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The invention(s) of photography is arguably one of the most significant events of the 19th century – not only because of its creativeness and uniqueness, but also because of the variety of its applications. Although originally invented with an artistic intend, the public relatively quickly recognized photography’s potential in aiding them in various activities. For example, in History of Photography we read about photography’s potential of creating pictorial records of discoveries such as the ones made during the Egypt expedition in 1798.[1] Other applications are also discussed in History of Photography, such as painters using photographs for after-study for their artworks[2] and physicists using them to study light.[3] It seems, however, that the public was obsessed with photography mainly because one particular application of it – portraiture. People were “[rushing] to contemplate [their] trivial image on the metallic plate.”[4] In 1841 photography was not recognized as a profession; ten years later 51 photographers were recorded; in 1861 there were 2 879. And in the same year the people who made their living from photography and related trades were at least 33 000 in Paris alone. During that time the professional portrait studios in London were over 200.[5] As we can see, photography was gaining a significant reputation. It was almost inevitable for the public (and the state) to not utilize portrait photography in a practical way, i.e. for the betterment of society. Eventually, portrait photography found practice in law – specifically in recognizing, persecuting, and recording criminals. The potential for a juridical photographic realism was recognized as early as the 1840s, but it became common in the 1860s.[6] Coincidentally, during the time of photography’s technical development, the functions and the impact of the state were rigorously expanding.[7] Within the context of the state photography was recognized as a key to a developing technology of knowledge needed by the state. The governmental utilization of photography proved its lack of identity – photography’s nature depends on the institutions and agents which put it in practice.[8] We see the practice of portrait photography divided in two domains: the artistic domain of the bourgeois portrait, and the scientifico-technical domain of law, science, medicine, and pseudo-science (physiognomy, for example.) In short, the system of representation known as portrait photography has two functions that exist in an opposition to one another – honorific and repressive function.[9] This essay will look at the contrast between these two functions, the contexts which create and define them, their impact on the photographed individual, and their use in society. Since this is a broad topic, I will narrow it down by analysing, comparing, and contrasting two portrait photographs, one honorific and one repressive. One of the photographs is Nadar’s Alexandre Dumas père (c. 1885) (Figure 1), and the other is a picture of the criminal Charles Williamson (Figure 2), taken in England by an unknown photographer c. March 1878 and printed in Thomas Byrnes’ book Professional Criminals of America published in 1886. I believe these two photographs will successfully create the contrast between the bourgeois artistic portrait photograph and the practical, technical photograph that can be found in police records.

Portraiture is far from being a relatively new practice. With the inventions of photography, however, its popularity was significantly increased. Before photography, only a few were able to afford an image of their likeness. During the early days of photography, the ideology of the charismatic individual was popular. This, combined with the weight of oil-portraiture and journalistic caricature, helped the photographic portrait’s adoption by society. First and foremost, the photographic portrait validates identity.[10] Just like oil-portraiture, the earliest photographic portraits insisted on realism. Coincidentally (or not), during that time oil painters were seeking to escape realism and to explore different modes of representation, which embraced the artwork’s painterly qualities. Photography took the representational qualities from painting and declared itself as an “authentic” representation of the individual.

When 19th century photographic portraiture is discussed, one can hardly overlook Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, mostly known by his pseudonym Nadar. Taking up photography in 1853[11], Nadar quickly rose to fame and was known as a photographer of celebrities and intellectuals. He was even called the “king of photographers”[12] by the journalist Léon Daudet. By 1860, his atelier was the meeting place of intellectuals. Nadar took pictures of some of the most notable French (and other) figures of the second half of the 19th century: Wagner, Gounod, Delacroix, Manet, Daumier, Dumas, Baudelaire and others.[13] Nadar’s popularity is at least partly due to his career as a caricaturist and a journalist. In fact, him being a caricaturist is the reason he became a photographer, as he “resorted to the camera only because he was finding it hard to catch the likeness of difficult subjects […]”[14] As Nadar was frequently photographing prominent members of the society, the portraits he produced are bright examples of honorific portraiture, which praised the depicted individuals and asserted their higher positions in the social hierarchy. In 1859 Nadar was charging 40 francs a dozen for carte-de-visites[15] – double the usual charge. The status of the people depicted in Nadar’s photographs is defined by their own reputation, Nadar’s popularity, and the high-class characteristics encoded in the portraits. The portrait is a sign whose purpose is both the description of an individual and the inscription of social identity.[16] When a photographic portrait is discussed, in consideration must be taken both the visual characteristics of the picture (attire, pose, emotion, setting), and the context surrounding it (the identity of the photographed person, his/her place in the social hierarchy, the photographer’s identity, etc.)

