press release

The first photographers were faced with the problem of how to reengage with portraiture and the representation of the human form. To begin with, using a relatively slow and limited technique, they worked within the constrains of the portraiture tradition established by painting. The Musée d'Orsay collections provide a fairly comprehensive picture of the development of the portrait and the representation of the figure in international photography from 1850 to 1914, in both stylistic and thematic terms. The exhibition includes a selection of official and intimate portraits of celebrities (artists and actresses) and ordinary people, taken by famous artists or more obscure photographers, and in particular those taken by artists whose innovations were to be influential within the genre incl. Nadar, Cameron, Degas, Steichen, Stieglitz, etc.

Daguerre's invention immediately became extremely popular among the middle classes who were keen to have their portraits made, whether as paintings or daguerreotypes. Studios sprang up in the city while travelling operators practised in villages, fairs and tourist spots.

The use of the daguerreotype, a one-off technique which could not be reproduced except through drawing and engraving, meant that the circulation of these portraits was limited to family and friends. In the early 1840s, the invention of Fox Talbot's negative/positive process enabled David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson to make and circulate remarkable images of people from all ranks of the Edinburgh society, the establishment, artists and fishermen. But it was only ten years later that photographic portraiture reached its peak, with the invention of new techniques that shortened exposure time.

Félix Nadar, who found his models among his friends in artistic and literary circles, then developed a particularly convincing type of photographic portrait. He had an opportunity to express his views in a court case against his brother Adrien Tournachon who had used his pseudonym:

"Learning the theory of photography may be done within an hour; grasping the first practical notions in a day… I will tell you what cannot be learned: it's the feeling of light, the artistic appreciation of the effects produced by various combinations of lighting… What can even less be learned is the moral intelligence of your subject, the intuition that connects you to your model and allows you to render not an indifferent visual transcription, which even the most obscure studio operator might achieve, but the closest, most favourable, most intimate likeness. This is the psychological aspect of photography, and I do not think the term is too ambitious."

Nadar made his own the theory of portraiture championed in 1851 in the review La Lumière by the art critic Francis Wey, a friend of Courbet.

Five years later, visiting card portraits transformed the production and circulation of photographic portraits. Eugène Disderi, a shrewd businessman who took out a patent to exploit the invention (six different poses on a single plate, printed on small cards and sold cheaply), was the prime mover in this revolution.

Competition between studios became fierce. Visiting card portraits provide valuable insights about social behaviour, but contributed little in the field of art. The most remarkable photographs were often the work of amateurs. In England, Julia Margaret Cameron, when she portrayed her friends Herschel and Tennyson, drastically changed the established conventions, creating her own lighting arrangements and using close shots that undeniably prefigured later developments in the cinema. Anglo-Saxon Pictorialists took her as their model.

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, moderately priced instant cameras came on the market, preparing the way for mass photography. Paradoxically this opened a boundless field to subjectivity. Portable cameras led to unusual viewpoints and extended the previously strict frameworks of portraiture. About 1915, considerable progress was made by Steichen and Meyer in fashion photography and celebrity portraits, which became genres in their own right. The multiplication of social surveys at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries gave the lowest classes - such as the immigrants arriving in New York photographed by Lewis Hine - access to portraiture at last.


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Figures and Portraits

Arbeiten von Louis Adolphe, Julia Margaret Cameron, Edgar Degas, David Octavius Hill, Adolphe De Meyer, Félix Nadar, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz ...