Musée d'Orsay: Photographic Display

Photographic Display

The many woes of the photographer

Accidents, failures and surprises in 19th century photography

Room 19 until 7 January 2018

Paul Burty-HavilandGroup portrait (overlays): De Zayas, Picabia© Adagp - RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Baudelaire was not fond of photography. Out of the portraits produced of him by Carjat, Nadar and Neyt, the only one that found favour in his eyes was an image “having the softness of a drawing”. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he appreciated not the likeness to the model, but the expression of his sensitivity.

Out of focus, cast shadows, intruders in the shot, distortion, backlighting, vignetting, halo, double exposure, fog, stains are just a few examples from the list of misses and unwanted effects that appeared when taking a photo, during the development phase or printing, and sometimes even at any point in an image’s life. During the first forty years of photography, standards were primarily based on the pictorial model for most operators - artists, professionals and amateurs -, thus favouring a balanced composition, the mimesis effect, and the beauty of the final result. Negatives and faulty prints were, by definition, destined to be scrapped.

The appearance of the gelatin silver process reduced posing time and brought with it the emergence of portable devices that were easier to handle and use - like the Pocket Kodak - , resulting in an unprecedented visual upheaval. New subjects were represented, often from unusual view points: deframing, high-angle, low-angle, close-up. Polaroids gave rise to the iconography of the mundane, of idle time, of the lack of outstanding, in other words image without qualities. Previously banished errors became valuable sources of amusement for an increasing number of practicians and even a means to explore the technical and visual possibilities of the medium. This repertoire of random yet prolific forms forged over the 19th century would come to be considered as the expression of modernity employed by the avant-garde artists of the 1920s and 1930s: Dadaism, Surrealism and New Vision.

“There are days when nothing seems to go right, in photography as in politics. We want to do well, we try hard, and the result is deplorable, thwarting all calculations. It seems incomprehensible, and soon one blames it on bad luck, rather than one’s own blunder, which is often the real culprit.”
E. Aillaud, “Les petites misères du photographe”, Le Petit photographe, October 1901

The theme of this exhibition owes much to the work of Clément Chéroux, curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, particularly in Fautographies (2003).


Marie Robert, curator of photography, Musée d’Orsay

To see the selection of photographs currently on display in this gallery, please click here

Enlarge font size Reduce font size Tip a friend Print