View from the Window at Le Gras is the oldest surviving camera photograph. It was created by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827 at Saint-Loup-de-Varennes and shows parts of the buildings and surrounding countryside of his estate, Le Gras, seen from a high window.
Niépce captured the scene with a camera obscura focused onto a 16.2 cm × 20.2 cm (6.4 in × 8.0 in) pewter plate coated with Bitumen of Judea, a naturally occurring asphalt. The bitumen hardened in the brightly lit areas, while the dimly lit areas remained soluble and could be washed away with a mixture of oil of lavender and white petroleum. A very long exposure in the camera was required. Sunlight strikes the buildings on opposite sides, suggesting an exposure of about eight hours, which has become the conventional estimate. More recently, a researcher who studied and recreated Niépce's process found that the exposure must have continued for several days.
In late 1827, Niépce visited England. He showed this and several other specimens of his work to botanical illustrator Francis Bauer, who encouraged him to present his "heliography" process to the Royal Society. Niépce was unwilling to reveal the specific practical details of his process, so the Royal Society declined his offer. Before returning to France, he gave Bauer the specimens and a draft of the remarks he had prepared to accompany his presentation. After Bauer's death in 1840, the specimens passed through several hands and were occasionally exhibited as historical curiosities. The View from the Window at Le Gras was last seen in 1905 and then fell into oblivion.
Historian Helmut Gernsheim tracked down the photograph in 1952, brought it to prominence and reinforced the claim that Niépce is the inventor of photography. He had the Eastman Kodak Company make a copy of the image but was not overly pleased with the result. He certainly cannot have been pleased to find that the plate had acquired disfiguring bumps near three corners, causing light to reflect in ways that continue to interfere with the visibility of those areas and of the image as a whole. He heavily retouched one of the copy prints to clean it up and make the scene more comprehensible, and until the late 1970s allowed only that enhanced version to be published.
In 1963, Harry Ransom purchased most of Gernsheim's photography collection for The University of Texas at Austin, but the Niépce heliograph was not included in the sale. Shortly thereafter, Gernsheim donated it. Although it has rarely traveled since then, in 2012-2013 it visited Mannheim, Germany as part of an exhibition entitled The Birth of Photography—Highlights of the Helmut Gernsheim Collection. It is normally on display in the main lobby of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas.
During a study and conservation project in 2002-2003, scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute examined the photograph using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, reflectance Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, and other techniques. They confirmed that the image consists of bitumen and that the metal plate is nearly pure tin, i.e., high-grade pewter. The Institute also designed and built the elaborate display case system that now houses the artifact in a continuously monitored, stabilized, oxygen-free environment.
In 2003 Life listed View from the Window at Le Gras among "100 Photographs that Changed the World".
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