In a vitrine on the sixth floor of the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin lies one of the most curious and oracular artifacts on display in America: a slightly dented tin-colored square, about the size of a paperback book cover, which, when examined from the appropriate angle, has the faintest play of shadow imprinted upon it. It is, as the Ransom Center bills it, the world’s first photograph.
A Frenchman named Joseph Nicéphore Niépce made the picture in 1826, using a sheet of pewter coated with bitumen of Judea (a lovely name for what is in fact a kind of asphalt). The metal was placed inside a camera obscura, which Niépce pointed out the window of his workroom and exposed for eight hours, then fixed with oil of lavender and white petroleum; the result was a permanent image of some neighboring buildings, a pear tree, and the distant horizon. It would be seven full years before William Henry Fox Talbot and Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre came up with their own more sophisticated processes and laid joint claim to the title “The Fathers of Photography.” (Thus the current show at the International Center of Photography, titled “First Photographs: William Henry Fox Talbot and the Birth of Photography”—a description that Niépce ‘s little picture stubbornly renders untrue.)
It’s a kind of antediluvian relic, this Niépce plate—ghostly, singular, almost invisible—and its exhibition has a slightly Barnum, step-right-up feel to it, as if the street outside were a midway, the Ransom Center a Hall of Wonders, and the picture itself a hoax, like those faint forms of the Virgin Mary that the devout claim to see in apple cores or smoke stains. It is strange, after all, that such a thing should exist: the world’s first photograph, begetter of the trillions of photographs taken since. It’s strange, too, that its “firstness” should be what makes it notable: In other arts, priority is an idle question, in part because genre is a matter of definition (what is a novel, anyway?) and in part because time has obliterated origins. (Homer and the caves of Lascaux are not so much “the first” as “the earliest surviving.”) But photography is different—it’s a technology, an invention, like the gasoline engine or the incandescent bulb: Its beginning clearly marks a threshold in the history of experience.
Photography is different this way, too: Unlike, say, landscape painting or novel-writing, taking pictures is something that most people do as a matter of course. So it’s unique among the fine arts in being split between a perfectly demotic practice and a rarified aesthetic one. (Granted, lots of people dance, but not en pointe.) But not all of us make art out of the pictures we take; most of us don’t even try. Which raises an obvious question about Niépce’s photo: Is it a good picture? A great picture?
It is, but to explain why, I need to step back a bit. It’s all too easy to think that an interesting picture is a picture of an interesting thing—this is the power of photojournalism, some snapshots, certain forms of portraiture, and so on. But the truth is trickier: The quality of a photograph lies not in its subject matter but in the irreducible entanglement of photographer, apparatus, and image. The most interesting fact to contemplate is that someone had the will and the opportunity to take it at all. You’re looking at the specific and fleeting relationship among those three things—artist, camera, world. What makes the aesthetics of the photograph different than the aesthetics of, say, painting are the constraints put on that triangle; there’s a different relationship to time, a different relationship to machinery, and, of course, a different (though no less complicated) relationship to truth, to memory, to history, and so on.
For example, consider this: Somewhere Nabokov writes that, while many of us are terrified by the expanse of empty time that awaits us after death, few feel any fear of the endlessness that preceded our birth. But looking at the Niépce picture reverses death’s order of sentiments; it induces a deep unease over the blankness of the past. You can’t help but think of the things and lives that, before 1826, were never caught on film—all those men and women, with nothing to mark their presence or their passing. It inspires a kind of light-headedness. Photographs are not our only—or even our best—reminder of the past, but they are now our most common, so much so that, from sonograms on, there’s probably not a person living in the United States who has never been caught on camera. Look at the world’s first gasoline engine, and you may feel a twinge of pity for all the miles walked before automobiles came on the scene; look at the first light bulb, and you may pity all the hours people spent in the dark. But the vertigo experienced in response to Niépce’s picture is deeper than that: It’s an almost metaphysical awe at the utter newness of the relationship being announced, between representations and the things they represent.
Still, as an image, Niépce’s photograph is unremarkable: the view outside a Frenchman’s window. Were it not for the date attached, you couldn’t tell if the photo was from 1526 or 1926. In this, it reminds me most—though this is anachronistic—of some of the most weird and daring photography of our time: those late-’60s experiments in the banal, the uncomposed pictures of otherwise uninteresting phenomena, like Dan Graham’s study of suburban tract houses or Ed Ruscha’s little book Every Building on the Sunset Strip— pictures of Not Much, by No One in Particular, which helped free the medium from its subservience to meretriciousness. Those pictures are great photographs because the quality and depth of the intention behind them is so engaging, the decisions made are so subtle and strange. For the same reasons, Niépce’s picture is not just the first photograph; it’s also—more or less by definition—the first great photograph. The intention behind it is singular, and the occasion it marks is profound: On a day in 1826, an amateur French inventor, puttering around his study, pokes a lens with a plate behind it through his window, with the hope that the image outside would be fixed forever. As, for the very first time, it was.