September 15: A desire for the appearance of spontaneity in photographs begins even before the technology reaches such capacity.
It was on this date in 1846 that Louis Adolphe Humbert de Molard (1800–1874) made this charming image of his fourteen-year-old daughter Louise (1832-1887) feeding a magpie in a cage.
It is an extraordinarily early photograph of domestic life that looks as if it were captured in the midst of family activity, even though it is a daguerreotype. The exposure is necessarily long; the first mention of portrait studios in Paris appears in 1841, requiring the endurance of exposures of sixty seconds in length though by 1844 there were about thirty of such studios in operation, promoting portraits with slightly shorter exposure times.
Only the movement of the girl’s eyes betray that impression of her likeness being captured in a moment. De Molard’s composition is tightly framed and economical, photographed with a longer lens that crops out extraneous detail.
Fortuitously, the vessel in which Louise-Marie-Julie keeps seeds to feed her pet is polished, and in it we can make out the lighting which appears to be slanting in through a large barn door. This is an impression confirmed when we see the ‘floor’ on which the upturned clay pot rests is haphazardly covered in stones–on one of which rests the toe of her shoe–loose straw, and the remains of a broken basket.
The photographer is barely discernible in the reflection because he is stationed with his camera outside the door and the bright sun, and perhaps his own motion as he exposes the plate, has almost obliterated his silhouette.
It is a unique manifestation of the portrait, more successful than the version made two days earlier in which it the stiffness of the taxidermied cockerel, and of his subject’s pose, is more apparent; the magpie too is a stuffed bird but being only partially visible behind the bars of its cage is more convincing.
While the more conventional, though remarkably painterly, calotype he made of his daughter three years later is more directly a likeness, Portrait de sa fille Louise-Marie-Julie donnant à manger à une pie dans une cage represents an ingenious and artistic triumph over the technical limitations and constraints of his medium, especially since it is a daguerreotype rather than the faster calotype.
Portrait de sa fille Louise-Marie-Julie donnant à manger à une pie dans une cage is the product of a daguerreotypist who clearly had the ambition to make art. An enlightened amateur and experimenter, he was born on the 8th Brumaire of the year 9 of French Revolutionary Calendar of 1793 to 1805, (that is, on October 30, 1800), into a wealthy Paris family of soldiers, traders, lawyers and parliamentarians with roots in Normandy.
Very little is known of the first years of his life: he began studying law in Paris and went on to pursue interests in chemistry and technology; becoming one of several who improved the sensitivity and speed of calotype process, including fixing without the use of hypo and adding a mild alkali to the developing solution in order to accelerate development, devising a roller-blind camera shutter (1855) to make faster exposures more accurate, and making himself a reputation as a magician. He was co-founder of the Société de photographie and an early practitioner of stereography.
After the death of his first wife Clara St. John Montfranc (1802-1841), de Molard married Henriette Renée Patu, who was a miniaturist and lithographer.
It was she who most likely inspired him to become a photographer which he took up in 1843, though no trace of her own work survives. The family lived on its income from Humbert’s inherited Château d’Argentelle, this financial security leaving Humbert de Molard ample free time to devote himself to his photographic passion.
The daguerreotype of 1846 which represents his daughter now preserved in the Lagny-sur-Marne museum is one of the oldest extant of his photographs, but there is little trace of his learning as a photographer. It is unlikely that his mastery of the the medium, his understanding and intelligent, aesthetic use of its then very complex mechanisms could have been acquired in the few years between 1843 and 1846 when he commenced using the daguerreotype, only made public four years before.
While this 1845 daguerreotype of a peasant woman is a conventional portrait, not many of his works of this period are made in a studio.
Here it is clear that the subject is posed, with her finely woven hamper and umbrella, outdoors. A kerb of masonry sets up a stage-like foreground and one wonders if the stray stone atop is the same one as that seen supporting his daughter’s foot in her portrait made the day after this one. A dark backcloth has been fixed behind the woman and it is carefully framed to form borders for this fastidiously arranged image at either side.
