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This is the latest in a series of photo essays on early French photographers
A path-breaking photographer, Adolphe Braun (1812-1877) combined commercial ambitions with a highly developed artistic vision. He first became known for his photographs of flowers which he printed in albums to be used for wallpaper and fabric designs. But these photographs were immediately recognized as having transcended their commercial intent. Braun’s albums were displayed at art fairs in Paris and one was given as a birthday present to Napoleon’s wife. While Braun did go on to operate a successful commercial photography business in Alsace, it is as a fine art photographer that he deserves to be remembered.
Viewing Braun’s flower albums affirms their artistic value. The photographs are much more than prototypes for designs. In fact, they are intimate portraits of flowers, full of personality and bursting with life.
Note how naturally the flowers are arranged. Sprays go in all directions. Flowers at their peak commingle with those about to bloom and those that have died. The arrangements fill the frame, sometimes overflowing its edges, underscoring the vitality of the blossoms. Even the backgrounds have personality. The light is dappled, hazy, atmospheric. The backgrounds are empty of superfluous ornamentation but they are never truly blank.
Braun was not content to rest on his laurels. Instead, he pioneered another type of photography as well. He used his camera to document the changing city of Paris and the results make him the first documentary photographer, setting a high bar for this profession. He relied on his photographs do all the work, obviating the need for text. The images tell the whole story. When we view them, there is no mistaking Braun’s point of view.
For example, Braun’s photograph of the rue de Rivoli is shot from above. Our eyes rush down the broad street to a bleached-out future. People and carriages are minuscule — bit players on the stage of “progress.” They pass each other without intersecting in any way. These “new” Parisians no longer cluster in intimate, friendly group settings; they are faceless, atomized individuals.
This feeling of diminution and isolation is accentuated by the way in which Braun shoots the buildings to the left. The choice of angle hides their architectural differences, stressing instead the uniformity of their line-up along the street. So too, photographed from this vantage point, the Jardin des Tuileries become stiff and regimented. Even the garden urns and the trees line up so as to seem repressed and controlled. In this “after” photograph, the lighting has also changed. It is (much too) bright and uniform. The whole scene evokes the uncomfortable glare of hot sun.
A different photographer with a different point of view could have focused on the intersecting paths of pedestrians, or on the details of the facades of the buildings, or on the varieties of greenery. Even without changing the angle, he could have softened the lighting by taking the photo in the early morning or at dusk. The resulting shadows would have brought out more detail and implied serenity and order. But Braun was making a point — and doing it brilliantly. He chose to highlight sterility. A camera and his artistic vision were powerful allies in making his point.
Lead photo credit : Peonies, Adolphe Braun