THE HISTORY of photography has suffered greatly from an overemphasis on technics. Aesthetic success clearly depends on appropriate technology, but a cranky bureaucrat who fails to part with money at the right moment can undo the most promising genius. A technical achievement can offer fantastic opportunities for the artistic imagination, but without social demand and ideological approval, it will sink into the limbo of forgotten possibilities. It is the rewards system of any art medium -- galleries, governments, critics, collectors -- that usually determines what we consider to be significant.
An aesthetic achievement without peer, relying upon a technic that has disappeared, is the substance of an outstanding contribution to the history of 19th-century photography. The Art of French Calotype introduces us to a half-forgotten band of devotees of the paper negative, a process of seductive chiaroscuro and painterly breadth of effect that happened to arrive at an infelicitous moment. With a public clamoring for the sharply-focused, brilliant detail of the polished metal daguerreotype, and a government already committed to rewarding Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, there was little hope for a paper photography that excelled in atmosphere, decorative masses, subdued detail, and an evocative graininess of texture. No muted realities, however artful, could satisfy a society which Baudelaire excoriated for its vulgar materialism, its insatiable demand for minutiae, and its vapid notions of subject.
The Art of French Calotype does much more than restore to glory the genius of Hippolyte Bayard, Henri Le Secq, Charles Negre, Gustave Le Gray, Victor Regnault, and Charles Marville. The authors provide an exceptionally useful dictionary of practitioners of the paper art from 1845 to 1870. More importantly, they offer numerous insights into the reverberations between the calotype aesthetic and painting, both realist and impressionist. This monumental enterprise would have been impossible without the foresight of Andre and Marie-Therese Jammes, whose collecting and research activities rescued both prints and documentation from neglect, and the astute scholarship of Eugenia Parry Janis, professor of art history at Wellesley College. The reproductions are abundant and remarkably good.
The Jammes-Janis collaboration reads like an open invitation to rush overseas to the Bibliotheque Nationale or to the Jammes collection itself. Fortunately, there is a comparable collection of magnificent calotypes at George Eastman House, Rochester, New York, and an illustrated catalogue of that collection recently became available under the title, The Era of the French Calotype.
If it was a difficult medium, almost too slow for portraiture, calotype was admirably suited to landscape and architecture. Its greatest rival, the albumen print from wet-collodion glass-plate negatives, surpassed the calotype for density of detail, if not in suggestive chiaroscuro. It would have been useful if we could have compared the aesthetic potential of these two processes by turning to another monumental volume, Photography and Architecture: 1839-1939. A stunningly handsome book, it must inevitably fjail us on that score, for the albumen print was characterized by a glossy sheen for which millions of unsuspecting hens sacrificed their eggs during its heyday in the 19th century. Not even the most sophisticated modern printing technology can supply us with the variety of textures and patinas required for accurate reproduction of salt prints, calotypes, albumen prints, gum bichromates, all in one volume and on one kind of paper.
Nevertheless, Photography and Architecture is an architectural historian's dream book. As John Ruskin predicted, photography preserved the memory of buildings destined for destruction in war, urban development, or fashionable whim. Here we find panoramic fold-outs of the Felice Beato views of Tokyo in 1865, and Moeller's homely Nebraska of 1885. Berenice Abbott records for our delectation the vanished iron grids of Pennsylvania Station in New York City, while Lewis Emory Walker shows us how the marble columns were raised for the Treasury Building in Washington, D.C., back in 1861. But there are some very strange absences: not a single Coburn study of London or New York; no recent precisionists, like George Tice or Nicholas Nixon, two photographers among the many employed by Richard Pare on his sumptuous Court House (Horizon, 1978). Representing curator Pare's acquisitions for the Canadian Center for Architecture, directed by Phyllis Lambert, the selection stops abruptly in 1939.
Lambert has been a crucial figure in recent support for architectural photography. Her introduction suggests that she wanted this volume to pay homage to the neglected photographers of historical monuments. Their work, she believes, belongs as securely in the domain of art as do the buildings. Pare's essay could have done more to support this idea, but he concentrates on the progress of the technics of photography and on a brief overview of the genre.
While the array of reproductions in Photography and Architecture is nothing short of spectacular, the arrangement of the book is as idiosyncratic as the collection on which it is based. Since the extensive notes follow the order of the plates rather than any alphabetical logic, Gustave Le Gray is followed by Bisson freres, while Steichen precedes Abbott.What possessed the editors to create chaos navigable only by the index, I cannot say. But I can assure the reader that Photography and Architecture amply compensates for this, and other, editorial gaffes.
Both Photography and Architecture and The Art of French Calotype accompany traveling exhibitions.