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The History Men: Helmut Gernsheim and Nicéphore Niépce

Born one hundred and fifty years apart the achievements of the struggling landowner and inventor Nicéphore Niépce and the groundbreaking photo historian Helmut Gernsheim were inextricably linked when Gernsheim rediscovered Niépce’s long-lost first photograph in a trunk. Graham Harrison looks at the exploits of the photographer turned historian and of the brilliant, but ill-fated, Frenchman who Gernsheim proved was the true inventor of photography.

“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.” Seneca.

In London in 1942 between the Blitz and the V-bomb attacks on the city during the Second World War a German architectural photographer called Helmut Gernsheim published a book called New Photo Vision.

In the 64-page monograph, with a suitably prickly image on the cover, Gernsheim criticized the prevailing, romanticised style of English photography, advocated a new realism, and insisted that as photography had the capacity of being a means of expression it followed that the medium was an art in its own right.

Gernsheim sent a copy of his book to Beaumont Newhall, curator of the groundbreaking exhibition ‘Photography 1839-1937’ at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Newhall’s catalogue contained the first reference to photography as a serious artform.

Recognising a kindred philosophy Newhall met Gernsheim and planted in his mind the idea of him becoming a photo historian. He also suggested that Gernsheim drop the criticism in favour of collecting nineteenth century photographs which, at the time, could be bought for a few shillings.

Although Gernsheim never did drop criticising he and his wife Alison began to collect thousands of images from the Victorian era, including masterworks by Fox Talbot, Hill and Adamson, Fenton and Daguerre.

In the process the couple rediscovered the neglected work of Julia Margaret Cameron, created a literary sensation by unearthing Lewis Caroll’s interest in photography (in an antique shop) and found Niépce’s priceless View from the Window at Le Gras, the world’s first permanent photograph from nature, which had been lost for over fifty years.

And as their discoveries unfolded Helmut and Alison Gernsheim mapped the early history of photography which they described with encyclopedic detail in The History of Photography From the Earliest Use of the Camera Obscura in the Eleventh Century up to 1914, which was published by the Oxford University Press in 1955.

The revised and enlarged edition of The History of Photography by Helmut and Alison Gernsheim (Thames & Hudson, 1969).


The third son of a Munich literary historian, Helmut Erich Robert Gernsheim, was born on March 1st 1913. In 1937, with Hitler chancellor and the Nazis in power, the half-Jewish Gernsheim left Germany for Paris and then London where he undertook a commission to photograph artworks at the National Gallery.

In London he established himself as a commercial photographer working for Rolls Royce and the shipping line P&O. Following the outbreak of the Second World War Gernsheim was categorised a “friendly enemy alien” by the British Government and deported to Australia where he was interned with two thousand other refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria.

Before long Gernsheim was giving lectures on the aesthetics of photography at the internment camp. His qualifications were a first-class diploma from the Bavarian State School of Photography and a belief that Neue Sachlichkeit, the new realism movement, the dominant force in radical art and design in Germany in the 1920s and 30s, was an absorbing subject for his fellow internees.

By 1942 Gernsheim was back in Britain having secured his release by volunteering to document important and historic properties threatened by German bombs for The National Buildings Record (now part of English Heritage).

The photographs which Gernsheim took were exhibited widely, praised by Kenneth Clark and Nikolaus Pevsner and later published as Focus on Architecture and Sculpture (Fountain Press, 1949) and Beautiful London (Phaidon, 1950).

The same year as his return to Britain Gernsheim brought out New Photo Vision, the product of his internment camp lectures, and married Alison Eames (c.1911-69) a Londoner with an interest in nineteenth century English social history.

Alison’s “gift for scanning books in Latin, French and German for useful clues” made her the ideal partner in a collaboration that was to last until her death two and a half decades later. In that time the Gernsheims were to write 20 books and 160 articles on the history and aesthetics of photography.


There is no other work of art that takes you back through time quite the same way as the faint image of some rooftops in Burgundy captured slowly throughout one summer’s day almost 200 years ago.

Its creator, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, was a well-to-do amateur scientist and inventor whose family estate, Le Gras, near Chalon-sur-Saône was in financial decline following the upheaval of French Revolution.

In 1813, when the new art of lithography swept France, Niépce set out to invent a printing process of his own which he hoped would create a printing plate directly from a camera obscura.

