February 1: Is there such a thing as the baroque in photography?
Patrick Bailly-Maître-Grand celebrates his seventy-third birthday with a retrospective exhibition opening tonight from 7-10pm at Gallery Hiltawsky, Tucholskystr. 41, 10117 Berlin.
He began with a scientific training, graduating with a Master of Science in Physics in 1969, that he had to abandon for health reasons. Subsequently a painter for ten years before taking up photography, his oeuvre is diverse and prodigious, full of the experimentation one might expect from a scientist driven by a poetic imagination and a curiosity about the history of the medium that spawns daguerreotypes, rayograms, chronophotographs, ‘périphotographies’, solarizations, light installations and reinventions of the camera.
Born on this date in 1945 in Paris, Bailly-Maître-Grand’s family name, which translates as ‘Grand-Master’ is not a pseudonym as one might assume, but comes from his aristocratic origins in the Franche-Comté region bordering Switzerland where he spent his childhood in a large family home in the Parc naturel régional du Haut-Jura.
I was first attracted to his work on seeing these remarkable distortions, a reworking of previous, ‘straight’ photographs which he has achieved simply by intervening an improvised solidified gelatin ‘lens’ between the camera and the original print, part of which we see out of focus in the background.
He calls his contorted, self-manufactured lenses Gouttes de Niépce (‘Niépce’s Drops’) and refers to the way they distort the rectilinear industrial subject matter seen through them, as ‘baroque’, the style named for the Portuguese term for a pearl with an irregular shape (barocco). Appropriately these were shown as part of a large retrospective held at the Musée Nicéphore Niépce in Chalon-sur-Saône, June 21 to September 21, 2014 just prior to his 70th birthday.
The Baroque was a period in which technical innovators and creative virtuosi flourished in the arts. In the Netherlands, in the Dutch ‘Golden Age, Johannes Vermeer’s likely use of the camera obscura or other optical devices in making his realist allegorical paintings, combining art and science in a manner were perhaps inspired by his association with Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, creator of powerful microscopes, who expressed, in a letter dated 12 June 1716, an ethos similar in spirit to that which drives Patrick Bailly-Maître-Grand’s restless experimenting;
My work, which I’ve done for a long time, was not pursued in order to gain the praise I now enjoy, but chiefly from a craving after knowledge, which I notice resides in me more than in most other men. And therewithal, whenever I found out anything remarkable, I have thought it my duty to put down my discovery on paper, so that all ingenious people might be informed thereof.
At thirty-five Bailly-Maître-Grand first approached photograph from drawing – his first artistic passion – in adding visual ‘annotations’ and ‘improvements’ around his prints in confident pencil on the black mount, in this case extending the photograph, and in others noting the dynamics of the composition;
Such self-reflection is a great strength. Soon, captured by the capabilities of his new medium and its potential for innovation and invention, he turned to its history to revive the daguerreotype, ambitious after only three years as a photographer! His beautiful description of this technology gives insight into its attraction for him:
Anyone who has never seen a daguerreotype cannot begin to imagine the magnificence of its language. By definition, any copy of a daguerreotype is not itself a daguerreotype…but [a] pale resemblance…Ersatz things.
How can one explain what a daguerreotype is? I could limit myself to describing the technique…but that would tell you nothing of the sensual shock that I felt when I first saw one in the ‘80s, and decided, in blissful ignorance of the trials that awaited me, to make my own.
Imagine a photograph drawn in steam on your bathroom mirror; a stroke of the finger and, lo, you have a streak of black in the greyness! A light comes on behind you and the streak becomes light! Turn the light out and it’s gone. The daguerreotype image is as elusive as a ghost, fragile as dew.
What one is looking at in a daguerreotype is a silver plate polished as shiny as a mirror protected by glass. The steam in which the picture is drawn, is made of mercury, as it is entirely without pigments, a daguerreotype can only be read by lighting it. Light, reflected here by the clear areas and diffused there by the steam, brings out a picture of unbelievable clarity, that changes constantly when seen at different angles or lit from a different direction, according to its orientation. A daguerreotype can be read as a positive or as a negative, and the delicate iridescence of its surface, like a soap-bubble, lends a wealth of sumptuous colours. At first sight, daguerreotypes strike you by the “floating” quality of their images, and some contemporary artists see them as a sort of hologram, because of the endless possibilities of reading them by changing the angle from which they are seen. Moreover, the mirror that one sees will also reflect your face, distracting you from your intended reading of the image and perhaps explaining the impression of depth.
He arranges the daguerreotype plates sculpturally so that their mirror surfaces reflect each other, the images, and their environment appearing to slide, interfold and overlap as they are viewed.
These small, daguerrean mummies, embalmed by alchemy, evoke the mists of time. The dust that covers them is not of this world, but perhaps of the moon…
The daguerreotype after its announcement enjoyed around fifteen years as a commercially viable photographic format before being superseded by the positive/negative process. It remained popular until about 1860 in the United States where Dr. Henry C. Perkins (*1804), who died on this date in 1873, adopted it shortly after it was introduced there, producing early photographs of Newburyport near Boston, which are among the very first camera images made in America.
