Exhibition Reviews: Edouard Baldus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Museum visitors In New York and Montreal were offered a rare treat this winter: the exhibition of more than eighty vintage photographic prints (together with three modern prints from original waxed paper negatives) by Edouard Baldus, fully one-third of which, in immaculate condition, have only emerged from newly discovered private sources within the last seven years and were being exhibited for the first time. During the 1850s and 1860s, Baldus, the last of the great first-generation pioneers of French photography to be the subject of a major retrospective exhibition, was probably the best-known photographer of his generation, as certified by the souvenir album of Baldus photographs presented to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert by the Baron James de Rothschild, principal investor in the Paris-Boulogne train line. This great treasure, publicly exhibited here for the first time, commemorates the royal couple's railroad voyage from Paris to Boulogne-sur-Mer, the last part of their state visit to the Universal Exhibition of 1855.

Although Baldus (1813-1889) was active as a photographer and, later, as a publisher of photographs, the exhibition concentrates on his most creative decade, from circa 1851 to circa 1861, with a few exceptions. This was the period when he was renowned not only for his images, but for his technical, scientific expertise in the new medium. His life and career are documented in great detail in the superb catalogue, which will have a long shelf life as both a lively and informative text and a major reference work. One telling detail of the depth and quality of the research behind the exhibition is Malcolm Daniel's detective work that finally gives us the artist's correct given name: Edouard (modified from the original German, Eduard, after he moved to Paris in 1838). Daniel traces the first appearance of the designation "Edouard-Denis" to Andre Jammes, writing in 1965, and generously shows how an uncorrected printing error in a nineteenth-century catalogue could have led to the mistake (what should have been "Ed.,' a common French abbreviation for Edouard, was wrongly given as "ED.," and the rest is history).

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art the exhibition was beautifully staged in the interconnecting galleries that constitute photography's space. The photographs were not crowded and the viewer could easily go back and forth between the galleries to compare similar images of the same subject taken as much as a decade apart. Given the extraordinary freshness of the newly discovered prints and their wide range of tonalities, from the densest, velvety blacks and deep, dark chocolate browns, to the lightest effects of sky and atmosphere, I found the aggressive, too warm tan of the walls to be annoying and, ultimately, intrusive. With the low light level necessary to preserve the photographs, I would have preferred a more neutral, cooler wall color that would have allowed the original prints to bloom.

This is an important point because the real "stars" of the show were the vintage prints, including those in the album presented to Queen Victoria. Even images that have been repeatedly reproduced gained new immediacy and impact in the original, which generated the excitement of discovery and rediscovery all over again. Many of the architectural images were familiar from In publications and exhibitions over the last two decades, but the less well known and seldom reproduced landscapes were a genuine discovery. Baldus appears in every history of photography and every anthology of architectural photography as the preeminent architectural photographer of the 1850s, the artist who, along with Charles Negre, virtually created the most important strategies for presenting both ancient and modern monuments in photographs. But, unlike the shy and timid Negre, Baldus was practically a one-man industry from the beginning, an artist who took full advantage of each new scientific process and each new technical development in equipment. …