One might guess that he also hoped to patent such an invention and secure enough income to save Le Gras. The estate however remained a burden little eased by the mortgaging of properties and the sale of land (and it wasn’t until after the inventor’s death that the family were to benefit financially from Niépce’s endeavour).

No doubt inspired by the enlightenment but hampered by the estate’s remoteness from Paris, Niépce experimented in isolation with light-sensitive materials to produce, at first, a negative image which faded quickly. His objective, though, was a lasting positive image and he groped along to that end for eight more years.

The breakthrough came in 1822 when he succeeded in creating a permanent, positive, contact print from an engraving using bitumen of Judea on glass, its highlights hardened by the action of light, its shadows cleared by petroleum and lavender oil. Niépce called his invention heliography.

Four more years were to pass before Niépce applied the same chemistry to a polished pewter plate, made an eight-hour exposure from the window of his attic workroom, and captured a permanent image of the world outside.

The resulting picture, known as View from the Window at Le Gras, is the earliest surviving image from nature and accepted as the world’s first photograph.

And fixed faintly but for ever on that mirrored surface in the summer of 1826 is a view of the outbuildings, rooftops and a pear tree on the world’s first photographer’s heavily mortgaged estate.


Nicéphore Niépce had a brother called Claude who lived near Kew Gardens. Claude had moved to Britain to promote another innovation, the world’s first internal combustion engine which the brothers had invented in 1807. When a French patent for the engine expired in 1817, Claude secured a British patent consent from the court of George III.

A decade later, as the end of the British patent approached, Claude began to suffer from delirium and became terminally ill. When Niépce travelled to England to visit his ailing brother in September 1827 he brought with him (or later sent for) examples of his pioneering experiments in photography including a paper contact print and four heliographic plates. Three of the heliographs were contact images reproduced from etchings, the fourth was his View from the Window at Le Gras, the world’s first photograph.

Niépce showed these artifacts to the Austrian-born illustrator Francis Bauer who was botanic illustrator to the King and a Fellow of the Royal Society. Bauer suggested that Niépce should write a memoir so that he could present the invention to the Society and perhaps gain its patronage.

As instructed, Niépce hand-wrote a short description which he titled Notice sur L’Heliographie but the scientific academy declined its support, apparently because Niépce would not divulge the details of his invention.

A Scottish journal, however, would later suggest that Niépce’s rejection may have had more to do with an extraordinary lack of interest in the invention of photography by the Royal Society.

“One would have expected that a picture, painted or copied by the agency of light, would have fixed the attention of any body of men to which it was submitted,” stated the Edinburgh Review in January 1843. “And we would have experienced some difficulty in giving credit to the statement, did we not know that the same body has refused to publish the photographic discoveries of Mr. Talbot!”

Whatever the reasons behind the rejection we do know that Niépce returned to Le Gras empty handed and his brother Claude, having squandered a significant amount of the family fortune in persuit of ill-advised business opportunities, died in Kew in 1828.


Before he returned to France Nicéphore Niépce presented the memoir, the contact print and the four heliographs, including the First Photograph, to Francis Bauer in the hope the King’s botanic illustrator might still find a sponsor for his invention in Britain.

Bauer did his best to promote Niépce, as did a number of prominent Britons, but none of them lived long enough to exert significant influence.

In 1829, having failed to secure sponsorship for himself, Niépce entered into a ten-year collaborative agreement with Louis Daguerre, a Parisian painter and physicist celebrated for his staged Dioramas, who had been seeking a way of capturing the image created by the camera obscura for some time.

It was not until 1831, two years after his collaboration with Niépce began and fifteen years after Niépce had first experimented with silver chloride, that Daguerre discovered the light-sensitivity of silver iodide, his first success.

When Niépce died unexpectedly in 1833 his side of the agreement passed to his son and heir Isidore and Daguerre became the dominant partner for the agreement’s remaining six years.

When the agreement ended in 1839 Nicéphore Niépce’s place in the history of photography was eclipsed by Daguerre and by William Henry Fox Talbot as their respective photographic processes were announced to the world.

The View from the Window at Le Gras, the world’s first photograph, and the other artifacts that Niépce had left with Francis Bauer in England in 1827, were, after Bauer’s death, sold and later divided.

