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The View from the Window at Le Gras

By Angie Keefer
Authors
  • Angie Keefer

    Angie Keefer (b. 1977, Alabama) is an artist and writer. Her talks and other projects have been staged or exhibited most recently at Yale Union in Portland, Oregon; the São Paulo Biennial; MoMA, New York; and Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, among others. Recent exhibition of her work is at Objectif Exhibitions, Antwerp (2013). Along with Dexter Sinister, she is co-founder of The Serving Library, a non-profit artists’ organization dedicated to publishing and archiving in a continuous loop; and co-editor of The Bulletins, The Serving Library’s bi-annual publication. Keefer graduated from Yale University in 1999.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, View from the Window at Le Gras (1826)

According to this afternoon’s customer reviews on Amazon.com US, the dominant player in the all-in-one inkjet printer, copier, scanner market is the Epson WorkForce WF-3520. At $119.99, for less than the cost of a year’s subscription to The Economist, it is now possible to scan, copy, print two-sided duplex and fax wirelessly from home at an additional cost per page of only two to three cents in black and under ten cents in full color (plus paper). The sales pitch for the WF-3520 promises “robust product design” and “a number of productivity boosting features.” Indeed, the machine holds 250 pages of paper, which means the average user can publish a novella from her laptop without leaving her chair, and with an ISO PPM of fifteen for one-sided black, and 7.4 for duplex, the entire process would take about as long as a cold shower. If it’s photos she wants, the WF-3520 user can bypass the laptop altogether. Her WF will accommodate a digital camera cable or memory stick, and comes equipped with a 2.5 inch color LCD touchscreen panel for accessing device directories and choosing among myriad print options. The WF will even convert scanned text into editable text files via embedded OCR software. Like a note in a harmonic series, the all-in-one contains the capabilities of all the printers that came before it: an ordinary digital desktop, a modern publishing house, a team of engravers, a scribe.

Five years ago, 83.5% of US households owned a printer. Sales continued to rise annually until 2010, when demand fell off sharply.Today the market is shrinking. Turns out, cheap is no match for free. With a smart phone in every palm, and information increasingly stored online in an unlimited edition, fewer hands are available to hold paper, which seems ungainly and costly by comparison.

The WF-3520 is the machine Nicéphore Niépce would have dreamed of if he were born in an age of plastic and science fiction, or even incandescent light bulbs and mass literacy. Instead, he was born to be young during the French Revolution. And he was born the son of a tax collector, an unusually hazardous occupation in France at the end of the 18th century. He and his little brother Claude spent the first two decades of the 19th century inventing an internal combustion engine. They succeeded in powering a boat upriver with their contraption, which they called a Pyréolophore, and earned a ten-year patent for the device from Napoléon as a result, but were unsuccessful in finding a market for it. Claude went to England to seek investment. There, he burned out, along with the brothers’ invention and whatever remained of the Niépce family fortune. Wikipedia tells us this much and that a lunar crater is named after Nicéphore, though — as it’s on the far side and is called simply “Niépce” — it may just as well commemorate Claude.

A genteel spin on the historical narrative would sketch the brothers as gentleman inventors, Nicéphore a scientist and lithography enthusiast who couldn’t draw and needed some way to make reproducible images after his son, a talented draftsman, left home. More (or at least as much) to the point, country estates and aristocratic lifestyles cost money to maintain, then as now. Nicéphore could imagine potential and potentially lucrative applications for photography. He was not dabbling. He was trying to stay afloat.

Instead of a WF-3520, but at about the same dimensions, he conceived a camera obscura — a wooden box with a round lens on the front end. The lens fit between two thin slats of grooved wood, a top piece and a bottom piece, each with a half-moon subtracted from the center of the board so that the two halves formed a circle when pressed together. The top piece could then be pulled upward to remove or change the lens. The mechanism worked on the same principle as a guillotine, which is exactly what an image of Niépce’s camera brings to mind.

When Niépce went to London to visit the Royal Society in 1827, what he intended to sell to them was not an image or a camera. It was a secret. He had a formula. A process. The image was merely his witness. His prospective customers wouldn’t consider buying what they couldn’t first own, yet if he delivered it — his information —, of course he would have nothing left to sell. Finding these business conditions unfavorable, he left England empty-handed, his witness — a photographic view from the window of his home — abandoned. He was sixty-two, almost sixty-three. He had about five years left.

 

Mark Osterman is “process historian” at the offices of the George Eastman House Museum in Rochester, New York. He is an art historian who studies photographic processes, rather than photographic images. By recreating the conditions that led to certain technical innovations in photography, Osterman believes it is possible to learn something of the questions and assumptions that possessed the original innovators. The job entails equal parts laboratory experimentation and historical reenactment, and as far as I know he invented it.

When I met Osterman a few weeks ago, he guided me on a crash course in lithographic and photographic processes. In the basement laboratory of the museum, I felt the sandpapery bitumen surface of a sample heliograph as he explained the process Niépce used to create The View from the Window at Le Gras. Osterman speculated that the people who first discovered the photosensitive properties of certain substances — botanicals, silver compounds, gums and resins — were engravers’ apprentices. Who else would be more likely to leave a prepared plate lying near an open window, only to return later and find a recorded trace of the light that had passed over it? The View from the Window had to be shot on a cool day, he added, since heat, too, would expose the plate, a fact that helps situate his precise definition of photography: “The making of an image by means of radiant energy.”

“It is not so hard to make an image,” he said, “the difficulty is in keeping it.” He pulled out his phone to show me an image of The View on view at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. It promptly disappeared.

The oldest known photograph is still stable, but I haven’t seen it. And after spending a few hours with Osterman and the museum’s archivist, Joe Struble, looking at other, related objects in the George Eastman collection, I am sure I wouldn’t recognize The View from its reproductions. The image should be difficult to see, even in person, as its metallic surface is reflective, and therefore must be viewed from various angles to get a sense of the variably textured light and dark areas. Osterman compares the experience to looking at a steamed mirror. The light parts of the image, those exposed to the most sunlight in 1826, are heavily textured. Their surface scatters light, whereas the smooth, dark areas of the image reflect light, much the way a finger trail on the surface of a foggy bathroom mirror would.

Among other facts, Osterman told me

• The pigeon house on the roof of Niépce’s house at Le Gras has been torn down. If a photo were taken today from the same vantage as Niépce’s original, the ethereal grid of the window frame on the left edge of the image might still appear, but there would be no structure visible on the right.

• Niépce was a prolific correspondent who wrote in detail to his brother in England about the heliography process as he was developing it. These letters are somewhere in Russia now, and remain mostly unpublished.

• The original formula was for bitumen dissolved in oil of lavender or, earlier on, something called Dippel’s oil, a noxious substance derived from bones. (Johann Konrad Dippel, born at Castle Frankenstein in 1673, was rumored to have obtained his eponymous oil from the bones of cadavers, and was possibly the model for Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein.)

• Niépce was methodical and deliberate in his work. He filled knotholes in the floorboards of the attic to eliminate light filtering into the room.

Osterman showed me a digital photo he took of one of these eliminated light vents, part of a powerpoint presentation he had on-hand. I asked him to show me more, and eventually I learned about his personal work as a photographer, which spun off from a kind of traveling roadside vaudeville he performed in his student days, when he would dress up in 19th-century costume and literally sell snake oil, a twist more Daguerrean than Niépcean.