There is one particular photographic portrait taken by Nadar – a portrait of Alexandre Dumas pére – that has my interest. The medium of the picture is a salted paper print from a wet glass collodion negative. The reasons I chose this photograph are several. First, Dumas was a prominent and famous figure at the time of the photograph (1855.) This alone calls for the picture to be considered as a traditional bourgeois photographic portrait. Second, Nadar had done a caricature[17] (Figure 3) of Dumas, too. It would be relevant to compare the caricature, which could be considered as a degrading, or at least a mocking, picture, with the photographic portrait which honours the author. This leads me to my third point – it was common knowledge that Dumas’ grandmother was a black woman.[18] In the caricature we see his black characteristics being emphasized in a “humorous” way, while in the portrait we see him as “European” as possible. Here we touch upon the problem of race and representation during the 19th century. With the portrait, Nadar moves from caricature to character. Given different circumstances, we could see Dumas, being a “non-white”, as part of the “shadow archive”[19] of which Allan Sekula talks. But his photographic portrait aims at the opposite direction – to see him as an important, worthy figure of 19th century’s intelligentsia. As I said, photography can work both in an honorific and a repressive way. Here we see the first instance. The portrait’s meaning exists within wider codes of meaning:[20] garments, posture and setting in this case. A punctum of significance[21] in this photograph is Dumas’ hands. We see that his hands are clean, no scars are visible, and no tattoos. His hands are not hidden, and it is obvious that he earns his livings with his brain, not with his hands. This is a signifier for a higher society – the society of intellectuals. Another reason to choose this photograph for this essay is the model’s cheerfulness. Dumas looks comfortable, he seems to be enjoying the process. He is aware that his likeness – physical and intellectual – is being taken.[22] His position is central, his gaze is aimed almost directly at the camera – he is not at all afraid of the lens. Dumas seems confident and comfortable with himself. He is being himself. Nadar was an admirer of Dumas before they became friends. Dumas trusts Nadar and is confident in his skills as a photographer. He knows that Nadar will make him appear in his best light. I find Dumas appearing in a photographic portrait interesting, since he has been quoted saying that photography “has no other results than that of vulgarising art without extending it.”[23]

With this picture we see photographic portraiture has one main aim, and that is to assert status. It is not simply the visual elements of the photograph that are defining. The photograph also (and mostly) achieves meaning through the context in which it is seen.[24] In this portrait by Nadar we see the successful author Dumas, embracing his social status as an intellectual through a picture taken by a prominent photographer in a studio that was frequently attended by celebrities. Dumas is being codified in relation to other frames of reference. By looking at the picture we do not only see Alexandre Dumas – we see the whole “caste” of intellectuals. The photographic portrait depicts both the person and the environment in which he exists – in this case, the environment of rich and successful Frenchmen.

