Multiple processes for photography were invented at roughly the same time in the 1830s. Only one, the daguerreotype, achieved immediate fame and commercial success. Methods of photography using paper negatives, rather than silver plates, were relegated to commercial obscurity—which also allowed them to blossom into mediums of art. Where the daguerreotype was allied with science, the paper negative was allied with the beaux-arts. In this excerpt from the essay “A ‘Fashionable’ Art: The First Golden Age of Photography in France” in the Getty Publications book Real/Ideal: Photography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century France, Sylvie Aubenas, director of the Department of Photographs at the Bibliotheque nationale de France (one of the major lenders to the Real/Ideal exhibition), explains how French elites of the mid-1800s embraced paper photography as “a recreation, a vocation, an interest, even a passion.” See the print volume for the full essay, including the original accompanying figures. —Ed.
The official announcement of the invention of the daguerreotype, delivered by the physicist and politician François Arago (1786–1853), and the immediate demonstration of the secrets of the process, ably orchestrated by Louis- Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1789–1851) himself, took place on August 19, 1839, in front of an unusual joint assembly of the Académie des sciences and the Académie des beaux-arts. The French government thanked Daguerre by providing him with an annual pension of six thousand francs. Arago’s announcement caused an uproar. There had already been excitement and a flurry of rumors in the months since January 7 of that year, when the daguerreotype had briefly been described to the Académie des sciences.
From that moment, both William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) and Hippolyte Bayard (1801–1887) were thrown into a race to have their respective processes for photography recognized as predating Daguerre’s invention, and as superior.(1) One after the other, they made appeals to the academies. Eclipsed and offended by their exclusion, even as the public was celebrating Daguerre’s invention, they worked feverishly to improve their still-imperfect processes. But to no avail. In France, the conviction was solidly and deeply established that the daguerreotype—an unambiguously French invention (2)—was synonymous with photography, and Bayard’s and Talbot’s efforts were in vain.
Arago was deliberately silent on the subject of Bayard’s invention, despite the inventor’s having brought it to his attention on May 20.(3) In October of the following year, Bayard was moved to compose a portrait of himself as a drowned man, driven to suicide by despair. This image, with its allusions to Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat (1793; Brussels, Musées royaux des beaux-arts de Belgique), was accompanied by a statement of protest written in a tragicomic style:
Although he himself found these images to be imperfect, the academy, the king, and all the others who have seen them admired them as you now admire this one. This brought him much honor but not so much as a farthing. The state, which gave M. Daguerre far too much, said it could do nothing at all for M. Bayard—and the unfortunate drowned himself.(4)
Photography on paper would not become popular, either in public opinion or in use, until the early 1850s; the daguerreotype predominated for more than a decade.(5) While recent exhibitions exploring this first photographic process have revealed a wealth of remarkable images, such high-quality images were not necessarily the norm during the daguerreotype period.(6) The free use of the process allowed by Daguerre led to an explosion of “daguerreotypomania,” largely characterized by a free-for-all of commercial activity in mediocre portrait factories. The hesitations of the artistic community with regard to photography should be seen in the context of this mass production. Nonetheless, a number of artists showed some interest in the new technology. Among those were Rosa Bonheur, Eugène Delacroix, Paul Delaroche, Théodore Gudin, and Horace Vernet. Several aristocrats, such as Jean-Gabriel Teynard, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, and Baron Jean-Baptiste Louis Gros, were daguerreotype enthusiasts.
Paper Photographers in France
Paper photography came to France with a number of handicaps: It arrived after the daguerreotype; the images seemed less than perfect; and there were at least two, if not three, inventors.(7)
Talbot and Bayard were left to position themselves and their processes vis-à-vis each other and in relation to the daguerreotype. This was as much a political problem as a scientific argument, summarized by Talbot in his introduction to The Pencil of Nature (1844):
This great and sudden celebrity [of the daguerreotype] was due to two causes: first, to the beauty of the discovery itself; secondly, to the zeal and enthusiasm of Arago, whose eloquence, animated by private friendship, delighted in extolling the inventor of this new art, sometimes to the assembled science of the French Academy, at other times to the less scientific judgment, but not less eager patriotism, of the Chamber of Deputies.(8)
The representations made by the two inventors of paper photography, and the extensive reports made to the two French academies in the early 1840s, stimulated a discussion of the nature of photography and its possible applications that would have never been elicited by the daguerreotype alone. Whether photography was indeed a branch of art was hotly debated in Paris—at that time the global center of artistic life. The controversies that surrounded photography were not unrelated to the arguments around competing schools of contemporary painting. Since the 1830s, the academic tradition had been under attack both by the partisans of plein-air painting, on the one hand, and by the Realist painters, on the other. The challengers found evidence to support their arguments in current progress in science, in modern trends in literature, and in the general upheavals that were then affecting French society. It should be kept in mind that photography appeared in France during the moderate reign of Louis-Philippe—after the July Revolution of 1830, which marked a definitive halt in the return of the ancien régime, and before the February Revolution of 1848. Later, the administration of Napoléon III (r. 1852–70) with its free-market policies would coincide with an explosion of commercial activity in photography.
