Art, Behind the Scenes, Conservation, Getty Foundation, Philanthropy, Photographs, Film, and Video

Getty Foundation Grant Helps Restore Daguerre’s Final Illusion

Portrait of Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre / Charles Richard Meade

Portrait of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, 1848, Charles Richard Meade. Hand-colored daguerreotype, 6 3/16 x 4 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XT.953

Fascinated by nature of light and best known for his invention of the daguerreotype, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre also was an inventor and painter. He created a number of unique paintings in the early 1800s which he dubbed “dioramas”—scenes reproduced on semi-transparent fabric illuminated by cleverly devised light reflection, transmission, and refraction techniques. These works of art appeared to move and change in such a realistic manner that they were sometimes referred to as performances of realistic illusion, and were arguably the precursors to cinema and 3D imagery.

Since 2007, the town of Bry-sur-Marne, located on the east bank of the river Marne outside Paris, has been working to conserve the final and only remaining example of a diorama by Daguerre still in existence today, and a grant from the Getty Foundation has helped make it possible.

Made for the church of St. Gervaise and St. Protais, Daguerre spent six months creating the monumental painting that would become his final diorama. The image—which is 18’ 4” high by 20’ 7” wide —depicts the choir in a Gothic cathedral and gives the illusion that the shallow apse of the church is actually a vast space. When it was first constructed, the natural light entering through a glass opening at the top of the diorama varied, at times making the image appear as if lit by flickering candles. The construction of the diorama was ingenious: it was essentially a small rotunda built on a pivot, allowing for scene changes. Whether a day or night lighting effect was used, Daguerre succeeded in making the still image come alive.

The effect of daylight (by reflection) on the canvas when lit from the front. Courtesy of the office of Mayor Spillbauer of Bry-sur-Marne

The effect of daylight (by reflection) on the canvas when lit from the front. Courtesy of the office of Mayor Spillbauer of Bry-sur-Marne


Nighttime effect (by refraction) when the canvas is backlit. Courtesy of the office of Mayor Spillbauer of Bry-sur-Marne

Nighttime effect (by refraction) when the canvas is backlit. Courtesy of the office of Mayor Spillbauer of Bry-sur-Marne

Despite being designated as a historical monument in 1913, the diorama spent the 20th century in an increasingly deteriorating condition. But in 2006, Bry-Sur-Marne Mayor Jean-Pierre Spilbauer, aware of the cultural and historical importance of the diorama, vowed to save it.

The conservation of the historic work was quite an undertaking, first requiring the careful removal of dirt and yellowed varnish from the pictorial layer. Conservators on the project conducted extensive paint-layer analysis and repaired surface fragmentation on the painting.

After removing the old lining that had been applied when the diorama was deinstalled from its original setting, conservators backed the canvas with a material that brought back some of the artwork’s luminosity, while also providing additional structural stability. The Getty Foundation funds were used for the conservation and re-mounting of the painting.

Conservation work being undertaken on Daguerre’s last surviving diorama in Bry-Sur-Marne, made possible by a grant from the Getty Foundation. Courtesy of the office of Mayor Spillbauer of Bry-sur-Marne.

Conservation work being undertaken on Daguerre’s last surviving diorama in Bry-Sur-Marne, made possible by a grant from the Getty Foundation. Courtesy of the office of Mayor Spillbauer of Bry-sur-Marne.

The conservation of the diorama is not the only Daguerre project Bry-sur-Marne is undertaking. The old Daguerre residence has been purchased by the town and is now a museum devoted to the artist and inventor that houses collections related to Daguerre owned by the city. In addition, the city is hosting events and exhibitions in connection with Daguerre’s art and inventions, and is looking to be a resource center for researchers and a destination for tourists interested in Daguerre.

This Saturday, September 14, marks a special occasion—the town is holding a celebration in honor of the 100th anniversary of the diorama’s classification as a historical monument, and opening a related exhibition of Daguerre’s work.

For more information on this fascinating project, you can visit the Bry-sur-Marne website here.

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.


      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”

      02/11/16

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