As I have now discussed the honorific photographic portraiture, I turn to the repressive one. To understand the concept of judicial photography, the two main approaches to crime from the 19th century must be analysed. Since the photographic portrait has two aspects – the representation of the individual and of the social identity, two approaches to recording and analysing criminals emerged. The first approach is aiming to define a basic, universal archetype of the criminal – a biotype. The emergence of this method is largely attributed to Francis Galton, who was studying physiognomics. He believed that the physiognomy of a person can help in defining him/her either as a criminal or as innocent. For him, the criminal is organically distinct from the bourgeois and creating a recognizable universal image of the criminal can help preventing crime. Galton used photography to synthesise this universal image. His method hunted the criminal body and started what is now known as “criminology.” The second approach is less rooted in “biology” and more in recognition and description of the individual. According to this method, the criminal is indistinguishable from the bourgeois. The method hunts “this” and “that” individual, not the whole body. I believe the use of photography in these two methods is fundamentally different. The first uses photography to create a whole image that could be used as a template in future investigation, while the second uses photography to distinguish individuals from one another and to keep records of every recognized criminal. Alphonse Bertillon is believed to be the originator of the second method which is known as “criminalistics.”[25] Bertillon was interested not in the similarities between individuals, but in the differences between them. Their unique characteristics, he believed, were a key point in recognizing and persecuting criminals. His method is considered more successful than Galton’s, and he is recognized as the “inventor of first effective modern system of criminal identification.”[26] A quote by Bertillon explains the technical differences between artistic and judicial portraiture:

“In commercial and artistic portraits, questions of fashion and taste are all important. Judicial photography […] allows us to look at the problem from a more simple point of view: which pose is theoretically the best for such and such a case?”[27]

Refinement and retouching are also common practices for artistic photographic portraiture[28] that do not appear in judicial photography.

Allan Sekula compares Bertillon’s approach to criminal portraiture to the American Thomas Byrnes’ methodology.[29] Byrnes, like Bertillon, believed that physiognomy was of no use when it comes to hunting criminals. They “carried no suggestion of their calling about them.”[30] The difference between Bertillon and Byrnes’ practices is that in Byrnes’ book Professional Criminals of America we do not see profile photographs, only frontal. I will now discuss such a frontal photograph from Byrnes’ book – the photograph of Charlie Williamson. The medium of the picture is a photomechanical print of a collotype/heliotype photograph. In Byrnes’ book we find a brief history of Williamson’s criminal activity, as well as a physical description of him: height, weight, complexion, colour of hair and eyes, age (43 in 1886), birthplace (New York). Byrnes describes Williamson as “one of the most extraordinary criminals [the USA] has ever produced.”[31] Williamson is considered one of the smartest people in his line in the world. Williamson has used numerous aliases. His crimes include passing forged drafts of NYC to aid him in a robbery in 1884, a plunder scheme in 1873, forging of bonds in 1875, escape from prison in 1877, and forgeries in London in 1878. His final sentence (up until 1886) was on February 11, 1885 for a forged letter. Willamson was using a different alias for every crime he committed.[32] This summarizes the criminal life of Williamson. Nothing is mentioned about his personal life outside of crime. Now let us look at the photograph. We see a bearded man holding a board with his handwriting on it. He is not looking at the lens, he is looking at somewhere behind the camera with a cold, calm gaze. His eyes are a bit narrowed, as if he is contemplating something. He does not look interested in the camera; he seems to be thinking of something else. He looks alien to the picture, almost unbothered by it. I would say he looks confident and fearless. By the time this photograph was taken, he was already familiar with the judicial processes. Byrnes claims that the picture, taken by the English, is an excellent one because it shows his handwriting.[33] Handwriting is particularly important in the case of Williamson since he is a well-known forger of documents, and his handwriting is the instrument of his crimes. The photograph is not a typical Bertillon mug shot, since it is only a frontal one. Bertillon believes that frontal photographs “will be unanimously recognized by friends and acquaintances of the prisoner as well as by the prisoner himself.”[34] We can assume, then, that Williamson’s portrait would be used for recognition by his possible acquaintances in the event of future persecutions. The representation of Williamson is not a mark of celebration but a burden of subjection.[35] The conditions for creating his portrait are but forms of subjection – he was illuminated, focused, measured, numbered and named. The space in which the photograph was taken was also a place of subjection – a sterile and secure place, open to supervision. The photograph also represents the power of the state – the power to capture, identify, isolate and judge.

