Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Temperature and relative humidity are charted here through a digital system that constantly tracks and regulates the conservation case, ensuring safe preservation of the First Photograph.

The First Photograph in its conservation case
at the Harry Ransom Center.

After the First Photograph arrived at the Harry Ransom Center in the mid 1960s, it was housed in a sealed, protective case with an oxygen-free atmosphere. In 2002, the Ransom Center and the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) undertook a two-part collaborative project to examine the case and analyze the components of the heliograph.

To assess the condition of the original protective case, scientists tested and analyzed the atmosphere inside the case, which revealed that the environment was the same in the protective housing as it was in the surrounding environment. These findings confirmed suspicions that the original case was no longer effective.

To analyze the components of the heliograph, several non-invasive tests were conducted on the heliograph plate itself. X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy examination confirmed the previously held belief that the metal is pewter. Reflectance Fourier Transform Infra-Red (FTIR) spectroscopy confirmed that Niépce had used bitumen of Judea.


Conservators also examined the gilt wood frame around the heliograph, concluding that the frame dates stylistically to the same time period in which the heliograph was made. This information is consistent with previous observations about the structure of the framed heliograph and provides additional supporting evidence to the date and provenance of the piece.

The research upheld many previous findings and assumptions about the First Photograph but also illuminated the need for a new method of conservation and preservation for the heliograph.

Accordingly, the GCI constructed a new, state-of-the-art museum case with an oxygen-free environment to house and preserve the First Photograph. You can see part of this black, metal case in the First Photograph display, but as you can see in the accompanying image, part of the structure is obscured by the case itself.

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This joint project between the Ransom Center and GCI provided a unique opportunity to learn more about the heliographic process and this object itself, as well as its condition and requirements for long-term preservation.

Today, scientists and conservators at both institutions monitor and continuously record the data for air temperature, relative humidity, oxygen concentration, and pressure inside the First Photograph case to ensure safekeeping so that the heliograph can continue to be shared with viewers.