Day 45 of the Dreams Realized, History Held, Fascination Endures Road Trip of Judea's Bitumen
Austin, TX to Dallas, TX
On the sixth floor of a random university building tucked away on the University of Texas campus, one of my holy grails sits behind a giant plastic tube. I have searched for it for years, looked for a poster, looked for it online, and now I have seen it, inches away from my face: the world's first photograph ever taken.
This is not exactly the way it looks in person; this was the photo made from it in 1952 by the man who discovered it in the abandoned attic of a long-dead descendant of the photographer himself. The actual photo - actually, Niépce called it a heliograph - is rendered on a piece of thin pewter the size of small laptop screen, and can only be seen by viewing from an angle, when the light hits it just right.
Still, when you take it in, and realize what you're seeing, it is mystical beyond transcendence. This little piece of metal was the first "true" representation of visual reality in our universe. It spawned the daguerreotype, which turned into modern photography, which spawned every motion picture you've ever seen, and now finds its way into every digital picture snapped 3.7 billion times a day. Every famous photograph, from Dorothea Lange's migrant mother to Robert Jackson's photo of Lee Harvey Oswald to Alfred Eisenstaedt's V-Day kissing photo, owes its debt to it. My own movie owes it everything, 24 times a second.
And yet, the first picture, as Jim Lewis says, is also the world's first great picture, although my reasons for believing it are a bit different from Jim's. I love the windows of the "pigeon house" on the left, how the barn slopes oblong in the middle, and the rough French horizon in the back. But the most beautiful thing to me is but a detail: the pear tree just to the left and above the sloping barn roof. The daylight that peeks through the branches is a striking announcement to all men that nature could only represent its true beauty through the document of photography. From this moment on, paintings will not suffice. That break in the trees is the future slicing its way into our now-open eyes, and nothing could ever be the same.
There is no sign pointing to the room on campus where the first picture sits; the building is under construction, and you have to walk up the six flights of stairs to the photo department. Even there, the receptionist only casually remembers where it is, and left us alone in the tiny room to stare at it as long as we wanted. Road trips like ours are always dominated by the big picture, of towns and money and schedules, but the once-in-a-lifetime unearthing of small jewels like this make us Lap the Miles and Lick the Valleys Up.
Posted by at February 4, 2003 8:54 PM
the hallway at U. of Texas photo department - the Niépce print is in the tiny room at right