In the 1970s, when it was decided to convert the Orsay railway station into a museum for the 19th century, no fine arts museum in France had a photography section. Yet space was allocated in the future Musée d'Orsay for what was one of the major inventions of the period.
However, a choice had to be made between creating a permanent collection or merely organising temporary exhibitions of photographs belonging to other institutions or private collectors. Several factors worked in favour of the first solution. It gave the museum a way of enriching France's heritage, guaranteed a measure of independence in the organisation of exhibitions in its galleries and avoided the pitfall of a "dead" section without its own collection.
The decision to set up a photographic section in the Musée d'Orsay was taken in 1978. The collection had to be built up from scratch because, unlike painting and sculpture, photography did not benefit from collections already assembled by the former Musée du Luxembourg or the Louvre.
Its first purchase was a particularly remarkable album from the "primitive" period. This is the term given to the period from 1839 to 1863, considered to be the golden age of French and English photography. This album, put together by Louis Alphonse de Brébisson, himself a photographer, contained about forty works by his contemporaries. In particular there are two remarkable prints by the leader of the French school, Gustave Le Gray. The first, Brig by Moonlight, is a seascape, one of Le Gray's favourite subjects; the second, a view of the cloister of Moissac, was taken from the Mission Héliographique, the first public, collective photographic commission in the history of photography, entrusted to Edouard Baldus, Hippolyte Bayard, Henri Le Secq, Auguste Mestral and Gustave Le Gray in 1851.
Public auctions also gave the Musée d'Orsay an opportunity to buy works on the open market. By this means it acquired a striking portrait of Baudelaire by Nadar in 1988, a studio collection from the famous portraitist Eugène Disdéri in 1995, a magnificent skyscape by Le Gray in 1997 and a large Pictorialist nude by Edward Steichen in 1999.
Purchases such as those made from Roger Thérond in 1985 or the many prints by Nadar bought from Marie-Thérèse and André Jammes in 1991 illustrate the pioneering role played by these great private collectors in France, before the foundation of the Musée d'Orsay.
At the same time, the collections were completed by allocations and loans from organisations which frequently held prints for documentary purposes only and were not equipped to ensure their preservation. The photographs that joined the collections of the Musée d'Orsay in this way underwent a change of status because they had often never been catalogued by artist.
In 1979, the Mobilier National made its first transfer of photographs to the Musée d'Orsay; a set of fifty flower studies by Charles Aubry, used as models by the decorators.
Three years later, in 1982, the photographic archives of the Heritage Department sent the museum over two hundred and fifty paper negatives from the 1951 Mission Héliographique. This transfer illustrated the Musée d'Orsay's interest in paper negatives, previously regarded merely as a necessary "instrument" for obtaining prints.
The importance and diversity of these examples confirm that the Musée d'Orsay's photographic collection is as vigorous as it was at the museum's inception. After contributing to the recognition of an art which had languished in the shadows for many decades, it is appropriate for a multidisciplinary museum such as Orsay to continue building up its collection in order to gain a fuller understanding of photography, probe its characteristics and history and measure its contribution to other disciplines.