“On Photography”


Baudelaire by Nadar, 1855

“Is photography art?” These days, we don’t normally question photography’s status as art, but back in the middle of the 19th century, photography has many detractors. Opponents, like the famous French poet Charles Baudelaire, saw photography as a mechanical process that should be regarded only as a “servant of the arts and sciences.” Photography was closer to “shorthand or printing” than to a fine art, they argued. In one of the most famous essays in photography’s short history, Charles Baudelaire would denounced daguerrotypy as a negative, mechanistic medium, devoid of sentiments and natural beauty. Baudelaire’s review of “The Salon of 1859” included a section that denounced not only Daguerre — the ‘Messiah’ of this new industry — but also painters and the bourgeoise general public, which was all to eager to accept this ‘contrived’ medium:

“If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether….its true duty..is to be the servant of the sciences and arts – but the very humble servant, like printing or shorthand, which have neither created nor supplemented literature….

Let it rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books, prints and manuscripts which time is devouring, precious things whose form is dissolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory – it will be thanked and applauded.

But if it is allowed to encroach upon the domain of the… imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man’s soul, then it will be so much the worse for us.”

Baudelaire was not alone in thinking photography should not encroach upon the realm of arts — “the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary”. Although he himself used photography to assist painting, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres led many French intellectuals in forming the League of Artists Against Photography. But they were fighting a losing battle; in 1855, photography was included in the Paris World’s Fair exhibition. In 1859, the French Academy admitted photographs into the prestigious Salon — the very Salon of 1859 that Baudelaire reviewed.

Baudelaire had been already reviewing the Salon for fifteen years and in 1859 — the last year he was to review it — he may not even have gone personally to the Salon and see the photographs. For Baudelaire, his review was a work on the philosophy of art and its greatness. Although he viewed photography as obviously inferior, and wrote to his mother, “photography can produce only hideous results,” he counted many photographers among his closest friends. He sat for photographic portraits with Etienne Carjat, Charles Neyt and Nadar, and wrote a poem (Le Reniement de Saint Pierre) about clients who visited Nadar’s studio. To his last days, Baudelaire remained close friends with Nadar, who wrote Baudelaire’s obituary for Le Figaro. By Baudelaire’s death in 1867, the last cause he championed had already been lost — in 1862, after a high profile Mayer and Pierson trial, the French government legally recognized photography as an art under French copyright law despite a lengthy ‘Protest by great artists against any assimilation of photography to art’.


The Mayer-Pierson Case

The years from 1859 to 1862 were a key period in photography’s history; not only did those years see the denunciations of photography by many French intellectuals as fake and inferior (something I will cover in tomorrow’s post), but they also were the setting for the celebrated Mayer and Pierson case.

In 1844, Pierre-Louis Pierson began operating a studio in Paris that specialized in hand-colored daguerreotypes. In 1855, Pierson entered into a partnership with Brothers Léopold Ernest and Louis Frederic Mayer, who also ran a daguerreotype studio. The Mayers had been named “Photographers of His Majesty the Emperor” by Napoleon III the year before Pierson joined them. Although the studios remained at separate addresses, Pierson and the Mayers began to jointly distribute their images under the title “Mayer et Pierson,” and together they became the leading society photographers in Paris. Pierson’s 1861 photographs of the family and court of Napoleon III sold very well to the public, not least because they included revealing pictures of Countess Castiglione, society femme fatale, Napoleon III’s mistress and rumored Italian spy.

Through the Countess, Mayer and Pierson became acquainted with her cousin, the Italian statesman Count Camillo di Cavour, and took photos of him. It was around one of Cavour’s portraits that one of the most decisive battles in photography’s short history was fought. In January 1862, Mayer and Pierson filed a law suit against rival firms Thiebault and Betbéder for copying their carte of Cavour, and against Schwalbé for copying their portrait of Lord Palmerston. The former case was more controversial because the image of Cavour was retouched, with the figure of Cavour enlarged, his leg pose changed, and a library background scene added.

Although a lower court decided against them, Mayer and Pierson appealed. The case was argued and reargued not only in the courts, but also among the intellectuals, artists and salons. Finally, it reached France’s supreme court, the Cour de Cassation. Betbéder and Schwalbé claimed altered photos did not infringe copyrights and also produced a declaration signed by many of the leading artists of the day declaring that photography was not art. The trial was fought like a modern courtroom drama, with Mayer and Pierson’s attorney producing one photograph after another and comparing them to famous paintings and convincingly equating the camera to the brush. The Supreme Court’s decision established photography as an art under French copyright law.

However, the debate raged on. Many subsequent lower court decisions failed to uphold the Supreme Court’s decision. It would take another fifty years before photography was universally regarded as an art form.