In 1884 the memoir, the First Photograph and the contact print were bought by Henry Baden Pritchard, editor of the Photographic News and author of The Photographic Studios of Europe (1882). Unfortunately for Pritchard he died shortly after acquiring the items and they passed to his widow Mary.

When Mary Pritchard died in 1917 the Niépce artifacts were placed in a trunk with other family belongings, deposited in a London warehouse and forgotten.

Around the time of the centenary of the First Photograph in 1926, the surrealist photographer Man Ray became an advocate of Niépce and in 1932 an imposing monument was erected outside Niépce’s home village of Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, but until his images were found, if they ever could, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s pioneering work would remain no more than a footnote to the history of photography.


If Helmut and Alison Gernsheim weren’t the first people to realise the significance of the First Photograph (the honour may go to George Potonniée author of Histoire de la Découverte de la Photographie, published in 1925) they certainly proved themselves the most dogged in persuit of its rediscovery.

Gernsheim’s search for Niépce’s lost work began in 1947, but it wasn’t until April 1950 that a glimmer of hope appeared after an appeal published in The Observer brought a response from the son of Mary Pritchard.

The son told Gernsheim that he remembered the memoir and the First Photograph but he also remembered his mother’s distress at their loss. Pritchard said the artifacts had not been returned after being shown at the Royal Photographic Society’s International Exhibition which had been held at the Crystal Palace in 1898.

Eighteen months passed, then out of the blue the Gernsheims received a letter from the wife of Mary Pritchard’s son stating that her husband had died and a big trunk had been opened to reveal, among the family relics, Niépce’s lost work.

Mrs Pritchard wrote that although the First Photograph was among the artifacts any further effort would be a waste of time because the image had faded completely. Knowing that bitumen did not fade Gernsheim telephoned Mrs Pritchard to ask if he could see the treasure trove for himself.

On February 14th 1952, at Mrs Pritchard’s home, the framed pewter plate was placed in Gernsheim’s hands for the first time. Gernsheim had not expected to see a mirror and he took the plate to the window where he held it at an angle to the light as one does with a daguerreotype. He then increased the angle further to reveal the lost image of Le Gras.

Turning the frame over the historian saw what had been written there in 1827 by the botanic illustrator Francis Bauer, and read the words “Monsieur Niépce’s first successful experiment of fixing permanently the image from Nature.”

Gernsheim’s discovery of Niépce’s lost work enabled him to push the birthdate of photography back thirteen years to 1826 and laid the foundation on which his History of Photography was built.


Helmut Gernsheim was never a man to doubt his own abilities, nor was he a man to forget a snub.

Although he and Alison might find themselves being accused of making “sweeping generalizations” Gernsheim didn’t mind reminding others of what he saw as their failings, as happened when he and Alison determined that their archive should be bought by a British institution to become part of a national collection of photography. 1

The Royal Photographic Society was to stay in the Gernsheim line of fire for decades. Having joined the Society in 1940 and become a Fellow in 1942, Gernsheim resigned in 1952, apparently, because of the Society’s failure to purchase the Gernsheim collection.

Over twenty years later he would write in a letter to The Times of the “clear rebuff” he received from the RPS. In the same letter he attacked the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Roy Strong, saying there was no hope for the creation of an independent national collection of photography, “Unless a national effort is made now, and national interest is placed before institutional politics.” 2

Strong, who left the National Portrait Gallery for the V&A in 1974 and was knighted in 1983, writes in Self Portrait as a Young Man, “The Gernsheim Collection was offered to the NPG but it would have involved having to take on Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, regarded as people who were more than difficult. The fact that this did not happen was viewed therefor with some relief.”

“Without the Gernsheims attached their collection might have stayed in the UK” – Sir Roy Strong at the Bodleian Library, Oxford in March 2013. Photo © Graham Harrison.

Asked recently if the collection might have stayed in Britain if the Gernsheims had not been attached, Sir Roy said “Yes. Probably.”

Strong went on to point out that the decision to refuse the Gernsheim Collection was made before his arrival at St. Martin’s Place but added that photography had no support from the art establishment in the early 1960s anyway. Strong writes that “photographs were regarded with a sniffy condescension,” by the NPG at the time.

