected image. He worked with a lens maker who mentioned this to Daguerre who was also working with "sun-drawings". In 1829, Niepce signed a contract with Daguerre to share what was learned and to jointly move forward in the venture. In 1833, Niepce died suddenly of a stroke; his nephew inherited his partnership portion and eventually an annual payment for the patent along with Daguerre.

The printing process through acid etching of the plate to create the shadow or darker areas of the image was similar to engraving or aquatint processes. It was not originally conceived as a direct photographic process, but was seen as a way to create multiples of an image, thereby solving the problem of "fixing" the image. It was his intent to perfect the process and patent it. His inventions and experimentations have had longer-lasting implications for photogravure and photo-mechanical processes.

Identification Characteristics

Invented: 1822-7
Historic Practitioners: Joseph Nicephore Niepce
Contemporary Practitioners:
Image layer: Bitumen (of Judea)
Color: Cool metallic (silvery blue black; color can shift depending on the lighting), various degrees of reflection depending on coating and extent of original polishing of the plate. Being a direct positive process, dark areas of the image are actually the exposed plate.
Support: Metal, varies: primarily pewter; copper plates with silver layer; zinc credited in historic literature
Analysis: In 2002, analysis that was undertaken by Dr. Dusan Stulick and Art Kaplan of the Getty Conservation Institute on the samples in the collections of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the National Media Museum. See numerous links in the bibliography.

Housing and Storage Considerations

Prior to conservation attention, heliographic plates often survived in double containers and trunks in long term storage. Because of the rarity of these plates, a more contemporary approach has been to house in double-frames and special containers, including combinations of sealed, protective "oxygen-free, or argon-filled double-frame, or nitrogen-filed outer case, and nitrogen-filled inner frame.

Conservation Considerations

Further Reading

Beaton, C. and Buckland, G. The Magic Image: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day, (c) 1975, 1st American Ed., LC Card #74-7107
Beguin, Andre, The Printmaking Dictionary", website on general technical processes of printing: http://www.polymetaal.nl/beguin/maph/heliography.htm
"The First Photograph" Permanent Exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center, on the "View from the Window at Le Gras", 1826 plate: http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/permanent/wfp/heliography.html
Art & Architecture Thesaurus ® Online_heliography | http://www.getty.edu/vow/AATFullDisplay?find=heliography&logic=AND&note=&english=N&prev_page=1&subjectid=300133322
Conservation: The GCI Newsletter, 17.2 (Summer 2002); "Project Updates: Scientific Analysis of the World's First Photograph", Los Angeles, CA: Getty Conservation Institute
Frizot, Michel, Editor.: A New History of Photography, 1998 English language edition, Konemann, ISBN 3-8290-1328-0
Getty Conservation Institute, 2003, Newsletter 17.2 (Summer 2002): "Scientific Analysis of the World's First Photograph": http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/newsletters/17_2/gcinews1.html
Getty Conservation Institute, Research on the Conservation of Photographs: http://www.getty.edu/conservation/our_projects/science/photocon/photocon_component3.html
Getty Conservation Institute, Melissa Abraham, Oct. 12, 2010: http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/photographic-history-smells-oh-so-sweet/
Getty Conservation Institute,"U.K.'s National Media Museum and the Getty Conservation Institute Announce New Research Findings on World's Oldest Examples of Photography," Oct. 13, 2010: http://news.getty.edu/article_display.cfm?article_id=5273
Getty Conservation Institute, Newsletter, 26.1 (Spring 2011), Niepce in England Conference: http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/newsletters/26_1/gcinews4.html
Heliography, Wikipedia entry,: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heliography
National Media Museum, "Christ Carrying His Cross", 1827 plate: http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/Collection/Photography/PhotographsCollection/CollectionItem.aspx?id=2003-5001/2/22661
National Media Museum, "Clair de Lune", 1826 plate: http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/Collection/Photography/PhotographsCollection/CollectionItem.aspx?id=2003-5001/2/22662
National Media Museum (NMeM), Bradford, United Kingdom, October 13 and 14, 2010. Niepce Symposia: [link]
Nicephore Niepce House Museum: http://www.niepce.com/pagus/pagus-inv.html
Niepce in England, 2011: http://www.rps.org/news/detail/industry_news/niepce_in_england
Niepce, Joseph Nicephore, Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nic%C3%A9phore_Ni%C3%A9pce
Niepce, Nicephore (in French): http://www.niepce.com/
Towler, J., M.D.: The Silver Sunbeam: A Practical & Theoretical Textbook on Sun Drawing & Photographic Printing, Facsimile of the 1864 1st Edition, Foreword by Beaumont Newhall, 1969, Reprinted by Fountain Press, UK, 87100-005-9


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