Review of Gisèle Freund’s La Photographie en France au dix-neuvième siècle: Essai de sociologie et d’esthétique

Walter Benjamin, ‘Review of Gisèle Freund’s La Photographie en France au dix-neuvième siècle: Essai de sociologie et d’esthétique’, 1938

Benjamin, W., Leslie, E., 2016. On photography. Reaktion Books, London.

Research into the history of photography began about eight to ten years ago.

Gisèle Freund’s study represents the rise of photography as conditional on the rise of the bourgeoisie and is successful in making this conditionality comprehensible in relation to the history of the portrait.

Setting out from the portrait technique that was most widespread during the ancien régime, the costly ivory miniature, the author illustrates the various procedures which around 1780 – that is, 60 years before the invention of photography – pushed for acceleration and price reduction and, thereby, a wider diffusion of the demand for portraits.

The description of the physiognotrace as an intermediary between portrait miniatures and photographic shots shows, in an exemplary fashion, how technical conditions can be made socially transparent. The author then goes on to lay out how technical development reached a state of social assimilation in photography, whereby the portrait became affordable for broad layers of the bourgeoisie. She explains how the miniaturists were the first among the ranks of painters to fall victim to photography.

Finally, she reports on the theoretical debate between painting and photography around the middle of the century.

The question as to whether photography was an art was debated passionately at the time by Lamartine, Delacroix and Baudelaire. And yet the fundamental question was not raised: whether, on account of the invention of photography, the entire character of art had changed. The author has perceived the decisive thing well.

In other words, the claim of photography to be an art occurs simultaneously with its appearance as a commodity. This concurs with the influence that photography itself as a procedure of reproduction exerted on art. It isolated it from the client in order to conduct it to the anonymous market and its demands.