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The hunt for the first photograph

Helmut and Alison Gernsheim

Helmut and Alison Gernsheim hanging an exhibition at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, 1963. Unidentified Photographer.

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Helmut Gernsheim conducted historical research and performed some deft detective work to track down the world's first photograph by Joseph Nicephore Niépce after it had been missing for half a century. Roy Flukinger describes the hunt and the moment when Gernsheim realized he had found the image.

ROY FLUKINGER: He learned very early on that [Joseph Nicephore] Niépce, the inventor of the process and everything, had come to Britain in 1827, had shown his work, and had apparently left some examples here. And so he was always searching for those.

He wanted to—he really sort of through scholarship proved that the material was here in England, somewhere, and even wrote an article about it, even though he didn't have it tangibly in his hand and couldn't find it. But through one of his ads that he placed sometimes in, and in this case, I believe, a newspaper, it turned up that the people who were the heirs of the last known owner, in fact, contacted him and said, "You know, well, yeah, it was our dad who had this thing, but we don't know where it is."

And so it was stolen somewhere in the 1890s—or loaned to an exhibit and never returned, I guess I should say more properly. And so at that point, he sort of threw up his hands and gave up. But two years later, the last surviving son—grandson, I guess it was—died, and while they were going through the estate and everything, they found them. They had found the first photograph, and at the end of the day, which was actually Valentine's Day in 1952, they gave the plate to him for the collection.

When the family found it, they said—'cause, you know, it's on pewter—"Well, we found what we think is the first photograph, but there's no image on the plate. You can't see anything. It's gone. It's faded."

When he [Gernsheim] looked at it at first, he that it was true, but then he took it to the window and tilted it at a certain angle, and pow! the image was there. It was still there latent on the plate. He had uncovered it and proceeded to photoduplicate it and announce it to the world later that year.

And that really put him and the collection on the map. It gave him, I think, the extra leverage to go on and do major exhibitions and to be taken seriously as a scholar.


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