This Week In Photography Books: Real/Ideal: Photography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century France

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’m binge-watching “Marco Polo” on Netflix.
Talk about entertainment.

I was just lecturing my students, not two weeks ago, on the Southern Song era in Chinese art. (Long one of my favorites.)

It produced landscape paintings of staggering beauty and influence; perhaps the first to use negative space as a positive compositional element. Blank white silk represents water, mist, and snow.

I told them, (as my Chinese Art History professor taught me,) that the Mongols ruled much of China, from the North, so the Song Empire, much diminished, resided in Southern China instead.

A week later, after stumbling on the series last Friday, I found myself watching an extremely expensive recreation of the very same place and time. The Mongolian steppes and palace intrigues from 800 years ago appear, in HD, in my fucking living room.

Benedict Wong is mesmerizing as Kublai Kahn. I guess that’s the nature of binge-watching, that the story takes over, you’re immersed in it for a day or two or seven, and then you move on. And I DO have a soft-spot for period pieces with high production values.

Which is why I decided to route through Los Angeles, on my recent trip to San Diego for Medium. I’d been sent the book that accompanies “Real/Ideal: Photography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century France” by the Getty Center, (curated by Karen Hellman) as it’s the companion to the exhibition of the same name, which closes November 27th.

Southern Californians: If you’re too lazy to read the rest of this piece, at least remember this: Go see the show!

I stopped looking at the book after 10 pages, when I first opened it, as I decided to buy the ticket to LA then and there. I figured, if I’m going to see the photographs in person, why spoil it with the book first?

Turns out, they’re very different experiences.

Though the title might sound a shade academic or dry, the pictures are nothing of the sort. Gustave LeGray is one of my all time favorite photographers because, like his 19th Century contemporaries Roger Fenton, Julia Margaret Cameron and Carleton Watkins, the pictures seem to jump off the wall. (The same sensation as seeing a Velasquez in a room full of paintings by his peers.)

LeGray’s photographs are always visceral, and dripping with emotional resonance. (So it’s no surprise he steals the show.) His landscapes, including on the waterfront, or in the Fountain-bleu forest, have that vibe that Atget later tapped in to.

A haunting feeling you’re sure is in the picture, rather than being a function of the age of the print. An EXTRA sort of perception.

We learn that LeGray touched up his negatives from the beginning, to increase contrast, and only achieved his masterly seascapes by later sandwiching two negatives together. Is that extra something his ability as a printer? Utilizing subjectivity, as an era-appropriate Instagram filter?

I don’t know, but there is a side-by-side in the book, with Edouard Baldus, and I think it’s clear LeGray’s photograph is more compelling. (And contrasty.)

In LA, I was equally smitten by Charles Negre’s photographs of people. Italian street musicians, in particular. In the book, I noticed, these same images are not nearly as powerful as the talismen I encountered in the flesh.

In the exhibition, I had a feeling I only remember having once before, at the Met, when I first saw Egyptian encaustic portraits from 2000 years ago.

I’ve used the time travel metaphor so many times, but this wasn’t that. (Or, at least, not JUST that.) It was more like I was seeing something I wasn’t meant to see. Something intimate, like the way certain tribes were said to fear a photograph can steal your soul.

The fact that photography was so young, so packed with potential back then, so experimental in its nature, gives this entire exhibition a super-charge that was so worth going out of my way for.

The galleries were packed, so it’s hard to even use a word like intimate, but that’s what it was. The clothing, the patina, it made me sad in a good way, like schadenfreude.

The focus is tight. Little more than a decade in France, 160 years ago. But with such a comprehensive display: people, places, things, the sacred and the profane, you have a sense of “being there” more than almost any other show I’ve seen.

There is also a strong educational component to the exhibit, (and essays in the book,) so we learn about the initial use of salt paper prints, paper negatives before glass, and see the negatives themselves presented on light-boxes. The whole thing is super-slick. (Remember what I said before about liking sharp production values?)

I have a very good memory, so I’m certain there are photos in the book that are not in the show. And almost all of you won’t be able to make it to the Getty by Sunday. (Though hopefully some of you can. The museum is free, don’t forget.)

Some of the extras pics, by LeGray, are as strong as anything in the show, hinting the archive goes much deeper than what was on the wall. So I’d say the book would be a great purchase as well.

When we delve into things like this, we are reminded that we too will be history one day. Images, ideas, cultures change over time. These days, Thanksgiving is mostly seen as a holiday where we eat lots of turkey, watch football, and perhaps have a drink or two to celebrate.

But what are we celebrating?

Speaking for myself, I have a beautiful, loving family, I live in a country that, for now, is still free and prosperous, and I get to type out my thoughts and share them with you guys each week. (I even get paid for it.)

Now is the time of year, especially in light of the extra election stress America has been living with, where you take stock. Count your blessings. Appreciate what you’ve got.

Because no matter how bad you might have it, there are people in this world, in Syria or elsewhere, who are facing gruesome death each and every day.

Even little kids.

So I hope you had a good holiday, and I’ll be back with another photo-book again next week.

Adios.

Bottom Line: Excellent book that captures the spirit of long ago France

Go Here To Purchase Real/Ideal: Photography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century France

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Jonathan Blaustein

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