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Baudelaire, a Skeptic, Shares His Photo

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Nele Mayer, a student at NYU, was recently awarded the H.W. Janson scholarship for excellence in the field of art history. This blog post is derived from her work in Shelley Rice’s class "Aesthetic History of Photography."

Charles Baudelaire
Etienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire. Image ID: 5164138

In ca. 1863 French photographer Etienne Carjat took a Woodburytype photograph of poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire, who described photography in “The Salon of 1859” as “art’s most mortal enemy.” Baudelaire’s head is in focus, while the edges of the portrait are softened. He is wearing a dark coat with a white shirt and a large silk bow tie that dominates the image. His facial expression is stern. He appears to be glaring out of this picture, defiant and critical of the world. Why does a man, who believed that photography contributed to the “impoverishment of the French genius” let himself be photographed and therefore share his image with the world?

Carjat’s photograph of Baudelaire was part of a series called “Galerie Contemporaine” of 241 photographs depicting celebrated political, literary and artistic figures of the Second Empire in France. The portraits were made by 28 photographers who had studios in Paris at the time. Etienne Carjat, who started his artistic career as a cartoonist and opened his first photographic studio in 1861, founded several weekly periodicals through which he met celebrities and friends whose portraits he took, including the one of Baudelaire.

Baudelaire was uneasy about considering photography as anything other than a “humble servant to the sciences and art." His skepticism was not solely directed towards photography but also the industrial age in general. In the eyes of Baudelaire, 19th century France witnessed the end of the social and cultural system that had given “real art” room to prosper. However, even though he did not consider photography art, he still had his photograph taken many times in his life—perhaps because he wanted to be remembered. With cartes-de-visite in the 1860s, photography directly influenced the public career of celebrities.

The need to make your image public and to share it with the world is directly connected with the idea of “sharing” in the Public Eye exhibition at The New York Public Library, where Carjat’s portrait of Baudelaire finds its place in the Crowdsourcing section. In the context of this exhibition Carjat’s portrait of Baudelaire could be seen as a social artifact whose main goal is communication. However, as an invaluable work by a famous photographer of a celebrated poet, its significance shifts from a social artifact to an aesthetic object—a work of art.

Carjat captured an expressive face that is not only aesthetically beautiful but communicates something about the poet. The whole question and tension of whether photography is art or not is inherently embedded in Carjat’s photograph of Baudelaire. Even though this photograph definitely has aesthetic value, one should also not forget with what intentions the photographer and the sitter entered this project. Their main goal seemed not to have been to create art, but rather to share this person and that moment in time with a broad audience.

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Woodburytype

Excellent appreciation of the role of photography in promoting famous people. However, no one ever shot a Woodburytype as the article mentions because that was a reproduction process not a "taking" process. Undoubtably Carjat used the wet plate process in taking the picture. The image was then printed via the extremely expensive Woodburytype process which involved pressing a low relief sheet of lead filled with carbon impregnated gelatin under tremendous pressure (5000 psi) onto paper. The result was a gorgeous, continuous tone print that was virtually indistinguishable from a photographic print. Because the gelatin squeezed out around the edges, each Woodburytype had to be individually trimmed and then tipped in to the book it illustrated. Because the Woodburytype consists of carbon, it does not deteriorate chemically the way silver images can. I wish someone would revive this magnificent process for use in our time.

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