When compared, the two photographs that were discussed in this essay show the differences and similarities between photographs, which were the fruit of bourgeois leisure activities and glorified the depicted individuals, and the photographs, which were part of the “shadow archive” and were used to utilize the power of the state. The similarity between honorific and repressive portraiture is that the “others”, i.e. the criminals and other “unworthy” people could not have possibly benefitted from either type of photography – they were not worthy of an honorific photo and were being repressed by the repressive photo. Both types of photography aimed to keep the boundaries between classes, enabled the division of labour, aimed to preserve hierarchy, and kept the private properties safe. They also celebrated the concept of individualism on which bourgeois society relies. The dissimilarity between the honorific and the repressive photographs is their relation to the subject. The bourgeois portrait is internal – it is a concept crafted within the bourgeois society and it is used to cement the status of individuals from that society. Such photographs are not forced upon the individual; they are wanted by the individual, since he/she is aware of the positive outcomes of such a picture. Therefore, the subject’s relation to bourgeois portraiture is natural, familiar and understood. Photographs from the “shadow archive”, however, have external nature. They are alien to the photographed subject, as he/she is forced to participate in the process. The concept of this type of photography was invented by a society which deliberately aimed to distance itself from the subjects of it. Therefore, the very essence of “shadow archive” photographs is alienating – its purpose is to isolate the subjects and to assure the line between “high” and “low” society is visible by means of pictorial representation. Photography validates identity – it validates the identity of both the opposed to one another groups – the “intellectuals” and the “others.” The problem is the very concept of validation is invented, used, and applied by the former, leaving the latter repressed, subjected and alienated.

 

Bibliography:

Arago, Dominique F. “Report.” In History of Photography, ed. Josef Maria Eder, 232-241. New York: Dover, 1978.

Barthes, Roland. “Extracts from Camera Lucida.” In The Photography Reader, ed. Liz Wells, 19-30. London: Routledge, 2003.

Baudelaire, Charles. “The Modern Public and Photography.” [Salon of 1859]. In Selected Writings on Art and Artists, trans. P. E. Charvet. 291-298. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972.

Byrnes, Thomas F. Professional Criminals of America. New York: Cassell & company, limited, 1886.

Cardinal, Roger. “Nadar and the Photographic Portrait in Nineteenth-Century.” In The Portrait in Photography, 6–24. London: Reaktion Books, 1992.

Clark, Graham. “Introduction.” In The Portrait in Photography, 1–5. London: Reaktion Books, 1992.

Clark, Graham. “Public Faces, Private Lives: August Sander and the Social Typology of the Portrait Photograph.” In The Portrait in Photography, 71–93. London: Reaktion Books, 1992.

Clarke, Graham. The Portrait in Photography. London: Reaktion Books, 1992.

Ellenbogen, Josh. Reasoned and Unreasoned Images: the Photography of Bertillon, Galton, and Marey. University Park: Penn State Univ Press, 2012.

Gernsheim, Helmut. The Rise of Photography: 1850-1880, the Age of Collodion. London: Thames & Hudson, 1988.

MacLaine, Brent. “Literature and Photography” In History of Photography, 26:3, 247-248. 2002.

Sekula, Allan. „The Body and the Archive.“ October 39 (1986): 3-64.

Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Hampshire: Macmillan Education, 1988.

 

[1] Arago, Dominique F. “Report.” In History of Photography, ed. Josef Maria Eder, 232-241. New York: Dover, 1978. p. 234

[2] Arago, Dominique F. “Report.” In History of Photography, ed. Josef Maria Eder, 232-241. New York: Dover, 1978. p. 235

[3] Arago, Dominique F. “Report.” In History of Photography, ed. Josef Maria Eder, 232-241. New York: Dover, 1978. p. 238-9

[4] Baudelaire, Charles. “The Modern Public and Photography.” [Salon of 1859]. In Selected Writings on Art and Artists, trans. P. E. Charvet. 291-298. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972. p. 295

[5] Gernsheim, Helmut. The Rise of Photography: 1850-1880, the Age of Collodion. London: Thames & Hudson, 1988. p. 23

[6] Sekula, Allan. „The Body and the Archive.“ October 39, 1986. 3-64. p. 5

[7] Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Hampshire: Macmillan Education, 1988. p. 61