We should also remember that from the moment of paper photography’s modest beginnings, it benefited from a natural association with those arts that shared the same support material: drawing, watercolor painting, and engraving. Daguerreotypes, by contrast, remained for many a creation of science—a curiosity, albeit a fascinating one. The experts who were asked to evaluate the value of paper photography found themselves on familiar terrain. For example, in reporting on Bayard’s process in November 1839, Raoul-Rochette (1790–1854) wrote:
One could not hope for a more satisfying effect where charm and fidelity are combined in the rendition of the image. Monsieur Bayard’s drawings produce an agreeable impression, which is essentially derived from the presence of light and the modulation of tints that it produces and which is a truly delightful effect. They suggest to the artist’s eye the drawings of the old masters, somewhat mellowed with age; they give an appearance remarkably similar to these and have almost all their merit.(9)
This is the kind of enthusiastic praise for photography on paper that later, in the early 1850s, will be given by Francis Wey (1812–1882) and Ernest Lacan (1828–1879) in the pages of the journal La lumière.
The complex story of the beginnings of paper photography, capably summarized by Anne de Mondenard in her essay in this volume, has been thoroughly retraced in three recent exhibition catalogues.(10) One might say of paper photography that it was smothered in the cradle, arriving, as it did, between the daguerreotype and the collodion process. But—if we may extend the metaphor somewhat—rather than dying in infancy, it was instead subject to a very slow and frustrated maturation. In France, England, and Italy, it made its way, slowly and quietly, nurtured in privileged surroundings, and protected from damaging commercial pressures.
Ultimately, it was Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard (1802–1872), a businessman from Lille with a keen interest in both art and chemistry, who was successful in spreading the practice of paper photography throughout France.(11) He learned of Talbot’s process in 1844 through contact with one of Talbot’s students, a man by the name of Tanner. Blanquart-Evrard improved, completed, and simplified the existing instructions to such an extent that his paper-negative process can be described as being new and distinct from Talbot’s.(12) Blanquart-Evrard asked Arago to announce his negative process to the Académie des sciences; this was done on January 25, 1847, and the process was published soon after in a short volume that fully outlined the procedures.(13) Edmond de Valicourt published a further developed version of the process that same year.(14)
At this early stage, even the most ardent partisans of photography on paper, such as Valicourt, struggled with the idea that a photograph could be considered a fully realized work of art; he makes a clear distinction, though, between the daguerreotype as a purely commercial product and photographs on paper that are more suited to use by travelers and artists “who are not seeking to have a definitive image, but who instead want to make interesting studies, or a collection of agreeable souvenirs, or want material to be used in the later production of works of art.” “It is a serious error, and far too common,” he writes, “to imagine that one can find a true work of art in a daguerreotype—as if art could be born through the agency of a machine!”(15)
The artistic hesitations that greeted the introduction of the daguerreotype were also proffered with regard to photographs on paper, before a full understanding of the new possibilities offered by this medium was gained. It was up to a new generation of artists—those born around 1820 and of about twenty years of age when the daguerreotype was announced—to seize on the new technology and to demonstrate brilliantly the artistic possibilities of photography. This was the generation that would rise to the challenge set by Delacroix in 1853, when he called the photograph “art from a machine,” and stated that “a man of genius will use the daguerreotype as it should be used, and will raise it to a level that we have never previously witnessed.”(16)
The negative-positive system for making photographs arrived in France almost completely coincident with Blanquart-Evrard’s streamlined methods for making paper negatives, though there had already been some early experiments, particularly those of Claude-Félix Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor (1805–1870), in using glass for negatives. But glass-plate negatives would not fully emerge until the processes of Frederick Scott Archer (1813–1857) and Gustave Le Gray (1820–1884), announced in 1851, reached a stage of commercial exploitation around 1854–55.
This leaves the period from about 1848 until 1855 as an exceptional interregnum. Commercial photography studios, concentrating on the production of portraits, were almost exclusively using the daguerreotype and would transition directly to the collodion wet-plate negative around 1854, signaling the beginning of an era of unprecedented activity in commercial photography.(17) This circumstance allowed photography on paper to remain in the domain of artists and of the socially elite, of writers and wealthy travelers; this unique conjunction is authoritatively described by André Jammes and Eugenia Parry Janis in their book The Art of French Calotype (1983).(18) During these years, photography on paper was a recreation, a vocation, an interest, even a passion. Its incompatibility with commercial exploitation and its affinities with and similarities to existing art media and to the world of art provided license and encouragement.
