The Way Back: The First Photograph

It’s not much to look at—just a few silver smudges. If you didn’t know its origins, you might think it belonged in a junkyard. But in fact, this 8-by-10-inch pewter plate is among the most important historical objects in the world: it’s the first photograph ever taken, and it resides on the Forty Acres.

One day in 1826 or 1827, a French gentleman named Joseph Nicéphore Niépce set up a camera obscura in a window overlooking his country estate. Niépce’s years of work refining the camera’s optics and devising a special light-sensitive coating finally coalesced—after an eight-hour exposure—into the first-ever photograph. It shows the courtyard of Niépce’s estate, including the outlines of buildings and a tree. “I can tell you the effect is downright magical,” Niépce wrote of his work in an 1824 letter to his brother.

The First Photograph faded into obscurity until 1952, when photo historian Helmut Gernsheim restored it to its former glory. In 1963, UT’s Harry Ransom Center bought Gernsheim’s photography collection, and shortly after, Gernsheim donated the photograph.

Today, the First Photograph has been on the Forty Acres for roughly a half-century. It’s traveled to California, where it underwent scientific analysis and got a specially designed oxygen-free case, and more recently to Germany, where it was exhibited until Feb. 24. On March 12, the photo will return to its permanent home at the Ransom Center, where visitors can see it for free.

Top: Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras, c. 1826.

Inset: Rediscovered in 1952 by photo historians Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, a reproduction of the First Photograph was retouched prior to its release.

Credit: Gernsheim Collection, Harry Ransom Center / University of Texas at Austin.


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