To the beginning of photography in Texas

The world is awash with photographs. Anyone with a camera in hand is a photographer. Billions of photos are taken every day worldwide and a vast majority of them never even get a second look, let alone take a physical form, lost in the vast emptiness of the digital cloud. However, things were different back in the day. In the early 19th century, pioneers of photography were busy developing new techniques and demonstrating their results to the public, starting a revolution that would go on to transform the world.

Practical photography was generally accepted to be born in 1839, the year Louis Daguerre commercially introduced the photographic process that he developed, which came to be known as the daguerreotype process. The photograph that was developed using this process was itself called a Daguerreotype. Parisian Louis Daguerre had been working on this process since the mid 1820s. The process was faster and demonstrated commercial viability making it the first successful photographic process. Photographic processes would continue to evolve from heliographs, daguerreotypes, albumen prints and salt prints in the 19th century to platinum prints, gelatin silver prints and all manners of color photography in the 20th century; and the emergence of a myriad of digital mediums in the modern era.

For all the stunning advancements in photography technology, there is a certain sense of fulfillment in seeing the early 19th century photographs in person. They evoke such awe and wonder. Texas, due to some serendipitous events, is home to some of the most iconic and oldest surviving photographs in the world - including the oldest! Texas is a place of pilgrimage for photographers, albeit few are aware of its significance. We will make our journey through the Harry Ransom Center and the Dolph Briscoe Center in Austin and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston to see some of these iconic photographs.

Harry Ransom Center at Austin

Our first stop is Austin, the capital of Texas, unsurprisingly, to see the world’s oldest surviving photograph. “View from the Window at Le Gras” is a photograph taken by Joseph Nicephore Niepce, another French pioneer in photography and a partner of Louis Daguerre. The photograph, taken in the 1820s, is on display at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin.

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(Photo Courtesy:  Harry Ransom Center)

The plaque next to the photo reads, “By 1826, Joseph Nicephore Niepce, a French inventor, developed a radically new technique of producing and fixing images with light. Working out of his ancestral home, Le Gras, near the village of Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France, he coated a pewter plate with bitumen of Judea and placed it in a camera obscura pointing out of an upper story window toward his estate’s outbuildings and courtyard. At least eight hours later, he took the plate from the camera and washed it with oil of lavender and white petroleum. The image that formed is the earliest known permanent photograph from nature. The plate was rediscovered in 1952 by the historian Helmut Gernsheim, who donated it to The University of Texas with the purchase of his photography collection in 1963.”

Harry Ransom center is home to the vast Gernsheim Collection of photographs.

Dolph Briscoe Center at Austin

A brisk fifteen minute walk takes us to the next stop on our tour - Dolph Briscoe Center for American History within the The University of Texas at Austin campus. Briscoe Center has a vast collection of photographs documenting the history and culture of Texas. 

The earliest datable photograph taken in Texas, a daguerreotype, was taken in front of the Alamo in San Antonio in 1849 titled “Alamo, Texas 1849”. It's only appropriate that the photograph is of the Alamo which, as part of San Antonio Missions, is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Texas. The photo was taken thirteen years after the pivotal Battle of the Alamo. It’s an important icon of Texas history.

(Photo Courtesy:  Dolph Briscoe Center)

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

A 170 mile or a three hour ride from Austin takes us to Houston, the 4th largest city in the United States. In Houston, you will be able to see some of the finest and the oldest photographs at the world-renowned The Museum of Fine Arts. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is one of the finest art museums in the world and has in its possession a vast encyclopedic collection of fine works of art across all mediums. Our focus here is some of the iconic and historic photographs in the museum's possession. 

Our first stop is a very recent acquisition “Still Life” by Alphonse Eugene Hubert, dated 1839-1840. It’s the earliest daguerreotype in museum’s possession. Here is the description from the museum’s website. “This remarkably well-preserved whole-plate daguerreotype by Alphonse Eugène Hubert, assistant and close associate of Louis Daguerre, was made just months after Daguerre revealed the secrets of his invention in August 1839. No doubt made outdoors in full sunlight, the arrangement of artistic bric-a-brac offered an immobile display with limited depth—desirable characteristics in the earliest days of daguerreotypy, when exposures were slow. Beyond practicality, however, such an arrangement was ideal for showing off the extraor­dinary precision of the process and for linking it to the realm of fine art, demonstrating photography’s ambitions even at its birth.”

(Photo Courtesy:  The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

William Henry Fox Talbot, an Englishman, was a contemporary to Neipce and Daguerre, and was an inventor of the paper based salt print process for photography. While Daguerre was introducing the metal based daguerreotype process to the public, Talbot quietly demonstrated his paper based process in London. His invention, equally impressive and effective, paved the way for future inventions and for the evolution of photography. The museum has in its collection “Summit of the Tower of Lacock Abbey, Taken from the Roof of the Building” taken in 1840 by Talbot, another iconic photograph. This picture, taken a few weeks after him patenting his “calotype” process, is the earliest Talbot photograph in the museum’s collection.

(Photo Courtesy:  The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Another masterpiece, “View of Paris”, developed in 1840-41 by Vincent Chevalier, is a stunning image for its age. It was, for many years, the earliest daguerreotype in the possession of the museum. The dazzling picture shows Paris landmarks including the Louvre, the Seine, and the equestrian statue of Henri IV in amazing quality. An accompanying magnifying glass next to the hanging picture is a handy tool to admire the stunning depth of this photograph. A must visit for photography enthusiasts.

“View of Paris” possesses an entrancing three-dimensionality akin to that of a modern hologram. —Malcolm Daniel, curator in charge, department of photography and special projects at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

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(Photo Courtesy:  The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Our final stop at the museum is a photograph taken in the 21st century. And, there is a special reason for it. In the age of instagram selfies and digital art, New York-based German photographer Vera Lutter uses the traditional and the most basic medium of photography, practiced by the pioneers of photography in those early years, to create new masterpieces of art. If viewing the iconic daguerreotype piques your interest for more quality works of photography art look no further than the iconic work of art “San Marco, Venice XX” created by Vera Lutter in 2005. Her work transcends time and takes us back to the beginning of photography. Her works are best described by this excerpt from the museum website – 

To create her large-scale images, Vera Lutter transforms a darkened room, shipping container, or specially constructed box into an enormous pinhole camera. The exposures can last for days, weeks, or months. Lutter retains the negative form as the final work—a literal reflection of space and time as determined by the immediate visual environment.

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(Photo Courtesy:  The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)


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