Scientific collaboration reveals world firsts in photography

Scientific discoveries at the National Media Museum.

A six-year research collaboration between the National Media Museum and the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) has made a profound discovery and led to the Museum’s photography collection being declared ‘the best in the world’ by Dr Dusan Stulik, a senior scientist from the GCI.

The Getty Project, led by Phillipa Wright, Curator of Photographs at the Museum, has confirmed the date of the dawn of photography – long placed at 1839 and credited to Daguerre – to be much earlier than first thought and attributable to French pioneer Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce.

Every year, Dr Stulik brings his Portable Analytical Laboratory from California and applies it to the National Photography Collection at the Museum, which embraces the Royal Photographic Society Collection acquired by the Museum in 2002.

Getty spectrometer scans Niépce’s portrait of Le Cardinal d’Amboise

The team, which also includes Art Kaplan of the GCI and independent conservator Susie Clark, have confirmed that Un Clair de Lune, c. 1827 - one of three pewter plates made by Niépce - is the earliest and only extant known example of a photographic process which uses the resin of lavender. The team then discovered that the plate of Christ Carrying His Cross, also c. 1827, was made by a unique and previously unknown process.

They also confirmed that another portrait, Le Cardinal D’Amboise, was captured on a pewter plate using the heliographic process invented by Niépce before being etched in an acid bath.

Getty conservationist Dr Dusan Stulik and Philippa Wright of the National Media Museum hold Un Clair de Lune by Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce.

A bespoke oxygen-free display case for the plates is now being constructed with funding from the Royal Photographic Society.

Wright says “The fact that these photographic treasures are part of the national collection cared for here in Bradford is amazing”.