In French photography, the 1850s was a decade of both dramatic technical change and great artistic flowering. Artists of the first rank, many of them trained as painters, took up a fully mature medium and made ambitious works of art, often for patrons of the highest social rank. No longer experimental or unreliable but not yet industrialized, photography in the 1850s was still very much a handcrafted medium, more like cuisine than science, with technical treatises that, like a good cookbook, provided the foundation of knowledge on which individual photographers could build their experience. Adjusting the formulas laid out in such treatises like chefs adjusting recipes, photographers found that a drop of this or a dash of that made their negatives more sensitive on a warm day or their prints a shade ruddier or more purple. As a result, each photographer’s work has a particular complexion, a characteristic color or tonal range or surface quality or degree of crispness that brings an individuality not often associated with later photography.
While the 1840s were overwhelmingly dominated by the daguerreotype—magically precise, one-of-a-kind images on highly polished, silver-plated sheets of copper—the 1850s saw the rise of paper photography, invented by the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot. His “calotype” process, though lacking the clarity of daguerreotypes, had one distinct advantage: from a single negative, scores—even hundreds—of virtually identical photographic prints could be produced, and their paper support made them more easily integrated into the realm of graphic arts; they could be pasted in albums, matted and framed like engravings, or tipped into printed books. Further, the calotype’s very lack of clarity—the fibrous texture imparted to positive prints by the paper negative—and its characteristic massing of light and shadow were deemed by many to be more artistic than the cool precision of the daguerreotype. Although Talbot tried to control the rights to his invention, by the late 1840s French photographers including Louis-Adolphe Humbert de Molard in Normandy, Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Évrard in Lille, and Gustave Le Gray in Paris were tinkering with his process, circumventing his patents, and exploring the aesthetic potential of the calotype.
A tidal shift occurred in 1851. In January of that year, some forty photographers, amateurs, scientists, critics, and intellectuals came together to form the Société Héliographique, the world’s first photographic society dedicated to the exchange of information and ideas among its members and to the promotion of photography within society as a whole. By bringing together men who, working in isolation, might struggle for years to solve a given problem, the new society hoped to hasten the perfection of photography. Among its founding members were the photographers Édouard Baldus, Hippolyte Bayard, Eugène Durieu, Baron Gros, Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq, Auguste Mestral, Émile Pécarrère, Victor Regnault, Viscount Joseph Vigier; the opticians Charles Chevalier and Noël-Marie-Paymal Lerebours; the painter Eugène Delacroix; and art critic Francis Wey. As influential on the course of the medium as the meetings of the society, where examples of the new art were shared and technical advances discussed, was the simultaneous establishment of the journal La Lumière as its official organ. Appearing fortnightly, La Lumière brought to an audience well beyond Paris the minutes of the Société Héliographique meetings, reviews of photography and art exhibitions, essays on aesthetics, technical discussions, and photography news from other parts of the world, all of which in turn helped foster the formation of local photographic societies elsewhere in France and throughout Europe. Although the Société Héliographique folded in 1854, it was shortly replaced by the Société Française de Photographie (SFP), an organization that exists to this day. The SFP Bulletin provided another forum for the exchange of information and ideas, and its annual exhibitions provided an important venue for its members to display their achievements and to see works submitted by fellow members and foreign photographers.
The year 1851 was also pivotal in establishing the French government’s role as photographic patron. In that year, five members of the fledgling Société Héliographique (Baldus, Bayard, Le Gray, Le Secq, and Mestral) were sent on Missions Héliographiques—photographic surveys of the nation’s architectural patrimony—at the behest of the Commission des Monuments Historiques. Far more than in Britain, official commissions and government purchases helped sustain the careers of many French photographers: Le Secq would be commissioned to document additional historic monuments the following year; Baldus would be commissioned to document the building of the New Louvre and the flooding of the Rhône River; Adrien Tournachon would be commissioned to photograph the prize-winning animals at the agricultural fairs; Le Gray would be commissioned to photograph the military maneuvers at the Camp de Châlons; and Charles Marville would be hired as the official “photographer of the City of Paris” to record the sections of the capital slated for demolition and rebuilding. It is typical that the work produced for these commissions, like so much photography of the nineteenth century, existed in the realms of both documentation and art, for these two functions were not seen as mutually exclusive. Instead, photographs that admirably informed government officials as to the state of preservation of the walls of Carcassonne or the destruction caused by floodwaters were also exhibited, written about, and appreciated at the time as art.
In many other photographs of the 1850s, the raison d’être was clearly artistic—Le Gray’s sylvan scenes in the Forest of Fontainebleau or his dramatic and poetic seascapes; Humbert de Molard’s genre scenes in imitation of Dutch painting; Vallou de Villeneuve’s nude studies intended as models for painters; or Louis Robert‘s rustic views at Romesnil. And, of course, photography also continued most popularly as a means of portraiture; there were, to be sure, many run-of-the-mill portrait studios in the 1850s, but between the daguerreian hacks of the 1840s and early 1850s and the mass-produced cartes-de-visite of the late 1850s and 1860s, one also finds portraiture of exceptional artistry, most notably by Robert, Victor Regnault, Nadar and his brother Adrien Tournachon.
At the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, the first world’s fair, held in the “Crystal Palace” in London’s Hyde Park in that key year of 1851, French photographers far outshone their British counterparts in paper photography and garnered the bulk of the medals awarded for artistic excellence. Two technical advances introduced at the Great Exhibition would also alter the development of photography in the next decade. First, Blanquart-Évrard displayed photographs that were chemically developed rather than printed in the sun, a refinement that allowed for quicker, cheaper, and more permanent prints. In September 1851, he opened the first photographic printing firm in France, his Imprimerie Photographique in Lille, which, over the next four years, produced many thousands of prints published in more than two dozen portfolios and albums.
Second, in the closing days of the Great Exhibiiton, the Englishman Frederick Scott Archer exhibited photographs produced from a new type of negative, replacing Talbot’s paper negatives with sheets of glass coated with collodion (guncotton dissolved in ether); exposure times were greatly shortened with Archer’s technique and the resulting prints were far sharper. For many, Archer’s glass-negative process seemed to combine the best of the daguerreotype (its clarity) with the best of the calotype (its reproducibility). Much ink was spilled in the debate over the relative merits of paper and glass negatives in the 1850s. Although many of the works now considered to be the greatest artistic achievements in photography of that decade were produced with paper negatives, glass would ultimately win the day. Particularly for portraiture, wherein lay the medium’s greatest commercial potential, the fast exposures, sharp detail, and limpid tones were deemed far more desirable. With the adoption of glass negatives in the early 1850s, daguerreotypy rapidly declined, and its use all but disappeared by 1860. Paper-negative photography continued to be used throughout the decade by certain photographers, especially for travel photography, where its practical advantages outweighed its shortcomings, but glass negatives became the overwhelming norm by 1860.
With the increasing public demand for photography, a growing corps of photographers setting up studios, and a standardizing of materials and techniques, the medium became increasingly industrialized in the 1860s, and the handcrafted individuality that characterized photography of the 1850s began to disappear.