March 18: The carte de visite ballet portrait brings the first inklings of cinema to photography.
Today is the first day of my town’s Castlemaine State Festival; nine days of performance of music and theatrics, mostly provided by outsiders, and art. Changing management has meant the loss of local flavour and it has become just another ‘international’ festival (though that is probably just my prejudice showing). However, there is a lot of locally produced visual art worth seeking out, visual art being ‘on the back burner’ since the emphasis is now on performing arts which occupy most of the public venues; most shows can be found in artists’ studios and houses.
One that is more unusual and relevant to the interest that this blog has in photography, and to those visiting the Festival who are more into performance, is an exhibition assembled by a friend Caitlyn Lehmann, From Court to Kitsch: Images of Ballet from the 17th to 20th Century.
The images she presents are not made by her, but nevertheless are her own in the sense that she has painstakingly, and at some expense, collected them; images of dancers and ballet. As a post-doctoral researcher currently working at Melbourne University whose field is dance, these pictures are her raw material that she mines for sociological, historical and aesthetic data, but that she also collects for the sheer joy of owning a link with the past. Many of the items reflect research that she has done for herself, or on commission, with a focus on dance between 1700 and 1900.
Of particular interest is this early carte-de-visite of around 1859-61, from the French Studio of Pierre Petit and Antoine Trinquart of two dancers presumed to be associated with the Paris Opera.
On 27 November 1854, the Parisian photographer under whom Pierre Petit (1832 – 1909) trained, André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (1819 – 1889), had made a patent application for a system of printing on a single sheet multiple photographs each no larger than a good-sized business card, about 5.5 cm × 8.9 cm (little more than two 35mm frames in area) mounted on a card sized 6.4 cm × 10.0 cm. His innovation, the carte-de-visite format (often abbreviated to CdV), made possible by new technologies of wet plate and albumen prints on paper, proliferated so that within twelve years a stock of 65,000 portraits of celebrities, and it would dominate the market until 1880, when its popularity was overtaken by the later cabinet card format.
The invention of the card portrait responded directly to consumer demand that saw photographers’ studios mushrooming in the late 1850s and early ’60s to meet a stampede for photographic portraits. Such was the demand that the Art Journal in 1857 complained that it had become so popular as to create a public nuisance with streets crowded with touters who almost dragooned the passersby into their studios; ‘It has really now become a matter for police interference both on the grounds of propriety and public comfort.’ Of course, the Journal was representing the interests of thousands of portrait painters who were going out of business since the advent of photography, victims to an industrial revolution in imaging. It was the daguerreotypist who now was facing extinction, when the multiple proofs which Disderi’s new camera apparatus was able to make were so much faster and efficient. The CdV became a cheaper and more lucrative commodity in no time; they were said to have earned Disderi the astonishing sum of £48,000 pounds in 1861 alone.
In 1862 Disderi described his châssis multiplicateurs, a camera with four lenses which could be adapted to produce eight images on the same plate.
Disderi’s portraits of ballet dancers helped to turn them into celebrities. Card photography, by proliferating images, brought portraits out of their frames and out of the family circle into the gaze and appreciation of all. Moreover, by arraying each sitter’s image into a variety of attitudes, the CdV photographer reorganized the public concept of personality. With the insight it provided into the bodily presence of the subject by representing its movement, a voyeuristic aspect was added.
This sequentiality is not dissimilar to the paintings and pastels of ballet dancers that Degas, who was later also a keen photographer, was making at this time. By presenting a proto-cinematic progression that represents the same figure from multiple viewpoints, he was moving into a form that had seldom been tried in painting and which represents a new direction in Impressionism.
Caitlyn’s pair of dancers needs to be considered in relation to this technology to be truly appreciated, with the knowledge that it might be one frame from a series of pictures taken of these two dancers, the older and younger, who may have adopted numbers of poses during this portrait session. What we see is a representation of movement at a time when photography still required exposures too long to make capturing action impossible without blurring even the slowest human motion. The hands of these subjects, both trained in holding a pose better than any ordinary sitter, are still slightly blurred. A wet plate was fairly slow, about 4 ISO, and lens apertures were small, in order to compensate for still rather undeveloped lens design and manufacture. Though Henry Fox Talbot had made an exposure of 1/2000th of a second in 1851 and experiments were conducted in 1861 using shadowgraphs to study projectiles in flight, these were made with intense electric sparks for illumination, not the soft north light of the portrait studio.
Ballet was an entertainment spectacle, and an exercise in voyeurism since it presented the human form in costume that was far more revealing than anything that fashion of the period would permit, especially since the action of ballet enhances the physicality of the performer. This double portrait of these humble young dancers from the Opera then is more than a keepsake for these two girls; it is a public document made in the hope of attracting attention, of earning them some small part of the celebrity being enjoyed by the ballet dancer of the period. It presents them in a static pose that nevertheless evokes a rotating motion, with the forward leg en pointe as both would be in the most athletic moments of their performance. What is remarkable is the way this charming image contains grace in motion, that we read it as if seeing gestures captured in mid-stream.
Our photographer, who is perhaps Pierre Petit himself (left), handles the commission sensitively. Petit had set up studio with Antoine Rene Trinquart just one or two years earlier and went on to success with his 1861 book Galerie des hommes de jour, a series of photographs of famous French people of the day, which helped stoke the fires of celebrity, and he made a series of pictures of the construction of the Statue of Liberty.
Part of the attraction of this portrait is the tender relationship it captures that seems to exist between older and younger dancer – they’re perhaps sixteen and ten years old – the one staring intently and appealingly at the viewer, supporting the petite figure beside her who is evidently concentrating too hard on her pose to register the camera.
As Caitlyn says in interview; “Look, then look a little closer. Many of the images are finely detailed. Some may feel quiet and remote, until a story behind them becomes clearer.”
Caitlyn Lehmann’s exhibition From Court to Kitsch: Images of Ballet from the 17th to 20th Century is at 107C Farnsworth Street, Castlemaine starting today 17th and open till the 20th and again 24th-26th March, 10am-4pm.