The daguerreotype resolves detail in weeds and grass between the pavers, the various fabrics of her dress and tall traditional hat familiar from the art of Monet, Corot and Millet (Normandy was the ‘Cradle of French Impressionism’). The quite feminine design of her formal costume (worn on special occasions) contrasts with the heavy clogs and the work-worn hands that are already becoming knotted with arthritis. She grips her chin resolutely to hold the long pose so that there is not the slightest blur.
In the period to 1850 de Molard gradually adopted the calotype of which he had experience using as early as 1844 with his friend Hippolyte Bayard who had invented the French version of the positive/negative process. Although Englishman Henry Fox Talbot had tried to control the rights to his invention, by the late 1840s French photographers, including Louis-Adolphe Humbert de Molard in Normandy, and Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Évrard in Lille and Gustave Le Gray in Paris were experimenting with his process, circumventing his patents, and exploring the aesthetic potential of the calotype. Thereafter he begins to print on albumen and to use collodion, after contact with Abel Niepce de Saint-Victor who advocated the development techniques promoted by Gustave Le Gray.
In a series of essays published in France between 1850 and 1853, critic Francis Wey (1812–1882) explicitly “rejected the possibility that the daguerreotype could be the basis of an aesthetic discourse,” and equated paper photographs with fine art values, “because it resisted the requisite hierarchy of compositional elements—all were equal in the daguerreotype—and thus thwarted individual, artistic expression or style.”
Such sentiments were echoed in Mayer and Pierson‘s Photographie considérée comme art et comme Industrie (Paris: Hachette, 1862) that similarly rejected the mechanical exactitude of the daguerreotype image, preferring the the paper photograph’s capacity for the manipulation of tones and suppression of details which could be achieved either by retouching the negative by simply drawing or painting on it (above) or, as below in the case of the boy’s profile (below), by retouching the print. There we may be seeing the work of the miniaturist, the expert touch of his partner in marriage and art, Henriette-Reneé.
Clearly with the ambition to recreate in photography the type of genre scene he admired in seventeenth-century Dutch painting and its early nineteenth-century French revival, the baron and gentleman farmer Humbert de Molard posed his caretaker Louis Dodier (standing against the ladder, wearing wooden clogs) and other workers in a tableau of rural activity at his château at Argentelle, in Normandy.
In his Exhibition Review in The Art Bulletin, issue 86:4 of The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839-1855 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 23, 2003–January 4, 2004, art historian Geoffrey Batchen attributes to Humbert de Molard a preoccupation with “fictional versions of peasant or working-class life” as a direct response to the political climate of this period, especially the street battles of working-class insurgents of 1848 in Paris.
The peasantry, whose allegiances with the urban workers was ‘ambiguous’, presented a further potential threat especially to the landed gentry whose lifestyles they supported. In support of this thesis, Batchen points to de Molard’s other artistic tableaux, including his brooding portrait of the steward of his estate, Louis Dodier, which is worthy of an episode from Byron or Walter Scott. Is the man’s scowl merely his helpful contribution to the tableau, or should we read it as resentful of the way he is being used by his master? By all accounts the tow men were good friends, and de Molard clearly appreciates the man’s good looks.
Batchen’s identification of political motivations is plausible since de Molard would have experienced Parisian events as the couple commuted between his Château d’Argentelle in remote Normandy and their Parisian apartment 200km to the east at 14 rue Notre Dame de Nazareth, especially being situated there only 20 minutes walk from the barricades in the Rue St-Maur Popincourt.
However, Henry Fox Talbot in the same year was making similar use of his servants and farm workers on his own estate at Laycock Abbey, interestingly also employing a ladder as a prop and compositional anchor. Though it is convenient to attribute political sensitivities to de Molard, in fact both men lived rarified and insulated lives. As a more practical motivation for their choice of subject, vassals were convenient, available and biddable participants in their photographic experiments.