Gustave Le Gray was first and foremost a painter, as evidenced by his training at Paul Delaroche’s studio, which was followed by a stay in Rome that stretched from 1843 to 1847, and by his attempts to show paintings at the Salon. He was the ideal teacher for those who wished to learn the art of photography on paper; his students would have felt that they were immersed in an artistic milieu as they arrived at the large studio at 7, chemin du ronde de la barrière de Clichy that Le Gray shared with a number of artists, including the painter Fernand Boissard de Boisdenier (1813–1866), an intimate of the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1872) and the critic Théophile Gautier (1811–1872).(19)
Some sixty students are recorded as having passed through Le Gray’s studio. Many of these were from French families influential due to their fortune or their position, with surnames such as Aguado, Bocher, Delessert, Haussonville, Laborde, Montesquiou, Rothschild, and Vigier. One unique circumstance that particularly favored the adoption of photography on paper in the upper levels of French society was that in 1847, when paper photography appeared in reinvigorated form, political trouble was about to break out. The period between the fall of Louis-Philippe, in 1848, and the establishment of the Second Empire, in 1852, was one of uncertainty and of many reversals of fortune; existing systems of wealth and power were turned upside down. The interest in photography shown by members of the elite can be seen as a resort to a recreational activity that was fashionable (to use the vaguely exotic English word that may have been on the lips of well-educated and wealthy Parisians); one could occupy oneself with this new phenomenon while waiting for better days to come.
Le Gray continued giving lessons in photography until 1855; other leading photographers, such as Bayard, Édouard Baldus (1813–1889), and Blanquart-Evrard, also taught photography, though not as consistently as Le Gray. These opportunities for learning the techniques of photography from leading artistic practitioners are key to understanding the brilliant flowering of the process in France during these years. One of Le Gray’s first pupils was Léon de Laborde (1807–1869), and he, along with members of the Delessert family and the comte Olympe Aguado (1827–1894), was certainly a key figure leading the fashion for paper photography that spread among the elites in 1849.
So photography on paper became a recreational activity for the sophisticated and well-to-do, and this exclusivity held until the vendors of carte-de-visite portraits and stereoscopic views replaced the daguerreotypists’ studios on the grand boulevards of Paris.(20)
Read Aubenas’s complete essay and four others in Real Ideal: Photography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century France (Getty Publications, 2016). The exhibition Real/Ideal: Photography in France, 1847–1860 is on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center through November 27, 2016.
3. Françoise Heilbrun, “Les dessins photogéniques: Les inédits de William Henry Fox Talbot,” Lettre de l’Académie des beaux-arts, Institut de France 28 (Winter 2002): 6–13; Nancy B. Keeler, “Souvenirs of the Invention of Photography on Paper: Bayard, Talbot, and the Triumph of Negative-Positive Photography,” in Photography: Discovery and Invention; Papers Delivered at a Symposium Celebrating the Invention of Photography (Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1990), 47–62.
7. See, among others, Nicolas le Guern, “Éloge de la simplicité: Adaptation et évolution du calotype en France de Fox Talbot à Le Gray,” in Primitifs de la photographie: Le calotype en France, 1843–1860, ed. Sylvie Aubenas and Paul-Louis Roubert, exh. cat. (Paris: Gallimard, 2010), 20–33.
8. William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (1844; Project Gutenberg, 2010), 11, http://www.gutenberg.org /files/33447/33447-pdf.pdf
9. “Rapport sur les dessins produits par le procédé photogénique d’Hippolyte Bayard,” Procès-verbaux de l’Académie des beaux-arts: Tome sixième, 1835–1839 (Paris: École des Chartres, 2003), 521 (meeting of November 2, 1839).
10. Roger Taylor, Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840–1860, exh. cat. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007); Éloge du négatif: Les débuts de la photographie sur papier en Italie, 1846–1862, exh. cat. (Paris: Paris musées, 2010); Aubenas and Roubert, Primitifs de la photographie.
11. The only serious investigation of Blanquart-Evrard remains that of Isabelle Jammes, Blanquart-Evrard et les origines de l’édition photographique française: Catalogue raisonné des albums photographiques édités, 1851–1855 (Geneva: Droz, 1981).
12. Talbot’s calotype process was protected in France by a ten-year patent, filed August 20, 1841. The rivalry between Talbot and Blanquart-Evrard and the controversies that arose are fully described in the authoritative studies dedicated to these two inventors.
16. The word daguerreotype should be understood in this context to mean photograph. Journal entry, Eugène Delacroix, May 21, 1853, cited in Sylvie Aubenas, “Les albums de nus d’Eugène Delacroix,” in Delacroix et la photographie, ed. Christophe Leribault, exh. cat. (Paris: Musée du Louvre, 2008), 37.
19. On Le Gray’s studio, see Sylvie Aubenas, “Barrière de Clichy: A ‘University’ of Photography,” in Gustave Le Gray, 1820–1884, with contributions by Anne Cartier-Bresson et al., ed. Gordon Baldwin, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002), 30–85; Vincent Rouby, “Répertoire biographique des élèves de Gustave Le Gray,” in Anne de Mondenard and Marc Pagneux, Modernisme ou modernité: Les photographes du cercle de Gustave Le Gray, exh. cat. (Arles: Actes Sud, 2012), 379–91.