[8] Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Hampshire: Macmillan Education, 1988. p. 64

[9] Sekula, Allan. „The Body and the Archive.“ October 39, 1986. 3-64. p. 7

[10] Clark, Graham. “Introduction.” In The Portrait in Photography, 1–5. London: Reaktion Books, 1992. p. 1

[11] Gernsheim, Helmut. The Rise of Photography: 1850-1880, the Age of Collodion. London: Thames & Hudson, 1988. p. 210

[12] Gernsheim, Helmut. The Rise of Photography: 1850-1880, the Age of Collodion. London: Thames & Hudson, 1988. p. 215

[13] Gernsheim, Helmut. The Rise of Photography: 1850-1880, the Age of Collodion. London: Thames & Hudson, 1988. p. 215

[14] Cardinal, Roger. “Nadar and the Photographic Portrait in Nineteenth-Century.” In The Portrait in Photography, 6–24. London: Reaktion Books, 1992. p. 10

[15] Gernsheim, Helmut. The Rise of Photography: 1850-1880, the Age of Collodion. London: Thames & Hudson, 1988. p. 215

[16] Clark, Graham. “Public Faces, Private Lives: August Sander and the Social Typology of the Portrait Photograph.” In The Portrait in Photography, 71–93. London: Reaktion Books, 1992. p. 73

[17] Cardinal, Roger. “Nadar and the Photographic Portrait in Nineteenth-Century.” In The Portrait in Photography, 6–24. London: Reaktion Books, 1992. p. 11

[18] Cardinal, Roger. “Nadar and the Photographic Portrait in Nineteenth-Century.” In The Portrait in Photography, 6–24. London: Reaktion Books, 1992. p. 11

[19] Sekula, Allan. „The Body and the Archive.“ October 39, 1986. 3-64. p. 10

[20] Clark, Graham. “Introduction.” In The Portrait in Photography, 1–5. London: Reaktion Books, 1992. p. 3

[21] Barthes, Roland. “Extracts from Camera Lucida.” In The Photography Reader, ed. Liz Wells, 19-30. London: Routledge, 2003. p. 25

[22] Cardinal, Roger. “Nadar and the Photographic Portrait in Nineteenth-Century.” In The Portrait in Photography, 6–24. London: Reaktion Books, 1992. p. 11

[23] MacLaine, Brent. “Literature and Photography” In History of Photography, 26:3, 247-248. 2002. p. 247

[24] Clark, Graham. “Introduction.” In The Portrait in Photography, 1–5. London: Reaktion Books, 1992. p. 1

[25] Sekula, Allan. „The Body and the Archive.“ October 39, 1986. 3-64. p. 17-8

[26] Sekula, Allan. „The Body and the Archive.“ October 39, 1986. 3-64. p. 17

[27] Sekula, Allan. „The Body and the Archive.“ October 39, 1986. 3-64. p. 29

[28] Gernsheim, Helmut. The Rise of Photography: 1850-1880, the Age of Collodion. London: Thames & Hudson, 1988. p. 23-5

[29] Sekula, Allan. „The Body and the Archive.“ October 39, 1986. 3-64. p. 37

[30] Byrnes, Thomas. „Why Thieves are Photographed.“ In Professional Criminals of America, New York, Cassell & company, limited, 1886. p. 53

[31] Byrnes, Thomas F. Professional Criminals of America. New York: Cassell & company, limited, 1886. p. 278

[32] Byrnes, Thomas F. Professional Criminals of America. New York: Cassell & company, limited, 1886. p. 279-280

[33] Byrnes, Thomas F. Professional Criminals of America. New York: Cassell & company, limited, 1886. p. 280

[34] Ellenbogen, Josh. Reasoned and Unreasoned Images: the Photography of Bertillon, Galton, and Marey. University Park: Penn State Univ Press, 2012. p. 37

[35] Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Hampshire: Macmillan Education, 1988. p. 64

 

 

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списание „Нова социална поезия“, бр. 34 (извънреден), април, 2022, ISSN 2603-543X

 

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