Reflections: Carolyn Peter on Hippolyte Bayard

Getty Art + Ideas
Getty Art + Ideas
Reflections: Carolyn Peter on Hippolyte Bayard

We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. These recordings feature stories related to our daily lives.

This week, Carolyn Peter considers how gardening is like early photography—and how both involve a little bit of wonder. To learn more about this artwork, visit:

Over the next few weeks, look for new recordings every other Tuesday.


JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. In a new podcast feature, we’re asking members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. We’ll be releasing new recordings every other Tuesday. I hope you’ll find these stories about our daily lives—from laundry on the line to a dog at a scholar’s feet—thought provoking, illuminating, and entertaining.

CAROLYN PETER: I’m Carolyn Peter, curatorial assistant in the Department of Photographs at the Getty Museum.

While sheltering at home, I have been thinking about Hippolyte Bayard’s self-portraits in the garden. Bayard was a 19th-century inventor of photography; he had no set instructions to follow for making a photograph. He had to be in tune with his environment. To make an image, he collaborated with the sun, photo-sensitive chemicals, thin sheets of writing paper, his lens, and his subjects.

Like Bayard, I have been paying attention to the shifting patterns of light through the day and the seasons. I am lucky enough to have an outdoor space just beyond my back door. My husband and I planted a vegetable garden early on, just before the stay at home orders came. Over the past few months, we have been watching things grow.

To create a garden, we collaborated with the sun, as well as the soil, water, nutrients, seeds, insects, and other creatures. Both ventures require patience and an openness to risk. We had a vision, but we humbly had to leave much up to nature.

Bayard placed himself in the garden for his self-portraits because natural light was a necessity for photography in the 1840s, but also because it was one of his favorite places. He too loved gardening. It was in his blood. His father was renowned for his peaches. A legend tells of how he imprinted his initial “B” on peaches by placing cut paper over peaches as they were ripening on the tree. It is said this is how Bayard first learned about the sun’s power to imprint and eventually led to his photographic experiments.

In one of Bayard’s self-portraits, he leans on a wooden cask, perhaps a nineteenth-century version of a rain barrel. He is surrounded by familiar gardening tools: a watering can, flower pots, a ladder, and a trellis. I can’t see his feet under the foliage. It as if he has sprouted out from the earth. I identify with this feeling of connectedness to a place. Returning to my garden day after day, I notice the minute changes: the plants’ growth, the holes left in leaves by hungry insects, the thirsty soil.  

Bayard’s self-portraits were some the first photographs of human beings ever made. Seeing an image of himself emerge on the paper must have been magical. Such a revolution took place in the quiet chamber of Bayard’s camera in the middle of his garden. In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, so much is happening in the stillness of my garden. Seeing a passion fruit start from a bud, transform into a space-age flower, then into a green orb that turns a deep reddish purple fills me with wonder. I find great comfort in cradling a warm tomato in my hand, monitoring a peach on my windowsill as it ripens with a paper letter “C” pinned to it, and watching the sun continuing on its steady course through the sky.

CUNO: To view Hippolyte Bayard’s Self-Portrait in the Garden, made in Paris, France, around 1847, click the link in this episode’s description or look for it on

Author: Getty Media

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