While Niépce was inventing photography, the ambitious Parisian showman Louis Daguerre — more or less the French answer to P.T. Barnum — was earning fame as a stage designer, sought after for his elaborate dioramas — backdrops that appeared as different scenes under different conditions, depending on whether they were lit from in front or behind. He and Niépce were clients of the same opticians, father and son Vincent and Charles Chevalier. Daguerre had heard of Niépce’s work through this short grapevine and made several unsuccessful attempts to obtain a meeting with him. Niépce was dubious of Daguerre, who tried to win his confidence by sending examples of his “l’effet de nuit” paintings on velvet and his “dessin fumé” drawings, positive images scratched from dark surfaces blackened by the carbon smoke of candle flames. I handled examples of both when I met Osterman and Struble. I can testify these postcard-scale works by Daguerre have a certain charm, but they certainly aren’t photographic. What Daguerre lacked in scientific understanding, he made up for with incomparable doggedness, however. He had vision. After the disappointment at the Royal Society in London, Niépce finally agreed to partner with the younger, more charismatic Daguerre, whose pockets were deep. From this collaboration, the physautotype, of which no known examples survive, and eventually the daguerreotype, were born.

Daguerre published a manual describing his photographic process in 1839, six years after Niépce’s death. Osterman showed me samples of the first English and French editions from the Eastman House library as he described the meeting that occurred the same year between Daguerre and American painter (and pioneer of telegraphy) Samuel Morse. Morse went to Paris to see Daguerre and learn of his invention, which he subsequently publicized in America. While they met, Daguerre’s studio burned, but technical knowledge of the process he invented had already proliferated throughout the Western world. Thanks to the manual and some further innovations that reduced exposure time, a veritable boom industry in daguerreotypes ensued. A color litho of “Daguerréotypomanie” from 1839 depicts miles-long lines of people waiting to buy camera equipment and view or sit for the photos amid a debauched, carnivalesque atmosphere, while a slew of engravers hang themselves alongside the road. Though the manic scene is far removed from Niépce’s quiet rooftop, the closest I have come to anything like a first-hand understanding of The View is the time I spent looking at a group of daguerreotypes preserved in the Eastman collection.

Even the most memorable photographs I have seen — which are not great works, rather old pictures of family members, or pictures of myself before I was conscious of being a self — fail to compare. Last fall, I saw hundreds of August Sander’s prints. I would have spent a full day with them if I could, but looking at them was not like looking at Martin Hans Boyé, the striking young Danish chemist who emigrated to the United States in 1836, and sat for several daguerreotypes at the studio of Robert Cornelius in Philadelphia. Holding Boyé’s images in my hand a few inches from my face, so that we were eye-to-eye, I felt as if he were present. The detail of the daguerreotype image is extremely fine, and the reflective quality of the silver plate adds a dimension of depth, such that the undeniable effect of looking at one — now nearly 200 years old — is the compression of time. It is so easy to imagine the person in the image as a living contemporary; it is difficult to grasp the fact that he is long dead. Or, if he is dead (an impossibility), that his image is not a bodily specimen, the way a lock of hair is.

The daguerreotype, like Niépce’s view, is a positive, meaning no negative was produced from which prints were made in turn. The subject of the photo was present when the print occurred. The same could be said of digital images, with the crucial difference that a digital positive leaves no indelible, chemical fingerprint.

I asked Struble for more information about Boyé, and he handed me a half-page biography he wrote in 2001. For his MD at the University of Pennsylvania, Boyé penned a thesis on “The Structure of the Nervous System.” His eclectic research later included “development of a perchloric ether used as smokeless gunpowder, analysis of feldspar, a treatise on the composition of water in the Schuykill River, an analysis of concretion from a horse’s stomach, analysis of Chinese artificially colored tea, and an investigation of the Aurora Borealis.”

 

With thanks to Mark Osterman, Joe Struble and the George Eastman House.

 

This text was commissioned as part of Between Seeing and Believing, a symposium, which took place at Witte de With on March 30, 2013. Eschewing the idea that a single image holds a single narrative, three literary writers – Maria Barnas, Angie Keefer, and Quinn Latimer – were tasked with composing replies to a shared source image independently. The image in question: the first permanent photograph from nature, View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826 by Nicéphore Niépce.