Art and the Early Photographic Album

Edited by Stephen Bann. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2011; distributed by Yale University Press. 277 pp. $70.00 (cloth). ISBN 978-0-300-13590-9.

Art and the Early Photographic Album is a sumptuously illustrated compilation of twelve erudite essays by subject experts on a wide variety of topics relating to nineteenth-century photographs of art and their consumption and distribution in albums. Essay topics include: ways in which photographic albums represented the decorative details of the Paris Opera House, the discoveries of archaeology, the Vatican’s sculpture galleries, photography of historical documents, and visual grouping of Michelangelo’s frescos. Some essays, less specifically focused, provide overviews of the relationship between albums of engraved prints and those containing photographs; how photo albums serve as “cultural accumulators” (7); and ways in which photo albums established the reputations of artists and increased demand for their works. Photographic albums, as the book indicates, influenced nineteenth-century reception of art as well as the courses pursued by artistic creativity.

Editor Stephan Bann, an emeritus professor of the history of art and senior research fellow at Bristol University, served in 2005 as a visiting professor at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art Library in Washington, DC. His “archaeological” investigation of art reproduction prints preserved by the Center uncovered a large quantity of photographic albums documenting the visual arts (vii). Such albums, he realized, did not pertain exclusively to the history of photography or to the documentation of art, but rather belonged to the “overall history of art and its institutions” (vii). They document a means provided by museums for more public access to their collections “while also fostering the novel use of images for private contemplation” (vii). Bann’s ruminations led him to organize the symposium at which papers featured in the volume were originally presented.

The National Gallery of Art acquired and preserved photographic albums of art because they afforded a “faithful record” of how paintings, sculpture, architecture, and the decorative arts “had appeared at a particular point in time” (1). Decay, it was thought, could be detected by comparing an image of a work of art as it had once appeared with the same work a century or more later. The albums also preserved a record of works that, for one reason or another, no longer existed. A more significant meaning, however, is signaled by the nineteenth-century impulse to “[contain] an artist’s life work in this fashion” (1). The photographic album brought “a new dimension to visual culture by vividly encapsulating a career between two covers” (1). Such albums provided an overview of an artist’s oeuvre and the ability to compare works that could not be systematically studied elsewhere. This accessibility greatly facilitated contemporary understanding of art and the various paths of artistic development.

Bann’s essay, “The Photographic Album as a Cultural Accumulator,” uses the term “accumulator” in a sense analogous to “storage battery” (9). Albums of photographic art reproductions, he argues, were far more than the sum of their parts. The “unprecedented facility of combining photographic and textual elements became the means of releasing new charges of energy and so of empowering significant shifts in the operation of art and its institutions that could hardly have been envisioned before” (9).

Opportunities for artistic appreciation before photography included perusal of original art (which few could travel to see) and manual copies, such as engravings, lithographs, woodcuts, and etchings (all of which were subject to variations introduced by human perception, interpretation, and transcription). Many books and articles pertaining to art were devoid of graphics, relying instead on ekphrasis (vividly composed written descriptions that conjured a verbal picture of visual art). Photography “fractured” the norms of “visual evaluation” in the study of art (131).

One of the book’s key contributions is Anne McCauley’s essay about the photographer Robert Macpherson, who spent much of his career photographing sculptures in the Vatican. His oeuvre, “one of the first systematic photographic records of a museum collection,” became a tool of connoisseurship and tourism (93). For example, the albums he created and published were often used to supplement “first hand scrutiny” of the Greek art recently installed in the British Museum (98). Connoisseurs needed accurate records of classical statues in Rome to afford comparison with classical sculpture exhibited elsewhere.

An essay by Martin Bressani and Peter Sealy analyzes the mixed-media albums published by architect Charles Garnier to preserve a record of his work on the Paris Opera House. Garnier believed that architecture was best depicted by line drawings, but allowed the many works of decorative art throughout the building to be illustrated by photographs. While designing the Opera House and executing his elaborate plans he was seized by a “self-conscious desire to see the Opera’s site office and…construction site become the crucible of a rebirth of the Renaissance tradition” (199). When the structure was completed, and Garnier’s “school” became “siteless,” he could nevertheless “extend the lessons . . . to a larger public” through the albums (199). All of the decorative motifs were recorded photographically, “releasing the Opera’s décor from its ties to the building or the history of a building type….[Freed] from any specific use, [the motifs] wait to be metamorphosed within the process of artistic creation of future architects, thereby extending the French architectural tradition by taking it in unexpected directions” (215).

By the end of the 1860s photographic reproductive techniques inspired enough confidence that new “entrepreneurial strategies for promoting the arts” developed (4). Austin Barron Bailly’s essay, “Vetting the Canon,” points to the influence of the biweekly publication Galerie contemporaine, designed to bolster France’s leadership in the arts and other cultural pursuits around the world. Its publisher, Ludovic Baschet, understood that for the majority of art lovers works shown at the Salon in Paris were not readily accessible, “but excellent photomechanical art reproductions (specifically, Woodburytypes) of the works that thousands crowded to see annually could satisfy the desire to get closer to the artworks and the talents behind them. Significantly, these could also be collected” (175). Galerie contemporaine served as “an accessible—albeit deluxe—object, filled with a veritable gallery, even museum, of the very best reproductions of contemporary portraiture and visual art for personal use” (179). The lavish photomechanical prints “enhanced the recognition and value of an artist’s work” (187). Selection of images for distribution in such photomechanical formats was an important factor in the establishment of an artist’s reputation and collectability. Art print publications mirrored the museum as an “arbiter of canons” (191).

The book’s numerous illustrations are well chosen and well reproduced. Captions carefully define the provenance of each image, the photographer, and the reproductive process employed, e.g., for a much-publicized composition from the Sistine Chapel, “Adolphe Braun et Cie, Delphic Oracle, carbon print from wet collodion glass plate (negative number 71) made in 1869” (166). Copious notes document the impressive scholarship and cross-disciplinary perspectives that characterize each contribution.

In the twenty-first century, photographic archives are seemingly in crisis. Although interest in the history of photography may be at an all-time high, institutional commitment to preserving photographs as physical artifacts in their original contexts has been undermined by demands from scholars and the general public for digitization of resources. The atrophy of interest in the physicality of photographs is, however, shortsighted. Digitization reduces the photograph to a single visual aspect, the image itself, devoid of context. “The replacement of photographic collections by digital image collections,” as Elizabeth Cropper warns in her preface, “leads to irreversible loss of access to the materiality of the collection, its individual elements, and its history” (vii). Dislocation of images from their context can destroy “the potential for understanding the role played by photography in shaping the history of art . . . and many other histories” (vii).

Jeffrey Mifflin, Massachusetts General Hospital Archives