The steward of de Molard’s estate, Louis Dodier, makes further appearance as a rather robust looking invalid in this more elaborate, fastidiously arranged tableau of a sickbed surrounded by attentive doctor and anxious relative (probably the photographer’s daughter once more). The static poses are helpful in making this daguerreotype, though the ‘doctor’ does waver a little, and the cross-lighting, so effective in illuminating selectively the important elements of this scene, must nevertheless have been a challenge to exposure. So intent is de Molard on making his photographs art that his success in producing pleasing, aesthetic compostions exceeds, in my opinion, that of Tablot, the inventor of the medium, though the French photographer was a master also of the daguerreotype.
It would be the next generation, forty-five years later, who would enjoy technological advances in photography that enabled even an amateur to make spontaneous imagery that looks drawn from the flux of everyday life.
This engaging family snapshot was made by Maurice Denis (1870–1943) on this date in 1890, the year he began to fall in love; it was when he met Marthe Meurier, a musician, whom he was to marry on 12 June 1893.
Thanks to the advent of film, Denis, who was an amateur photographer, was able to bring to this composition his taste for the symbolic, the simplification of forms and the harmony of line from his experience as a painter. In return, like his fellow Nabis, Bonnard, he attentively looked at his photographs and borrowed from them motifs which, in a refined form, delight us in his painting.
Fast-forward a century to this photograph by Australian photographer Max Pam (*1949) whose latest exhibition opens today, 15 September 2017, at Box Galerie, 102 chaussée de Vleurgat, 1050 Brussels. Taken in 1991 out on the street, Hillfield Park, in the gloom of a London fog, his picture demonstrates further technical progress in achieving spontaneity in photographs.
Pam notes in his book MAX PAM (publ Filigranes 1991 France):
I made and launched the ship [at] 16a Hillfield Park. Here Jack is standing on a man-hole cover at the bottom of what is a very steep hill (Hillfield Park). He hears the car coming down to us at speed…
He explains the appearance of the doomed ship Lusitania in his picture in interview for F de C de Rigueur Reader 2012-1 edited by Alin Huma:
There are many Max’s and I do work with some of them. For instance my enduring connection to things, objects, artefacts grew from the comfort and pleasure derived from toys as a child. A model kit of a World War 2 Nazi Air Force fighter plane could keep me occupied for weeks on end…Like a complex Ikea product it came with a set of detailed and inexplicably vague assembly instructions. The act of assembly with its components of extruded plastic, fixed in place with a clear gel glue that made you high was an early introduction to Narcosis & Sculpture 101.
Years later at one of those inexplicable, cathartic emotional crossroads in life which found me searching for direction and validation I went back to the toyshop and bought my ship of love. Months later, my art therapy complete, I had my finished and painted Airfix model of the SS Lusitania. Having collaborated with my children on various photographic shoots of our own making, little adventures with toys really. I recruited the eight-year-old Jack Pam to be my model for the Lusitania photograph. I arranged Jack centred on a manhole cover at the bottom of our very steep street in London’s Muswell Hill. It was an unusually foggy morning, just about perfect for the act of black and white photography.
My own unresolved yearning. Jack and the model ship which in life had suffered its own tragic history. The world we sailed through and the car accelerating down the hill fast, threatening to turn Jack into a hood ornament. The lighting and climatic atmospherics of North London all combined for the photograph as theatre finale to the model Lusitania opus. [the model Lusitania rests now in a perspex box at his home in Fremantle]
In a recent email he confirms that “it was the quality of the light that really got me excited, like the fog in those Robert Frank pix from the streets of London’s bank area in the 1950’s. By ’91 this fog was a rare event,” and that he shepherded his reluctant son out onto the crossroads and just as he was pressing the shutter of his 6×6 camera Jack yelled at him “Daaaaaaaaaaaaad there’s a car coming!” Hence the rather distraught expression, and that is what makes for such a compelling, and slightly surreal, portrait, seized from the moment.
Since 1991 have come 25 years in which technology has bestowed on us picture-taking devices that are ever more portable and operable in any lighting conditions, but we need to ask ourselves whether we are producing images as strong as those achieved by Humbert de Molard, Maurice Denis, or Max Pam.
That we might need to put more time into achieving spontaneity is a paradox that challenges us.