Ferraris-Besso on Lerner (2021)

Lerner, Jillian. Experimental Self-Portraits in Early French Photography. Routledge, 2021, pp. xiii + 178, ISBN: 978-1-501344-95-4

Published as part of Routledge’s History of Photography series, Jillian Lerner’s Experimental Self-Portraits in Early French Photography presents “a story about some of the strange bodies that populate the first decades of photography in France” (1). While her 2018 book, Graphic Culture: Illustration and Artistic Enterprise in Paris, 1830-1848 focused on the July Monarchy, here Lerner considers the 1840-1870 period, during which France underwent many political and social upheavals, as visual culture also saw enormous shifts, including the proliferation of inexpensive images—sketches, periodicals, albums, etc.—that she examined in Graphic Culture. Even more significantly, the period defined by Lerner directly follows the 1839 consecration of Louis Daguerre’s photographic process by French lawmakers and by the Académie des Sciences, over William Henry Fox Talbot’s salted paper and Hippolyte Bayard’s direct positives. Through four case studies, Lerner proposes a nuanced picture of nineteenth-century photography, and emphasizes that rather than a “stultified” or highly conventional art form, it was from the beginning a field of exploration and speculation.

Chapter one examines Le Noyé, Hippolyte Bayard’s self-portrait as a drowned man. A paper-based heliography, the document exists in three similar versions, one of which bears a handwritten text on its back. Lerner shows how, by successively adopting the tone of a journalist and then a showman in a fictional story about the suicide of an inventor, abandoned by the French government that had chosen to support Daguerre over himself, Bayard makes Le Noyé “a rare specimen, a puff piece, a marvelous attraction, and a parade” (13).  She also convincingly demonstrates that Bayard reproduces the pose of cadavers exposed at the Paris morgue in order to invite onlookers to investigate the injustice that has befallen him. But Le Noyé was not just a call for recognition or a mise en accusation of those who had neglected Bayard and his invention. In drawing the viewers’ attention to his “decaying” limbs, he highlights the success of his technique in registering subtle variations, and thus the superiority of his process. Unlike Daguerre’s cumbersome plates, Bayard’s images could be touched, manipulated, written upon. “The first viable photographic self-portrait and the first fictional photograph” (27), a mise-en-scène rather than a still-life or a paysage, but also a publicity stunt akin to those performed by Daguerre, Le Noyé shows Bayard’s understanding of photography, Lerner explains, as “an active terrain of imagination, narration, and strategic positioning” (27).

In chapter two, Lerner argues that Nadar used photography to “[erect] modern monuments” and “[create] renown that is both instant and enduring” (46), an endeavor started with caricature in the Panthéon Nadar, a monumental lithograph depicting 249 writers and journalists. In 1855, Félix Tournachon, a novelist, editor, journalist, and caricaturist (whose pseudonym Nadar became his exclusive property in 1857) produced a montaged self-portrait. It was “both photographed and hand-drawn” (32) and featured the attributes of a caricaturist: a porte-crayon and “a grease crayon or stick of charcoal” (44), as well as a caption: “to the great men, recognized by the instant daguerreotype” (45). In combining techniques, this self-portrait “reconciles several layers of his biography, public image, past work, and professional expertise” (50) and thus finds its place among Nadar’s other hybrid images (revolving portraits, an advertising placard, etc.) that constitute formal experiments as well as réclame for their maker.

In chapter three, Lerner considers the “photographic practices of elite women” (59), comparing the portrait strategies of the Countess de Castiglione with those of Blanche Fournier, the wife of a diplomat, Alexandra, Princess of Wales, and Empress Eugénie. Like Fournier, Castiglione created images that were only visible to a few, but unlike Fournier, Castiglione adopted self-aggrandizing poses in order to counteract her relative isolation and lack of “female backing” (69). As for Eugénie, her practice of being photographed in costumes, in “sartorial and visual” experiments, helps normalize Castiglione’s seemingly eccentric role-playing in front of the camera (75). But while photographs of Princess Alexandra and Empress Eugénie were disseminated for public consumption, Castiglione’s images were by and large kept private by her and Parisian photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, who took them. Lerner shows that the few images made public were the attempt of a recluse at “a form of dialogue with public chatter about her” (102), similar in that regard to Bayard’s Le Noyé’s protest against oblivion.

The book ends with chapter four, which centers on Dr. Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne’s “iconographies of illness and healthy anatomy” (114). Of particular interest in this section is the examination of a series of images meant to depict facial expressions, such as fear, surprise, meditation, etc. Duchenne “generated these expressions artificially” (118), using a machine that he had designed, which delivered electrical current to the face of an unnamed man described by the doctor as a “still irritable cadaver” (125). Lerner persuasively shows that those photographs, which “renounce the individual,” cannot be understood as portraits as they ask the viewer to “look for something in [the face of the man] that is detached from both private subjectivity and public identity” (123). While Duchenne included himself as a figure of “intellectual authority” (151) in some of those images, he was unable to anticipate the meaning that viewers, in particular modern ones, “might bring to his scientific images” (151).

Experimental Self-Portraits in Early French Photography will particularly appeal to anyone interested in visual studies and autobiographical studies. Even though some readers might bemoan the lack of a conclusion to help clarify the evolution of self-portraiture in early French photography, Lerner’s four substantive chapters accomplish exactly what she set out to do. Indeed, she is careful to point out from the onset that mid-nineteenth-century photography should not be envisioned as a singular medium, but rather as “a fluctuating field of competing techniques, possible applications, and unknown effects” (1-2). She therefore never aims to offer a coherent history of photography, nor of photographic self-portraiture. Instead, she chooses to specifically interrogate “photographic explorations of authorial embodiment” through a “selective and theme-driven” approach (2). With these four case studies, each of which is part photographic, part “something else: news item, caricature, tableau vivant, anatomy lesson” (2), Lerner succeeds in illuminating how early on, photography was used in performative portraits in ways that prefigure our modern selfies.




Caroline Ferraris-Besso
Gettysburg College