Why are the French so passionate about photography? Well, asks HOI Features Editor Tony Maniaty, why wouldn’t they be? They were there from the very start.
Maybe it’s the light, or the people. Maybe it’s the place. No other country on earth has such a strong affinity with photography as France - every cobblestoned street, every doorway is a photograph waiting to happen. More often than not, the France we carry in our heads is a collage of images by 1950s legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis. France, that France.
It’s a nation that thrives on art, but the essence that connects France and photography goes back to the very beginnings of the medium. It was there, in either 1826 or 1827, the date is unclear, that the inventor Nicephore Niépce, using his ‘camera obscura’ and a pewter plate coated with a type of asphalt, produced the world’s first photograph. The exposure was somewhere between eight hours and several days, again it’s uncertain, and the result was murky at best. But he’d captured light, a new kind of miracle.
Nicephore Niépce, View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826 or 1827, the world’s earliest surviving photograph. (Rights: Wikipedia Public commons).
Niépce’s efforts were expanded by Louis Daguerre, who in 1839 came up with the ‘daguerreotype’, producing in exposures of only minutes what we now regard as ‘antique’ photographs. These were the Polaroids of their day: the only way to replicate an image was to photograph it again. Mostly they were rigid society portraits taken in Paris studios, but bulky wooden cameras on tripods soon made their way outdoors. Street photography was born.
Louis Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 1838, the first known image to include a human being. (Rights: Wikipedia Public commons).
To ensure French supremacy over Britain - where William Henry Fox Talbot was also developing a process for the ‘art of photogenic drawing’ - the French government quickly acquired Daguerre’s rights in return for a lifetime pension, and - largesse - offered his invention as a gift from France to ‘the free world’. Eternal thanks, Paris! Soft diplomacy, 19th-century style.
Jean Baptiste Sabatier-Blot, Portrait of Louis Daguerre, 1844. (Rights: Public Domain, George Eastman House Collections)
Typically, the French have never yielded their place as the true guardians of photography, and rightly so. Where else will you find literally dozens of galleries devoted to photography and as many photo festivals every year? Dimitri Beck, Director of Photography at Polka magazine, based in Paris, sees photography as an essential art, and part of France’s DNA. "We’ve always believed in the idea of a vision coming from a single person, so we make space for these people to exist." Florence Bourgeois, Director of Paris Photo, the major annual exposition, agrees. "There’s a rich national heritage element to photography here. It’s shaped our imagination, and there’s a powerful archival impulse."
The initial impact of photography was stunning. It was, sans exaggeration, the computer and Internet of its time. Painters and illustrators railed against it, fearing for their jobs. Priests saw the work of the Devil; others dismissed it as a passing fad. Intellectuals in Paris debated the positive and negative effects le photographe would have on society, and the poet Baudelaire was damning: "The foul society rushed like a single Narcissus to contemplate its trivial image on the metal [plate]". Was he talking about selfies? All this at a time when the taxis were horse-drawn. Still to come were electric light, telegrams, motor cars, aeroplanes, the wireless. The photo-camera was the first great leap into a boundless technological future.
Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, Young Woman Holding a Flower, c. 1842. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public domain.)
Importantly, the French government began commissioning photographs of key historic monuments, the construction of the Louvre, the Rhône in flood, military manoeuvres. Soon enough came images from France’s colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific, and ethnography became fashionable, finding its way into French sculpture and painting. Not only a form of documentary, photography was emerging as a major influence on art and increasingly an art form in itself.
Alphonse Davanne, Nymphe et enfant aux oiseaux, 1855, Versailles, France. Courtesy Société Française de Photographie.
In 1851, a band of photographers, inventors and critics - and the painter Eugène Delacroix - formed the Société Héliographique, the world’s first photographic organisation. Its fortnightly magazine La Lumière carried enthusiastic reviews of exhibitions, and reports of rapid technical developments and the medium’s spread worldwide. Three years later appeared the Société Française de Photographie (SFP), which is still operating and holds one of the world’s great archives of pioneering 19th-century photography.
Guarding that heritage is SFP curator Colette Morel, whose research focuses on those early years: "At first the people were excited about these cameras - but also disappointed because the discipline was very difficult to manage, you had to prepare your own chemicals before you made exposures." Inevitably, the new technology brought conflicts. "In the art world, the established, realist painters felt threatened of course - but others saw the daguerreotype as a great way to popularise their art through magazines."
What’s in the box? Apparatus and equipment for making daguerreotypes, from an advertisement, 1843.
The arrival of the Kodak film camera from America in 1888 (‘You Press the Button, We Do the Rest’) revolutionised the burgeoning Paris art scene. "With cameras that were less expensive and easier to manage," Morel observes, "we have a new generation of painters using photography. We know that Degas used photographs for his famous studies of ballerinas, though we don’t know if he actually produced them or bought the images."
The hand-held Kodak also allowed ordinary people to become creators. "Once photography reached the bourgeoisie," says Dimitri Beck, "it gave a face to people who’d never had an opportunity to have their portrait painted. They saw their own face for the first time outside a mirror, a kind of revolution."
Kodak camera, 1888. Courtesy George Eastman Museum.
Late 19th-century France was a society in full experimental mode, driven by radical inventions and ideas. "It was at the crossroads of amazing cultural and intellectual exchanges between the different arts - painting, sculpture, architecture, and then photography - all happening with tremendous energy," says Beck. "Photographers believed they could bring something to art that painters couldn’t, and gradually they explored more complex ideas, not so obviously decided by one vision but expressing more about the shadows of life and being…"
Edgar Degas, Dancer Adjusting Her Shoulder Strap, c. 1895-96. Courtesy Bibliotheque Nationale de France.
For France, the century effectively ended in 1889, the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the trigger for the Revolution. It was the year of the Paris Exposition featuring the new Eiffel Tower - the gateway to Modernity, and a flood of photographic talents: Atget, Lartigue, Brassaï, Kertész, to be followed by the pantheon of mid-century French giants.
And common to all? "Having an eye," says Christoph Wiesner, Director of the Rencontres d’Arles Photo Festival, "being able to construct a vision, and to captivate." Yes, the eternal lens-gaze, beginning with Niépce’s hazy impression of rooftops.
Header image: Gustave de Beaucorps, Temple de la Sybille, c. 1861, Tivoli, Italy. Courtesy Société Française de Photographie.
About the Author
Tony Maniaty is a Sydney and Paris-based photographer, author and journalist, academic and reviewer who works across a broad creative canvas. He is the features editor for Head On Interactional.
Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey
Gustave de Beaucorps