Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 20, 2012
Stephen C. Pinson Speculating Daguerre: Art and Enterprise in the Work of L. J. M. Daguerre Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 313 pp.; 36 color ills.; 103 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780226669113)

Stephen C. Pinson earned his PhD degree from Harvard University in 2002 with a dissertation on Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre that forms the nucleus of this book, nourished by over fifteen years of research and elaboration in several articles. Speculating Daguerre has been eagerly awaited; the last book-length study of Daguerre’s art, in any language, was Helmut and Alison Gernsheim’s L. J. M. Daguerre: The History of the Diorama and the Daguerreotype, first published in 1956 and revised in 1968 (New York: Dover). As Pinson notes, the Gernsheims’ book was primarily biographical and documentary. Like several smaller publications, it relied heavily on the 1935 biography by Georges Potonniée, the first and only study of Daguerre as painter and decorator. As Pinson notes, significant archival research has been carried out since the 1960s, notably by Pierre G. Harmant, R. Derek Wood, and Jacques Roquencourt, but their investigations have not been publicized widely. Finally, Daguerre’s photographic work and some aspects of his artistic career have been explored in exhibition form since the 1989 sesquicentennial of photography, including a small show in 2001 at Daguerre’s hometown of Bry-sur-Marne (Louis Daguerre, le magicien de l’image, curated by Margaret Calvarin and Marc Kereun) and the much larger Le Daguerréotype français, presented at the Musée d’Orsay and Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2003 (John Philip O’Neill et al.,The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839–1855, ex. cat., New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

Despite all this—startlingly—Pinson’s book stands as the first major scholarly publication on Daguerre, an artist and one of the chief inventors of photography. That this major publication appears in English and not in French is a reflection of the longstanding neglect of Daguerre by French scholars as well as the eternal battle in France between daguerristes and niépcistes. It also speaks to the considerable and continuous interest in Daguerre among English-speaking (especially U.S.-based) historians of photography. Pinson’s study, however, claims to stand apart from “the debates that continue to cloud the invention of photography” (10), specifically regarding its social meaning and its relationship to modernity. Indeed, Speculating Daguerre is not about the invention of photography, or even of the daguerreotype; it is about Daguerre’s art and career as a draughtsman, decorator, painter, designer, showman, printer, inventor, and speculator. This career is sought as an object in itself, both because it has been neglected historiographically and because it provides a case study of a “broader visual culture” (3) wherein “the histories of art and photography must not be seen as discrete fields” (12). As Pinson demonstrates throughout the book, the relationship between these two fields, in Daguerre’s case, cannot be reduced to the traditional assumption that Daguerre’s interest in photographic experiments ensued naturally from the “realistic” character of his earlier work on opera sets, or in architectural illustration and painting.

Before detailing Pinson’s narrative, one must hail its large documentary section, which features the first inventory of Daguerre’s known artwork since the Gernsheims’ book. This is not a definitive catalogue raisonné, Pinson warns, considering the great hardships encountered in location and attribution (151). Still, it lists over one hundred items, including drawings on paper; dessins-fumée; paintings on canvas, carton, and glass; daguerreotypes; and lithographs (151–220). The 36 color plates and 104 sufficiently large black-and-white reproductions provide an excellent overview of many items that will be new to the general reader, discoveries that have come to light through recent auction sales and research at Bry-sur-Marne and elsewhere. The catalogue also reflects Pinson’s innovative archival research. Whereas it has often been taken for granted that the chances of making new findings in this field are slim—or, conversely, that mysterious sets of papers were donated to and forever locked away in an unknown French state office—Pinson, an American curator, has explored or re-explored many French archival repositories (at the Paris Opera, the Academy of Sciences, the City of Paris, even the National Archives) as well as foreign and private collections. Unearthing a number of drawings, letters, and deeds, this research is complemented by an accumulation of printed documents, especially in the period press. No earth-shattering discovery is recorded here (although Pinson reveals significant business correspondences), and even the attribution of the recently published daguerreotype portrait of “M. Huet,” dated 1837 and signed “Daguerre” on the back, remains for Pinson only “a provocative possibility” (215). What emerges from this feat of scholarship is the richly detailed contextual history that is Speculating Daguerre—one that, almost in spite of this title, is intended to displace the tired cliché of Daguerre as the mediocre but crafty artist, the uninventive and greedy businessman who managed to get the whole French establishment caught up in his schemes.

The book is organized as a broad narrative divided into four chapters, following a generally functional order rather than a strict chronology. Pinson’s first two chapters, “The Reign of Speculation” and “Optical Naturalism,” methodically outline his notion of speculation. For Pinson, Daguerre’s trajectory as theatrical painter and Diorama operator/director describes the word’s commercial connotations, echoed by the changing production and reception of art during the Restoration period. In this period, Pinson suggests, the traditional dichotomy between “high” and “low”—or “vulgar,” illusionistic—art tended to dissolve. The monde of the Diorama, for Pinson, represents “a public in metamorphosis, in search of self-definition, and determined to remain fashionable”; it co-opts toutes les classes, including aristocracy (48) and luminaries, from Adolphe Thiers to François Arago. Pinson’s Daguerre is a modern artist who moves effortlessly with his public from “low” to “high,” from popular spectacle to advanced aesthetic and cultural theories of landscape, light, and memory. In the “Optical Naturalism” chapter, Pinson follows the lead of Jonathan Crary, stressing the fascination Daguerre and his partner Charles Bouton had with the reproduction of natural light effects and colors; this interest, in his view, is to be clearly distinguished from the traditional interpretation of “pre-photographic” drawing exercises with cameras as motivated by the demands of perspective accuracy. For Pinson, “The juxtaposition [in the Diorama] of interior and exterior scenes, still life and animated nature, was intended as a kind of compendium of the means of imitating natural effects,” means that were meant as art rather than deception (81).

In the third chapter, “An Artist’s ‘Fortune,’” Pinson’s narrative returns to Daguerre’s early career as an opera stage-set painter and continues in one solid thread through his daguerreotype period, debunking along the way the traditional notion that “Daguerre’s various forays into decorative painting, the Diorama, lithography, and eventually photography were the result of a lack of talent as a painter” or of critical support (93). Elaborating on the established knowledge of Daguerre’s well-connected position in the Restoration and July Monarchy (including his access to the royal court and family), Pinson describes his constant and often successful quest for honor, recognition, and financial reward as an artist, in various fields and widely changing political contexts. The daguerreotype becomes only “one part of his long campaign for artistic recognition” (94), a campaign that reminds this reviewer of American artists from this period, such as Daguerre’s one-time correspondent Samuel Morse. Correcting many details of the well-known narrative surrounding Daguerre’s elaboration and promotion of the daguerreotype, Pinson once again innovates by showing how the “inventor,” even during his crucial years between 1835 and 1839, never ceased to be (and to consider himself) a painter, a calling that he espoused fully after 1840 and his return to his native village (120).

“Speculating Daguerre,” the final chapter, circles back to an often overlooked paradox of the daguerreotype and its “adoption” by the general history of photography: its problematic connection to reproduction. Reminding readers that Daguerre’s elaboration of the daguerreotype clearly broke away from the reproductive goals and methods of Nicéphore Niépce, Pinson highlights the fact that Daguerre’s experiments with printing and multiplicity (in drawing) aimed at “variation of effect, rather than duplication” and that “a logic of duration, rather than reproducibility, governs his photographic process” (12). Well versed in lithography and the general “copy culture” of the period (125), Daguerre was less interested in accurate reproduction than in the creative margins afforded by printing techniques, as Pinson shows in a remarkable analysis of George Maile’s print of Daguerre’s drawing of a clair de lune (127–29). Meanwhile, the inventor’s interest in the dessin-fumée and his long search for a satisfactory fixing agent for the daguerreotype testify to his quest for durable light images. This quest, Pinson insists, must be read in the context of French enterprises in the mid-nineteenth century regarding the preservation of national monumental and artistic heritages, the main example being Alexandre Lenoir’s earlier Musée des monuments français. The link between photography and the archival impulse is well known, but in Pinson’s analysis, it is internalized as an artistic one. Daguerre’s enigmatic still-life arrangements of bas-reliefs and plaster casts, analyzed by Geoffrey Batchen as “reproductions of reproductions,” become “historical documents that were in effect monuments themselves, formed . . . through artistic subjectivity” (146–48).

Pinson’s study is a decisive revaluation of Daguerre’s career as an artist and his place in art history. The intent, however, is not to place Daguerre in some refurbished pantheon of “high” mid-century French art. Rather, Pinson provides a unified and compelling reading of a career that has too often been reduced to a succession of unconnected, if not incomprehensible, failures and triumphs. This result is obtained by means of serious archival research; a rich contextualization of the man and the artist via Daguerre’s visual, commercial, and political culture; and a sensitivity to Daguerre’s complex artistic aspirations. The reinterpretation is welcome in that it substantiates the diffuse perception of Daguerre as an “American in Paris”—a perception that can merely be illustrated here by reference to Morse and the larger “success” of Daguerre’s process in the United States. But as Pinson suggests in his last sentences, his reinterpretation transcends Daguerre as a singular figure. It calls for a revision of “certain long-standing notions about photography” and, more broadly, the assumed links between “industry,” “lack of talent,” and “plain bad taste.” It proposes a view of the daguerreotype “as part of a concerted effort by many artists to create luminous effects and stable images in various media” (149). And it models a history of photography that goes into the “details” and yet does not presume the medium’s autonomy from the history of art and culture generally.

François Brunet
Professor, English Department, Université Paris Diderot / Institut universitaire de France