Light and Dark: The Daguerreotype and Art History

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Light and Dark: The Daguerreotype and Art History

The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839-1855

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 23, 2003-January 4, 2004, organized by Malcolm Daniel, with the assistance of Stephen Pinson

Malcolm Daniel et al., The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839-1855, exh. cat. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. $29.95 CD-ROM

The titles of exhibitions can sometimes be deceptive. Take, for example, The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839-1855. Despite the promise of its title, this exhibition turned out to have little to say about the beginnings of photography, made no attempt to define what was "French" about French daguerreotypy, and never ventured to demonstrate what distinguished the daguerreotype from other, competing photographic processes. Instead, this exhibition did what exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are supposed to do: it gathered an extraordinary array of exceptional works and hung them in beautifully lit surroundings that allowed you to appreciate each picture's aesthetic qualities with a minimum of distractions. In short, it presented its chosen photographs as if they were precious art objects, explaining in an opening wall text that "this exhibition is the first to survey the best surviving examples of the art as practiced in the country of its birth." The question to be canvassed, then, is not whether this was a good exhibition-in the Met's own terms, it certainly was. The terms themselves-the art historical assumptions reproduced in even photography exhibition of this kind-are what are at issue.1 Given the distortions that result, we have to ask ourselves: What does an exhibition of the "best surviving examples of the art" actually contribute to our undemanding of the daguerreotype or, for that matter, the history of photography in general?

To answer such a question we first have to acknowledge the particular circumstances of this exhibition's formation. The 175 exhibits on display at the Metropolitan Museum represented a greatly reduced version of an exhibition of 340 objects held a few months earlier at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris-Le da guerréotype français: Un objet phtographique (May 13-April 17. 2003).2 Restricted by the space available to him at the Metropolitan, Malcolm Daniel (who, with Quentin Bajac and Dominique Planchon-de Font-Réaulx, was also responsible for curating Le daguerréotype françcais) and his assistant Stephen Pinson chose to take the kernel of the Musée d'Orsay exhibition and add a few choice pieces from American collections. They also retained many of the same broad categories for organizing the presentation of this material: invention, views of Paris, portraits, travel pictures, art, and science. Finally, they took the Musée d'Orsay's substantial, 432-page catalogue, had its essays translated into English, and issued them in a CD-ROM format rather than as a more traditional printed publication.

Losses and gains followed from each of these decisions. The exhibition, for example, was more streamlined and focused than the version seen in Paris, but each section included significantly fewer examples, and this, as the ensuing discussion will indicate, limited the historical insights it could offer. The Met's CD-ROM catalogue was a lot cheaper than it might have been as a book and contains features made possible only by digital technology (such as video footage, animations, and selective magnification of each image). However, it also produces a much clumsier and less convenient reading experience, lacking the old-fashioned tactile and visual pleasures associated with books. This is a catalogue you consult when necessary but never savor. In addition, the Met's catalogue for some reason neglected to include seven of the daguerreotypes in the exhibition and, in a missed opportunity to reach a larger audience, chose to print its anthology of historical documents only in the original French. …