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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Industrialization of French Photography after 1860

The decade of the 1850s was a “golden age” in the art of photography. Artists of great vision and skill took up a fully mature medium, tackled ambitious subjects, and lavished care in producing large, richly toned, and colorful prints for a select group of fellow artists or wealthy patrons. By the 1860s, times were changing, and the medium became increasingly industrialized. Instead of mixing chemicals according to personal recipes and hand coating their papers, photographers could buy commercially prepared albumen papers and other supplies. Increasingly, the marketplace pressured photographers to produce a greater quantity of cheaper prints for a less discerning audience. In marketing to a middle class, aesthetic factors such as careful composition, optimal lighting conditions, and exquisite printing became less important than the recognizable rendering of a familiar sight or famous person.

Some, like A.-A.-E. Disdéri (1819–1889), turned quantity into a virtue. With a moveable chassis and multiple lenses, he could make as many as eight exposures on a single glass-plate negative, print the entire plate at once, cut the sheet into eighths, and paste the individual photographs on mounts the size of visiting cards for his clients to distribute to friends, family, or fans (1995.170.1).

Alongside the carte-de-visite craze, another fad developed in the late 1850s and 1860s: the stereograph. Two nearly identical views were made from slightly different positions or by two side-by-side lenses of a single camera; glued to a single mount and viewed in a stereoscope to simulate binocular vision, the two images combine in the mind to create a startling illusion of three-dimensionality. These diminutive pairs of prints, each barely three inches square, shed their modest scale and take on a type of virtual reality, as the stereoscope blocks out all references to space and scale except those in the picture itself. Despite the appeal of the viewing experience and the satisfaction that photographers must have felt at combining two remarkable new optical systems—photography and stereoscopy—the act of viewing such photographs in a stereoscope removed them from the realm of art and positioned them instead in the domain of the optical toy, the philosophical instrument, and the parlor entertainment. Seldom composed or printed with the type of care lavished on larger prints in the early and mid-1850s, stereographs were usually issued in series and sold inexpensively—100 views of Paris, Brittany, the Pyrenees, or other, more distant lands, meant to transport the armchair traveler around the world as if by magic carpet.

Other photographers were temperamentally or aesthetically ill suited to the new market. Édouard Baldus, for instance, made smaller, cheaper, hastier, and less considered versions of his earlier work, and ended in bankruptcy; Nadar left his studio in the hands of staff, and the resulting output is voluminous but generally uninteresting. Still other photographers simply left the profession altogether.

Technical advances continued apace in the 1860s and 1870s, and many commercial photographers prospered. Only a few figures, like the eccentric Countess da Castiglione, working with the photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, used the medium in novel ways and created unique bodies of work. In large part, the artistic development of the medium was charted by a mere handful of photographers, mostly in countries other than France: in England, Julia Margaret Cameron, who saw photography as a means of expressing literary and biblical ideals; and in America, Alexander Gardner, George Barnard, and other photographers of the Civil War, who found in the medium a powerful means of documenting history and moving the soul; Timothy H. O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins, whose exploration of the landscape of the American West created new paradigms for the genre; and Thomas Eakins, who integrated photography into the teaching and practice of fine arts.

Within a quarter-century of its birth, photography had established a ubiquitous presence in society. The medium’s most profound and lasting expressions, however, were no longer the work of its leading professionals, but rather of those who consciously set themselves apart from the accepted rules of commercial practice and took photography into new arenas of technique, subject, and expression.