Having found no home for their historical collection in Britain the Gernsheims sold it in 1963 to the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas for a figure below $500,000. The couple moved from London to Lugano in Switzerland where Alison died in 1969 depriving Gernsheim of “a wonderful companion, an ideal collaborator and a wise councillor,” just as a revised and enlarged edition of their History of Photography was being prepared for print by Thames and Hudson.

Although the Gernsheims left Great Britain their magnum opus had done a great service to the nation by placing it firmly at the centre of the development of photography. The Times, in Alison’s obituary of April 7th 1969, stressed how “The extent to which the evolution of photography is due to British pioneering spirit in the scientific and in the artistic field throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras became first evident in (the Gernsheim’s) monumental History of Photography.”

While the Harry Ranson Centre can boast its “landmark acquisition” as “one of the seminal collections in the United States,” Britain, a nation the Gernsheims recognised as nurturing the embryonic science and art of photography can only wonder at what it missed, although one also can’t help wondering what might have been if Helmut Gernsheim had not been so angry for so long at British intransigence.

Among the 35,000 images that went to Texas in 1963 were an intact Pencil of Nature by Fox Talbot, salted paper prints of the Crimean War by Roger Fenton and one hundred and forty albumen and silver gelatin prints of perhaps the most beautiful, and valuable, photographs of the nineteenth century taken by Julia Margaret Cameron between 1863 and 1875.


When Helmut Gernsheim was in Mrs Pritchard’s parlor in the winter of 1952, the conversation moved to the value of Niépce’s First Photograph. “Priceless,” is what Gernsheim reports he said. Mrs Pritchard, after some subtle persuasion from the photo historian, declared, “No one could look after these historic items better” and presented them to Gernsheim.

And when the University of Texas bought the Gernsheim collection, Helmut and Alison, because they believed that “museums and other public institutions often turn gifts into cash when it suits them,” gave the First Photograph and the other Niépce artifacts – given to them by Mrs Pritchard – to the university as a gift.

In 1983, twenty years after his archive went to America, a national collection in Britain which Helmut Gernsheim had argued for for so long, was finally realised with the opening of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford. Now called the National Media Museum, its collection of over three million items will be a source of images for the new Media Space which opens at the Science Museum in London in September 2013.

The first exhibition at the Media Space, Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, draws from the Tony Ray-Jones archive at the National Media Museum.

Also in the Bradford archive is the William Henry Fox Talbot collection transferred from Laycock, Herschel’s Julia Margaret Cameron album which was saved in 1974, and the Royal Photographic Society’s collection of 250,000 pieces including three heliographic contact plates brought to England by Niépce in 1827.


The first photographer to challenge the photographic establishment and the art establishment in Britain, Helmut Gernsheim, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography tells us, would “immeasurably enrich our photographic inheritance” and the scholarship he built upon his own collection was “instrumental in establishing the academic credibility of photo-history.”

After Alison’s death Helmut Gernsheim remarried and continued to work until his own death in Switzerland in 1995. In 2002 his widow Irene, passed his collection of twentieth century photography, including his own photographs, to the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim, Germany.

At a symposium in Mannheim in 2003 the American critic and author A.D. Coleman said the work of Helmut Gernshiem, together with that of his friend Beaumont Newhall, had dominated the history of photography in the English language for forty years. Their combined work, he said, remains the standard reference for the history of the medium.

“No one to date has substantially impeached the scholarship of either Gernsheim or Newhall, nor has anyone offered a more persuasive origin myth than theirs,” said Coleman.

If Gernsheim could be difficult, there remains little doubt that the history of photography is indebted to him.

Not least because he took that history beyond Fox Talbot, Daguerre, and even Niépce’s indistinct view from his attic workroom to some of the earliest found writings on the principle of the camera obscura in a thirteenth century text from France, to the experiments of the eleventh-century Arab scholar Ibn Al-Haytham, author of Kitab al-Manazir, the Book of Optics, and to the writings of Aristotle in the third century BC.

And in so doing Helmut Gernsheim made photography a little more important.

Gernsheim also showed us that Niépce’s misfortune was not because the Frenchman’s hard work and visionary ideas led him to a backwater but because he was never fortunate enough to find the support that his labour and vision deserved.


