The Sense of a Magic New Gift
An exhibition in New York of 19th Century
THERE SHE LIES : a traditional reclining nude, very like Ingres' La Grande Odalisque, the body blandly composed, smooth, supernaturally white. But the feet are unclassically dirty from padding around a grimy atelier. The model's face, half turned toward the camera, wears an unsettling tigerish expression. In another picture, black-clad climbers struggle up the snowy folds of Mont Blanc looking like a necklace of chocolate chips dropped into a vanilla sundae. Meanwhile, journalistic history is displayed in a set of pictures and captions from the first interview ever recorded (in 1886) for both eye and ear. The cameramen-interviewers are Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, who worked under the single professional name Nadar, and his son Paul. Their subject is Michel-Eugène Chevreul, an elderly scientist and expert on the theory of color mixing. Visible in some frames: a tubular machine that recorded Chevreul's words to be set alongside his facial expressions in the Paris weekly Journal Illustré. In one picture he is saying: "I must make you see. I want to make you see because it is when I see that I believe."
Chevreul's point is made splendidly and often in After Daguerre: Masterworks of French Photography, a show transplanted from the Petit Palais in Paris to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. There is still a tendency to think of photography mainly as a 20th century phenomenon, with only a handful of notable pioneers in the 19th—in France, Nadar himself; in England, Julia Margaret Cameron, master of brooding portraits and symbolic tableaux, Mathew Brady, engraving the Civil War on the mind of America. After Daguerre is a rich reminder that though photographers, still hobbled by glacially slow exposures, were dabbling with developing techniques like medieval alchemists, photography in France was about to flower by the early 1850s, as soon as it became possible to make many prints easily from a single negative.
The show's nearly 200 photographs, chosen from more than 100,000 that were deposited for copyright purposes in the Bibliothèque Nationale in the years from 1848 to 1900, reach out toward the world in familiar and often contemporary ways. They include the equivalents of snapshots and salon portraits, multiple exposures to analyze the flight of pigeons and the strides of men, romanticized landscapes and still lifes clearly derived from painting, as well as reportage on everything from war to travel and exploration, from Mont Blanc to the Crimea to the Nile. A photographic task force was even commissioned by the French government to rove the country photographing historic monuments (rather like Roy Stryker's famous teams in the U.S. during the 1930s Depression). One of the finest results is a highly abstract portrait of a row of flying buttresses at Reims Cathedral, shot in diminishing perspective by Henri Le Secq.
French Painter Paul Delaroche was a bit premature when he exclaimed, on seeing his first photograph, "From today painting is dead!" All it did to Delaroche's contemporaries was put a lot of second-rate portrait painters out of business. Many promptly became portrait photographers, along with dozens of tinkerers, clerks and marginal entrepreneurs who sensed that with very little talent or capital a man might grow rich out of this provocative medium. In vain did the poet Lamartine dismiss photography as a "chance invention" that is "only a plagiarism of nature through a lens." Frenchmen, at least those who could afford to, had been paying up to 500 francs to have meticulous portraits done in oils. Now anyone could have as many likenesses of himself or his loved ones as he wanted, in short order and for only a few francs.
The show is full of faces, most of them unknown to history, that stare gravely at the magic box. Nobody has taught them to smile, it being unwise at the time to risk even that much motion for fear of blurring. The famous are equally grave. Ingres, photographed in dappled light at age 75, looks young and full of energy. Verlaine communes with his pernod in a café. Delacroix looks disapproving, a man with a face like a clenched fist who seems too tense ever to have dashed off those lovely, free-flowing watercolors in Morocco. Victor Hugo, in exile on the island of Guernsey for criticizing Napoleon III, poses against a neutral studio backdrop like some distinguished provincial doctor. Even revolutionary Painter Gustave Courbet is present, full length in one of the popular new photographic cartes de visites, in shirtsleeves and tamping down his pipe, his gnarled Jean Valjean face and butcher's forearms perfectly appropriate to the apostle of sweaty naturalism. The genius who invented the carte de visite, an Italian clothier's son who went by the name André-Adolphe-Eugene Disdéri, was soon turning out 2,000 prints a day at ten francs apiece. By 1861 Disdéri was justly celebrated as "the richest photographer in the world."
Early photography seems most wanting when it slavishly copies the conventions of painting — in still lifes and trompe l'oeil drapery. Painting requires an eye and a hand, photography only an eye. There is almost a labor theory of value that enhances a viewer's plea sure in a painted still life, a sense of awe at the painter's skill and patience in counterfeiting the frosty glaze of glass ware, the glow of an uncurling lemon peel. No photograph can induce the same feeling.
Many pictures in After Daguerre, however, convey a sense of joy in the world, a delight in vision as if it were some magic new gift, which painting had lost and would not acquire again until the triumph of impressionism. In a picture labeled simply The Hound "Balliveau," no pains have been taken with composition. The subject is tied to a barn wall. To see the picture, though, is to brood on the look of this ungainly dog as if a new species had just been invented. And in the best landscapes by Gustave Le Gray, one can almost see the air. It is as if the slow exposure required by the technology of the time made the acquisitive glance of the camera's eye not a click, but a long, slow, indrawn vision of the world, burning the image lovingly into an almost personal memory. The first society of photography in Paris was called La Société Héliographique because the light of the sun collaborated in the exposure of film. Its motto says all that can be said for photography: "Nothing is so beautiful as the truth; but one must choose it . "