Abstraction in Early French Photography

This is the latest in a series of photo essays on early French photographers

We often think of photography as the most realistic of art forms. But photography is itself a process of abstraction. It reduces three dimensions to two, binocular vision to monocular, movement to stasis, and often, color to black and white.

While early photographs were seen to be uncannily capable of recording what actually exists (and this, some argued, proved that they were not art), many early French photographers in fact employed abstraction to produce specific intended effects. Gustave Le Gray, for example, used the contrast of light and shadow to emphasize form and pattern.

Charles Nègre did the same, as do I.

Even nature scenes were also not mere copies. Each image was composed for meaning, depending upon the mood and emotion that the photographer wished to convey. Henri Victor Regnault included primitive agricultural tools and picturesque details in his scenes of country life. These evoke nostalgia for a simpler time.

Alphonse Quinet varied his focus using either soft-focus or sharp depending upon the scene he was shooting. His photographs of pastoral scenes are all haze and sunshine, evoking feelings of relaxation and peace. Whereas his photographs of Paris parks are clear and sharp, endorsing restrained enjoyment and behavior.

Adolphe Braun used landscapes to inspire awe. There was nothing pastoral about his images; instead we find immensity of scale heightened by the contrast of light and shadow and the deep saturation of Braun’s black tones.

Charles Aubry’s subject was flowers — dying flowers. They remind us of the passage of time and our own mortality.

Even Nadar’s portraits were not entirely specific to the sitter. Stripped of any background information or context, they served as ideal types as well. Is there any doubt that Baudelaire represents the romantic ideal of an intense, possibly tortured poet? Or that Sarah Bernhardt is the very model of a dramatic actress?

These 19th century photographers knew exactly what they were doing. The choices they made of subject matter and the unique ways they used their cameras and their darkrooms were deliberately in service of the meaning they wished to convey. By abstracting from reality, they allow us to experience that meaning for ourselves. We see in their photographs, not copies of reality, but points of view. That fact makes these images transcendent and compelling even after almost 200 years.

In later years, photographers like Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy employed the same methods and named their work “abstract art.” But they did not invent the process. From the inception of photography, French fine art photographers were using them as well.

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