Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Poetry, the Picturesque and the Photogenic Quality in the Nineteenth Century [*]

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Poetry, the Picturesque and the Photogenic Quality in the Nineteenth Century [*]

Article excerpt

PHILIPPE ORTEL [+]

Studies on the relationship between literature and photography often feature the notion of the paradigm. Although photography may be seen as a foil by many writers, it is certainly present in their imaginations, taking many and varied forms. This apparent contradiction can be explained by its influence on public taste. In his Salon de 1859, Baudelaire remarks that 'que l'artiste agisse sur le public, et que le public agisse sur l'artiste, c'est une loi incontestable et irr[acute{e}]sistible.' [1] Literature responded in several ways to the challenge presented by this new art form. The first consisted of imitating it, whilst the second, which was prevalent at the time of symbolism, was concerned with exploring new ground.

Photogenic quality is one of the elements of the photographic paradigm, alongside the darkroom and photographic realism, whose importance in writers' minds is better known. The camera obscura has been a major theme in modern imaginations since the Romantic movement, particularly in Victor Hugo's work. This is, no doubt, because it allowed writers to express the interiority of the self, with its depth and dark side. As for the photographic image, it encouraged the recentring of all art forms concerned with visible reality, including in the work of writers, such as Gustave Flaubert, who were the most hostile to it. As for photogenic quality, it is at the crossroads of the two elements, referring both to the imprint of light on photo-sensitive plate and to the visual values attached to this imprint. Like the darkroom it is part of physics, and like the resulting photographs, it is also part of an aesthetic approach.

This notion occupies the same no man's land as theoretical viewpoints. The semiotic approach operates beyond the realm of photogenic quality. This is because it is concerned rather with the sign itself, with its physical genesis and its reception by the observer, independently of its visual qualities (see Peirce's famous triad, 'index, icon, symbol'). The philosophical approach, however, tends to operate beyond this. For example, in the last chapters of L'Image pre[acute{e}]caire, Jean-Marie Schaeffer defines the specificity of this image in relation to the hermeneutic norms produced by Romanticism. In his eyes, the aim of photography is not to configure things in order to give them meaning, but on the contrary to free us from 'la r[acute{e}]alit[acute{e}], ce double s[acute{e}]miotique, ce filet que nous jetons autour de nous pour nous construire une niche et qui est l'horizon au-del[grave{a}] duquel nous sommes aveugle'. [2] The question of light is then relegated to the background. It is true that many ph otographers are currently playing on this poverty promoting the aesthetic qualities of banality which have a powerful subversive influence.

However, we could object that such an analysis remains confined to the traditional theoretical perspective, as Jean-Marie Schaeffer himself admits. Photography is only different, and therefore liberating, if we identify art with the worship of beauty and with the processes of configuration, polarization and symbolization of nature. These processes reduce all artistic work to an attribution of meaning. Instead of ascertaining whether photography has transformed the very definition of art, as Walter Benjamin aimed to do, we risk constructing an opposition which is trapped between a certain conception of art which is linked with semantization of reality, and photography which is supposed to subvert this semantic perspective thanks to its direct contact with things. The notion of photogenic quality should, precisely, offer us another option and turn the terms of this overly rigid opposition into variables.

Art can only be reduced to artistic and semantic norms in so far as it forms part of a culture of the writer's quill and the artist's brush. These norms have been produced, through the centuries, by tools whose function is indeed to carefully form shapes and to give meaning. …

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