[1] The accusation against Helmut and Alison Gernsheim for making “sweeping genrealizations” comes from H.J.P. Arnold’s Fox Talbot Pioneer of Photography and Man of Science (Hutchinson Benham, 1977): “The sweeping generalizations made by some historians – and notably the Gernsheims – have been based on the obviously self-interested, one sided anti-Talbot arguments of the 1850s and such statements as ‘Understandably, everyone interested in photography was indignant at Talbot’s patenting activities,’ are the language of the propagandist rather than objective historian. And it simply was not true.”

[2] In 1975 there was an exchange of opinions on the letters pages of The Times between Helmut Gernsheim and Sir George Pollock, Vice President of the Royal Photographic Society, Roy Strong, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum and John Wall, editor of the National Photographic Record at the RPS. The Gernsheim quotes come from his letter published on May 10th 1975.

Helmut Gernsheim by Peter Ride, The Independent, August 5th 1995.

Helmut Gernsheim Reconsidered (PDF): The proceedings of the Mannheim Symposium hosted at the Forum Internationale Photographie at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum, Mannheim on October 12th 2003.

• The exhibition The Birth of Photography, Highlights of the Helmut Gernsheim Collection at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum, Mannheim in the autumn and winter of 2012-13 was held to mark the centenary of Gernsheim’s birth. Among the exhibits was Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras, which returned to Europe for the first time in half a century.

The photography collection at the Harry Ransom Centre, the University of Texas at Austin is home to over five million prints and negatives built on the Helmut and Alison Gernsheim Collection which was bought by the university in 1963.


• Nicéphore Niépce (pronounced Nee-se-four Nee-ps) was baptised Joseph but adopted the name Nicéphore, after Saint Nicephorus a ninth-century Patriarch of Constantinople.

The ambition of the French inventor was to produce lithographic plates directly from a photographic process, an idea realised by his cousin Abel Niépce de Saint-Victoire in 1855, twenty-two years after Niépce’s death.

In 1828 Nicéphore moved on from pewter plates and began experimenting with polished silver plates and the fumes of iodine, a process which would form the basis for the daguerreotype. The next year he signed a collaborative agreement with Daguerre.

At the time of his death in 1833 none of Niépce’s inventions were officially acknowledged. The local council at Saint-Loup-de-Varennes paid for his grave and without an income to support them Niépce’s widow and son Isidore were forced to sell Le Gras.

In 1839 the French Government announced that Isidore would receive an annual life pension of 4,000 Francs in recognition of his father’s contribution to the invention of photography.

Niépce, Letters and Documents: a searchable archive of over 700 documents connected with Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) the inventor of photography and the first internal combustion engine.

Nicéphore Niépce House: a reference site with details of the Niépce Museum which is open daily from 1 July to 31 August, 10am to 6pm. Fee €6, students €4.50. The agency Gamma-Rapho has exclusive rights to photograph the house, the funds going towards further research.

LE GRAS, Restoration de la Maison de Niépce: a ten minute video showing recreations of experiments and the restoration of Le Gras, the home of Nicéphore Niépce in St Loupe de Varennes.

• The Prix Niépce is an annual prize of €8,000 aimed at professional photographers over the age of 50 who have been resident in France for three years or more.

A Reality One Can No Longer Touch

In Camera Lucida the French philosopher Roland Barthes uses a photograph of a dinner table credited to Niépce to illustrate his argument that photographs become “a reality one can no longer touch.” Barthes captioned the image “The First Photograph” and dated it “around 1823,” three years before View from the Window at Le Gras was taken.

There is no reference to the image in Niépce’s correspondence with his brother Claude. Citing Georges Potonniée, Gernsheim suggests the image was likely to have been taken after Niépce and Daguerre had become partners in 1829. Only a half-tone reproduction of the glass original remains, the plate having been smashed along with everything else in his laboratory by a mad professor at the Conservatoire des Artes et Métiers in Paris in 1900.


One final thought: one might play with the idea that as a young man Nicéphore Niépce read Giphantie, a novel by Charles-Francois Tiphaigne de la Roche published in 1760, in which the invention of photography is tantalisingly anticipated.

With thanks to Dr Michael Pritchard, Director General of the Royal Photographic Society, who in February 2013 provided information concerning Helmut Gernsheim’s membership of the Society and to Sir Roy Strong who was gracious enough to answer questions put to him at the Bodleian Library, Oxford in March 2013.
The History Men: Helmut Gernsheim and Nicéphore Niépce text © 2013 Graham Harrison.

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