An account by Perkins read at his memorial service records the making of his first photograph:
…my attention was called to the process of copying landscapes by M. Daguerre in 1838. Under the impression that it would be applicable to copying dissections, and more especially the human face, I set immediately about having a few small plates made by Mr. Sargent, a plater at Belleville, and the manufacture of hypo-sulphite of soda, none of which was then to be found in the shops, and the preparation of a camera, and I photographed the brick house then occupied by Mr. Enoch Huse in Middle street, nearly back of the one I occupied in Essex street, about the first of Nov., 1839.
Bailly-Maître-Grand less prosaically explains his own attraction to this archaic medium:
Why did I bring back to life this long-buried procedure? It remains a mystery to me. All I can say is that the path to the castle of the sleeping beauty is overgrown with brambles and there is a poisonous dragon round every bend. The kiss that awakens the princess is as cold as mercury. Perhaps that is why she is so lonely…
His scientific training prompts an interest in adding chemical treatment which endows his monochrome prints with colour through skilful toning (selenium, sepia, blue, green, gold etc.) and furthermore using split toning.
A series on the Statue of Liberty in the process of restoration that he made on a visit to New York in 1984 lay unused until he revived the project by recreating the verdigris of the copper statue, designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834–1904) and built by Gustave Eiffel (1832–1923). It was a symbolic gift from the people of Bailly-Maître-Grand’s France to the people of the United States to celebrate the revolutionary origins that their republics had in common.
To recreate on the final 20 prints the colour that he saw as he photographed it from the scaffolding, in the two hours that he was allowed, he triple-split-toned, in blue, sepia, yellow, the silver chlorobromide prints. He is not one to pale in sight of a challenge!
He frequently turns to the positive rayogram or photogram, with its oriental ‘floating world’ of black shadows, or sometimes leaves them as wraith-like negatives; here recording on the paper in the darkroom the passage of light through the distorting glass of vessels in the form of faces to produce what appears to be an uncanny burst of ectoplasmic emanation or halo…
Some other translucent materials he uses are just as ingenious. Here he records both sides of his own hand by coating it in resin, peeling that off and placing it in the enlarger as a film negative to expose these prints.
Also in exploration of the hand in an installation he has reproduced the ten fingers as monumental menhirs printed with a reversal solarization and multiple toning that enhances the traces of age or scars and strengthens their mineral appearance as arranged in a circle as if for pagan worship, like the the megalithic site of Stonehenge.
On a similar mural scale is this image of a plastic skeleton intended as a teaching aid using what Bailly-Maître-Grand calls ‘periphotography’ but which now retired Professor Andrew Davidhazy (*1941) of Rochester Institute of Technology who was a major contributor in the sixties to the realisation of this technique calls rollout slit-scan photography (developed out of the photo-finish camera).
The technique produces a panorama-in-the-round made by rotating the subject on a turntable or the camera on a circular track while exposing the film gradually through a travelling slit-shutter, synchronised to record a complete rotation, or several, as below.
The result is an uncanny topography that flattens or ‘unrolls’ the three-dimensional form to make a mind-bending map of it. Though he is not the inventor of this process, Bailly-Maître-Grand makes use of its surrealist possibilities in several of his projects, here, here and here, some as early as the mid-1980s.
However some of Bailly-Maître-Grand’s approaches are elegant in their simplicity, in this case representing vision by photographing window reflections in a highly glazed white ceramic doorknob…
…or presenting the phases of the moon through the straightforward expedient of holding up cardboard cutouts in a beam of light projecting their shadows onto the lustrous surface of one of his partially polished silver plates used for the daguerreotypes…
…or merely by placing a colander over a lit bulb to conjure the heavens and moon (in a very orderly universe), of which he modestly confesses;
Obviously I know that this is childish, but it is so delightful to discover hidden beauty in something so very simple.
Inventive as he is, Bailly-Maître-Grand admires and sometimes imitates, in homage, photographers whose alchemy produces new gold from the mundane; left below he ‘raises a glass’, to his hero’s lucent original of 1952, using the same kind of fluted drinking vessel that the Czech master photographed repeatedly through his career, more as a kind of light modulator than mere still life.
Here he appears to be having as much fun in the kitchen as did Germans Anna Blume (*1937) and Bernhard Blume (1937–2011) in their hilarious self-portrait series Trautes Heim (‘Home Sweet Home’) of 1985 and Küchenkoller (Kitchen Frenzy) of 1986.
While he uses multiple flashes to capture a lethal cascade of kitchen utensils and crockery, the Blumes set up an elaborate circus of nets and mattresses to catch the items they repeatedly threw about while recording the results with slow shutter speeds, panning and rotating their hand-held camera to impart a giddying motion.
Now seventy-three Patrick Bailly-Maître-Grand is an inspiration to any photographer who has lost their mojo. To spend time on his comprehensive website is to regain a sense that it is ordinary things in our immediate surrounds that demand our attention and reward us with wondrous possibilities, particularly with the addition of light.