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August 24, 2007

at the corner

This post continues my discussion of Daguerre's photograph "Boulevard du Temple" (1838). Earlier installments are: "morse's vision" and "traces".

In "traces" I commented on what seems to have been the relative indifference of early photographers — and in this case, specifically Daguerre — on the question of whether or not their images reproduced superficial "realities" accurately. Or, as the historian of photography Geoffrey Batchen puts it when he discusses Daguerre's own appraisal of the significance of his invention, "Detail he claimed for photography, but reality he left to others."

This non-positivistic attitude was mirrored in the reactions of Parisians who saw the earliest photographs. There are plentiful, wondering references from early commentators on the magical depth and breadth of detail which a specially-coated photographic plate was able to capture. But they showed little articulated interest in whether or not the image as a whole was "truthful" or "realistic".

This becomes especially clear in light of the fact that, as direct positives, all daguerreotypes showed laterally-reversed (or, in modern publishing jargon, "flopped") images. Everything in a daguerreotype was, literally, the wrong way round: left was right and right was left. Pioneers of the new process rapidly invented a way around this problem by placing a reversing prism in front of the lens, but the drawback of this was an even greater and technically riskier exposure time. Daguerre himself used no reversing prism.

The "unrealistic", reversed nature of the early images seems to have drawn little comment, and it was no bar to enthusiasm and curiosity over the pictures which Daguerre produced, as, for example, extremely dark or cloudy images would have been. This lack of concern may stem in part from the shiny, mirror-like surface of the daguerreotype plate. Viewers were used to compensating for the analogous reversal when looking in a mirror and they simply, and probably subliminally, performed the same cognitive adjustment when looking at a daguerreotype.

Moreover, the subject of the early daguerreotypes were primarily of two types. Since the long exposure times make it so difficult to make portraits of humans, the first type was a picture of an immobile and generic object, such as a vase, a statue, or a fountain, in which it was not necessary for the viewer to know in advance the particular object caught in the image in order to recognize that the object was a vase, statue or fountain. These were images in which the fact that the photograph was of a specific object was less important than that it belonged to a particular class of objects, such as the "statue class".

As such, recognition of the object as belonging to the generalized category of "classical statues" was enough to trigger the desired set of cultural associations for, say, classical statuary — "noble", "pagan", "static", "hard", "culturally prestigious", and so on.

For obvious reasons, the other subject favoured by early photographers was that of buildings. In this case, the issue was different. No pictured buildings needed to belong to a generalized "building" category. The building in the image might easily be irrelevant in both a specific and a general sense because the subject of the photograph was above all the visual "effects" of luminosity and shade which Daguerre had become so expert at manipulating from his years of work painting scenery for the theatre and from producing subtle "effects" of light and darkness in his own, semi-theatrical Diorama in rue Sanson. The point in this kind of photograph was the light and not the brick off which the light happened to be glinting. or mean

Or, conversely, in another kind of picture, a specific building was of primary importance and was indeed the main subject of the photograph. In this case, Daguerre and the other early photographers could rely on their viewers, who were well-educated, bourgeois and mondain, to recognize the particular street or the building which they were looking at without needing to be told anything about it. Presumably, in such cases the mind of the contemporary Parisian spectator was unbothered by the strict non-verisimilitude produced by the daguerreotype's lateral reversal of reality because the contemporary mind, long socialized into familiarity with the main Parisian streets and buildings, rapidly and flexibly reinterpreted this reversed image to correspond to the brain's already existing cognitive map of, for example, the Place de la Concorde, Notre Dame or the Pont Neuf (to mention only three familiar Parisian landmarks of which he took photographs).

Such people (the early commentators in the French photographic world were overwhelmingly male) were liberated to admire the aesthetics of the photograph, its appeal to the viewer's capacity for the apprehension of sensuous beauty, because the informational value of the picture was nugatory. Thus, in the case of the photograph I am discussing, they already knew boulevard du Temple well, they knew the corner of the street in question. They had perhaps even had their own boots polished by the same boot-black whose crabbed body appears in a blur in the Daguerre photograph. The photographer could thus expect to draw on a fund of knowledge about this particular coin and he knew what kinds of ideas it would evoke in his viewer.

We, though, have no such knowledge. For that reason, we have to work ourselves back painfully slowly into a knowledge of some of the cultural and geographical assumptions about the metropolis which would have seemed like second nature to a Parisian in 1838. Today, therefore, I have two very simple aims in view. I need to reverse laterally, as it were, the contemporary Parisian indifference to geographical specificity. By doing so I want, first, simply to explain where on the boulevard du Temple the place we observe represented in the photograph actually was. And second I will use that information to prove that the photograph was actually taken early in the morning as contemporary observers agreed.

These might seem, indeed they are, three very humble and superficial tasks, but they are nonetheless essential staging posts we must pass before we can move any further in understanding the deeper meanings of Daguerre's image.

