Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's View from the Window at Le Gras. c. 1826. Photo by J. Paul Getty Museum, Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas, Austin.

MANNHEIM, GERMANY - Seizing a once in a lifetime opportunity during the Christmas period, I went to marvel at the world’s first photograph The View from the Window in Le Gras by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce from circa 1826. It is back in Europe on loan for the first time since 1961 and currently on view at The Birth of Photography: Highlights of the Gernsheim Collection exhibition at the the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, Mannheim.

While this treasure is kept in the historical Gernsheim collection at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, the contemporary part of the collection is housed in Mannheim. For the first time in more than fifty years, both parts of the collection are brought together.

Helmut Gernsheim’s famous reproduction of the heliograph, using watercolours to touch up a March 1952 Kodak reproduction. Courtesy of Collection Harry Ransom Center / University of Texas at Austin.

Organised in seven thematic sections, the show gives an overview of the collection and its ambition to document the history of photography in the 19th and 20th centuries. This leads to the dramatic presentation of Niépce’s heliograph: staged in the dimly lit final room and shown in an impressive purpose-built display cabinet (an oxygen-free museum case), the plate quietly waits to be perceived. Like Gernsheim when he first held his discovery in his hands, “I was startled” – in awe of this milestone in the history of art, where “no image was to be seen.” Moving around the cabinet, changing my viewing angle a faint image became discernable. Thanks to the documentation material and reproductions exhibited in its vicinity, as well as the vastly illustrated accompanying catalogue, I could fully appreciate this almost vanished work.

European photo-aficionados who wish to see this unique testimony of the birth of photography while it is still on our doorstep have until 24 February 2013.

Tags:Photographs, Exhibitions