March 17: Indignation

 #20March 20: There’s nothing like a small flood of righteous indignation to breach dammed writing.

I’m with poor Hippolyte Bayard (1801–1887), who regarded himself as unjustly overlooked for his invention of direct-positive photography on paper, gazumped by his own government’s support of the wealthier and better known creator of the eponymic daguerreotype.

My disgruntlement on his behalf is fuelled by a Wikipedia article on Robert Cornelius (1809–1893) which, until I corrected it, read:

“Cornelius’ image – which required him to sit motionless for 10 to 15 minutes – is the oldest known intentional photographic portrait/self-portrait of a human”

This falsehood was continued in the caption for the picture written by “Higher Ground 1” who, as one can find in the history of the page, is one of many sock puppets of “Chitt66” and who has been blocked indefinitely from editing the encyclopaedia. Cornelius’ picture is reputed to have been made in October 1839.



As it is recorded as long ago as 1937 by Beaumont Newhall (1908-1983) in his introduction to the book of the exhibition Photography 1839-1937 which opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (above) on this date, Bayard had held the first known public exhibition of photography at the municipal auction rooms of Paris on the 24th of June, 1839, hanging thirty pictures with proceeds going to a charity benefiting the victims of a major earthquake in Martinique that January.

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Beaumont Newhall (1937) Photography 1839-1937, Museum of Modern Art, New York

One of Bayard’s prints was a portrait and therefore at least four months older than Cornelius’, and probably made before that, as it was 180 years ago in March 1839 that he had first shown friends his direct positives on paper, as the fastidious public servant Bayard recorded in his contemporaneous notebook (below) now held by the Societé Francaise de Photographie.

Hippolyte Bayard (prior to March 1839) self-portrait test images. ©Collection Société Française de Photographie.
Bayard autoportrait
Hippolyte Bayard (1840) Autoportrait. Direct positive on paper, 14.1 x 13.9 cm. ©Collection Société Française de Photographie.

Newhall himself took the installation shots of his Photography 1839-1937. In his copy of the catalogue he notes (see below) that only Bayard’s Windmills in Montmartre was recorded in situ. However an item 143, a portrait, is given the date 1839, and 1840 for the portrait directly above (144 in the catalogue).

Photography 1839-1937In February 1840, Bayard described his process which yielded a positive image that, like a daguerreotype, was unique and laterally reversed,  with an orange tint as the result of his use of potassium iodide. By the end of May Bayard 1839 had shortened the exposure time from an hour to less than fifteen minutes making portraiture possible, and on May 20, showed the results to Arago, ally of Daguerre, who convinced Bayard not to announce them immediately, a move which deprived him of his rightful recognition.  The Parisian newspaper Le Constitutionnel enthused over their…

“exquisite fineness, a harmonious softness of light that painting will never attain. Nothing could be more charming than these little forms bathed in elusive half-light, like the chiaroscuro of nature. Art must resign itself in comparisons such as these to remain ever inferior to reality” (Gautrand, 1986, 24).

… and it was only on November 2, after the announcement of the daguerreotype, that the architect Desiré Raoul-Rochette (1790–1854) presented a report on Bayard’s invention to the Academie des Beaux-Arts praising the beauty and practicality of Bayard’s invention and noting that unlike the daguerreotype, in Bayard’s process papers could be prepared up to a month ahead of time, with its sfumato effect and warm tones offering artistic advantages over the burnished image on metal. Even years later, in 1851, when Bayard himself had moved on to the daguerreotype and calotype, Francis Wey (1812-1882) remembered his first sight of the photographs in 1839…

…they resembled nothing I had seen. . . .One contemplates these direct positives as if through a fine curtain of mist. Very finished and accomplished, they unite the impressionism of reality with the fantasy of dreams: light grazes and shadow caresses them” (Gautrand, 1986, 24—5).

Another erroneous but widely believed claim of priority is made for another picture.  John William Draper (1811–1882) who migrated to Virginia from England at the invitation of his family worked on the daguerreotype process at the University of New York for many years, making valuable contributions in daguerreian theory and to photochemistry. More important than any ‘first’ in portaiture was the increased speed of exposure he achieved through his understanding that the material reacted to blue light, which was focussed at different distance by the uncorrected lenses then used.

However Draper’s desire for ‘firsts’ resulted in much confusion of the early history of photography in which many cite his portrait of his sister Dorothy taken in the spring of 1840 (below) as being the first daguerreotype portrait. At the time Alexander S. Wolcott (1804–1844) and John Johnson (1813–1871 were establishing their studio and numbers of portraits had been made in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Draper sent his daguerreotype to Sir John Herschel (1792–1871), with a letter claiming he had made the first portrait from life. His stature as a scientist has led many historians not familiar with surrounding developments in photography to repeat his false claim.

“Artotype copy of the earliest sunlight picture of a human face (Miss Dorothy Catherine Draper).” Robert Taft papers, Photography Correspondence, Kansas Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas
Hippolyte Bayard. (c.1840s) Woman with a bouquet. Salt paper print, 16.9 x 13.1 cm

Claims for these works of Cornelius and Draper might be considered to be delusions of American chauvinism, though such egoistic self-promotion is still a common occurrence in photography worldwide due to an ignorant, blinkered perspective on one’s own activities in the medium that is compounded by unwillingness to credit, or to even look at, the work of others, historical or contemporary.

Why pick on Americans? My prompt is François Brunet‘s (1960–2018)  An American Sun Shines Brighter,” Or, Photography Was (Not) Invented In The United States. It is a chapter in Photography and Its Origins (2014) amongst 12 essays, edited by Tanya Sheehan and Andres Zervigon, which question the very purpose, process and the value of the work of investigating the origins of the medium, and whose (and what) narrative of its genesis is to be trusted.

Brunet writes about Robert Taft‘s (1894–1955) Photography and the American Scene, A Social History 1839–1889 of 1938, against Beaumont Newhall’s 1937 Photography 1839–1937 and the relation of the Kansas chemist with the Harvard-trained art historian at the prestigious MoMA who, as reader for Taft’s publisher, had censored as unfit the Taft manuscript section on the aesthetics of photography, but accepted his thesis of a ‘social’, rather than ‘art’, history. Brunet does not oblige with any new proof of photographic ‘firsts’ by either Americans or Europeans, but dismisses Taft’s “insistence on establishing ‘firsts'” as seeming naïve today; “his isolationist epistemology sounds awkward,” echoing other ‘Yankee’ claims such as Horace Greeley‘s (1811–1872), “in daguerreotype we beat the world,” or the New York Herald writer who on September 30, 1839 wrote: “In Europe a longer exposure is required, because an American sun shines brighter than the European”. Taft recruits Draper, an English immigrant, and a professional academic chemist who was fully conversant with European scientific literature, to his America-centric cause by perpetuating his claim to his portrait of his sister Dorothy Draper being the first photographic portrait ever made.

That ‘firsts’  exist as singular moments in the invention of photography and its achievements is clearly a conceit. Bayard’s now barely legible traces, and even his better known ‘first’ narrative photograph as a drowned man, and Draper’s fully-formed representation seemingly springing suddenly forth, are on a continuum, as are the proto-photographic copies of documents achieved by the Franco-Brazilian Hércules Florence (1804–1879) as early as 1833. As in any evolution seen from the present, links are missing in the form of thousands of efforts, destroyed, forgotten or lost. Helmut Gernsheim‘s (1913–1995) claim to have discovered the ‘world’s first photograph’ in Nicéphore Niépce‘s (1765-1833) Point de vue du Gras is more truly the retrieval of the earliest surviving.

My indignation is drowned in the deluge of history.

Hippolyte Bayard (1840) Le Noyé (known as the ‘Portrait of the photographer as a drowned Man’). Direct positive on paper, 13.8 x 12.7 cm, ©Collection Société Française de Photographie.



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