Daguerre took his picture from the Diorama building, on rue Sanson, at the edge of the place du Château-d'Eau. Below is a lithograph of the square (or "placette" as it is sometimes called in French). The picture shows in the right foreground the fountain, guarded by 8 sculpted lions, which gave the square its name and into which Daguerre's Diorama building projected. The fountain, conceived on Napoleon's personal instruction by Pierre-Simon Girard, the director of Paris's water supply (hence its name the "fontaine de Girard"), was completed in 1811 and removed during the Haussmannization of the area in 1867. This picture represents the view facing roughly east from the end of rue du Bondy, showing the place du Château-d'Eau and the south-western side of the Diorama building.

Daguerre seems to have taken his photograph from a window (here obscured) on the south-eastern side of the same edifice, or from a south-east facing window in his house adjoining on the rue des Marais. Seen from this perspective, the boulevard du Temple begins to run south-east from across the square, roughly in the space between the right side of the fountain's pedestal and the termination of the white-coloured apartment buildings on the extreme right of the picture.

chateau deau litho.jpg

(Other images of the Diorama and of the Château d'Eau include an engraving reproduced in Helmut and Alison Gernsheim's L. J. M. Daguerre: The History of the Diorama and the Daguerreotype, plate 16, which shows a view of the Diorama from the rue Sanson, looking north through the fountain towards Daguerre's building, and some very early photographs taken by the remarkable Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey of the fountain and its lions, frozen solid and shrouded in a thick mantle of ice, during the winter of 1841-42.)

To obtain an accurate documentary record of the site Daguerre was documenting from the Diorama building with his camera, we must reverse the daguerreotype itself. On the left below is the original orientation of the image. Next to it, on the right, is the flopped image, which gives us a more accurate account of the view Daguerre himself would have had from his window in the Diorama building.

to use boulevard eight.jpg to use boulevard eight flipped.jpg

If we now concentrate on the right-hand image, the one with the literally "correct" orientation, and consult any one of numerous maps from the period, it becomes clear that Daguerre's image shows what was then the very top of the boulevard du Temple. This part of the boulevard is now buried underneath the place de la République; Haussmann's modifications shortened the boulevard du Temple by about 122 metres, or roughly one fifth of its original length. In the flopped daguerreotype, the boulevard leads away, as it did in actuality, south-east. (The small street just visible to the left of the large white building in the foreground is rue des Fosses des Temples, which meandered along roughly parallel to the boulevard itself.)

Below I reproduce a map of the area drawn in 1834 — that is, only four years before Daguerre took his photograph. On it I have marked, the Diorama, the approximate location of the humans present in Daguerre's image, as well as the institutions which had established and fixed the boulevards reputation: the famous cluster of "petits théâtres", which were allowed to stage popular entertainments which did not threaten the monopoly of institutions such as The Comédie Française on French classical theatre. I have also noted some of the famous cafés on the southern side of the street. It should be noted that the whole area was filled with taverns, inns and more or less salubrious cafés . Almost every theatre had its own café attached.

I will return in a later post to discuss the theatres on the side of the boulevard on which the boot-black and the pedestrian are situated. For now, though, a few notes on the theatres hidden by the slight convex curvature of the building line on the northern side of the street will be enough to give a flavour of the area.

The "G" referred to in the map's notes is an abbreviation for the guide-book, Galignani's New Paris Guide..., [no trans.] (Paris: A. and W. Galignani, 1838), from which I have taken a few illustrative comments. Buildings or establishments noted within square brackets and without pointers to a particular spot on the boulevard indicate where certain non-theatrical edifices on the boulevard stood in relation to the theatres. Finally, I should note that the full image, accessible by clicking on the thumbnail is, for the sake of legibility, quite large, and may require you to scroll around in your browser window to view all details.

boulevard map.jpg

The spot on which the boot-black and the other figures (see "traces") are standing in the daguerreotype can be seen from another angle in the image reproduced below, an engraving made a little later in the century. The area once occupied for a few minutes in 1838 by Daguerre's figures is marked in red.

b du t engraving marked.jpg

In conclusion, I return to those long shadows cast by the trees, buildings and people in Daguerre's photograph. The roughly north-westerly to south-easterly direction of the boulevard, which Daguerre is photographing from the north-western end, means that the sun's light, source of life, time and photography alike, must be washing across Paris from the east, making shadows that point in the general direction of the west, and hence that the photograph was indeed taken early in the morning as the boulevard was coming to life.

A man stops to have his shoes shined at the corner of rue du Temple and boulevard du Temple before he heads to his business. A boot-black stoops to the man's shoes and begins polishing and buffing. Unseen by them, a figure at a high window to the north of them carefully uncovers the lens on his invention and allows light to penetrate the darkness of the device.... What do these details of place and time tell us about Daguerre's image? "We'll be right back."

Posted by njenkins at August 24, 2007 04:04 AM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins