Review: Painting and Photography: 1839-1914 by Dominique de Font-Réaulx


Book Reviews


Painting and photography have been having a complicated relationship for as long as… well, as long as photography has been around. As much as it is simplistic, it might not be completely unfair to say that most painters don’t understand how photography operates, just as photographers don’t understand what painters do. And this extends to the art world as a whole, the world that contains both, a world that is much more comfortable with the obvious artifice of painting than the equally obvious - but inconveniently so different - artifice of photography (with art historians in charge of museums, the cards are stacked against photography - witness the flurry of mostly underwhelming photography shows at many major museums).

It might thus be a very good idea to forget about all those claims being made right now and go back to square one. Square one, that is where you’d find yourself at the beginning, some time in the early 19th Century, when photography was invented. If you look carefully, it’s not all that clear when photography was actually invented - the usual date centers on the announcement made by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre in 1839. And why exactly was photography invented? Daguerre was a painter and printmaker. Why would someone like that try to catch and fix images projected through a lens?

Dominique de Font-Réaulx’s Painting and Photography: 1839-1914 sheds light onto all of this. As curator of photography at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris De Font-Réaulx possesses more than one qualification to tackle the subject matter, and she does it head on, by looking into the state of art before there was photography first. Photography did not just burst into the scene. It many ways, it filled a spot that was to be filled. And once it arrived in that spot it started that unresolved struggle with painting, which we’re still dealing with, albeit in somewhat different ways than in that now so distant past (I’d be happy to argue that painters like Gerhard Richter understand photography more deeply than many photographers themselves, having, in effect, defanged the medium and re-created, at least in part, painting’s power).

Having started with the cultural background, the state of art in the very early 1800s, Painting and Photography: 1839-1914 describes the invention of photography, the various characters involved in it, the struggles, the fights, the (yes!) politics (the kind of stuff that still is with us in the form of what goes on in academia when positions are to be filled). The remainder of the book is then filled with chapters on particular applications of photography, in relation to painting. Photographs of paintings, and then there is a lot of photography and painting in the form of landscapes, portraiture, still lifes, the nude, etc.

Painting and Photography: 1839-1914 is a deeply fascinating and challenging read, given the depth of knowledge that went into it and is presented to the reader. The book is lavishly illustrated with paintings and photographs (the quality of the reproductions is outstanding), allowing the reader to see with their own eyes what the author is talking about. The book could easily serve as a textbook for an advance graduate-level class. Thankfully, the writing itself is very much readable - no art lingo or references to unnecessary things. Dominique de Font-Réaulx knows what she is talking about, and she is confident enough to know that she doesn’t need tedious academic jargon.

I didn’t expect to be this engaged by a book like this one. It’s probably fair to say that my interest in the earliest photography has increased vastly, just as I have gained insight into the mindsets of painters and photographers during the period of time covered in the book.

Highly recommended.