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Photography as we know it was invented in the 1820s by Joseph Nièpce and Louis Daguerre (separately and then in collaboration). In 1835, the magazine Journal des Artistes reported that their mutual invention of a method of developing and preserving images received from a camera obscura “makes the most perfect of drawings. Physical science has, perhaps, never offered such a marvel.”
Right from its very start, the debate commenced: Was photography merely a science and photographers mere technicians or was it an art (and they artists)? While many art critics and painters took the latter position, photographers themselves knew better. From its earliest beginnings they were artists. In this series, I will prove it to you.
Beginning with Daguerre himself, I will introduce you to sixteen of the earliest French photographers of the 19th century. I’ll show you their iconic photographs and describe their artistic vision. Remarkably for such a young art form, you will see from their work that each had a specific point of view and artistic style. You will also see just how well they succeeded in producing compelling photographs. There will be no “art speak” here. Rather I will specifically relate to each photographer’s work and will use some of my own abstract photographs to illustrate their points of view and the style that they adopted.
I welcome you and warmly invite you to take this journey with me. The earliest French photographers were dedicated and talented artists and they will reward our engagement with their beautifully expressive photographs.
Let’s begin at the beginning with Louis Daguerre. Featured above is one of his earliest photographs, taken of the street outside his studio.
This is a beautifully realized photograph. The contrast of light and dark in both the sky and in the street brings the scene to life. The details are sharp, down to the tiniest cobblestones on the street. The photo is also framed beautifully, capturing the whole of the scene neither choppingeaving anything off nor including anything extraneous.
There is also so much to look at! The photo holds our attention and invites us to spend time with it, rewarding us with details as we look more carefully. Every time you go back to it, you will find new things to admire.
Perhaps one could say that these attributes demonstrate mere technical genius. But there is artistic vision here. It’s in Daguerre’s point of view.
Consider Daguerre’s choice of angle. He could have taken the photograph at street level and straight-on by standing at one end and releasing the shutter. But he wanted the scene to come alive. Back in 1839, camera shutter speed was too slow to capture movement by the subjects in a photographs. A photo shot of the street would not pick up pedestrians who were undoubtedly passing by or vehicles driving on it. In their absence, Daguerre found a way to add movement and life to the photo by shooting it a) from above and b) from the left side. That’s what makes this photo so compelling. Our eyes follow these angles, swooping down the street and then off into the background. We experience the life of the street in our own bodies through our own visual process as viewers.
Consider two of my own photographs in which I made similar choices, using the angles to create movement rather than relying on recognizably moving objects within the scene to do so:
On the basis of his early and impressive photograph, Daguerre was the first fine art photographer. With a genius far above the mere technical, he created not only a photo for the ages but inspired others to use his new invention to create lasting and powerful works of art for us to enjoy today.
Stay tuned for more photo essays exploring the lives and work of 19th century French photographers.
Lead photo credit : Boulevard du Temple by photographer, Louis Daguerre. Photo © public domain, Wikipedia