Startling, lively glimpses of the past through old photos

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It's easy for us to forget how startling to its day was the invention of photography. For the first time ever, man could precisely record the way something looked at particular moment and under a certain light.

But not only was a photograph a record of something as it appeared,m it was also a record of something that had actually happened.m

How many of us, looking at photographs of the last century, are startled into realizing that what we see in a particular photograph actually took place, that it is not an artist's subjective and personal reconstruction of the event -- that that man in the right corner actually did wear that hat at exactly that angle, that his beard was precisely that unkempt, and that the curl of the tail of the dog following him was (at theat ver moment) no greater and no less than what we see.

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That immediacy is something totally unique and intrinsic to photography. But it took those early photographers quite some time to realize it.

Even so, "After Daguerre: Masterworks of French Photography (1848-1900) from the Bibliotheque Nationale" at the Metropolitan Museum here, is rich with distillations of the past, records of how famous people, places, and events actually looked.

These include portraits of Ingres, Delacroix, Dore, Dumas, Verlaine -- even St. Bernadette -- as well as views of Paris during the Commune, early mountain-climbing expeditions, battlefield fortifications, and the results of various expeditions around the world. There are people plying their trades, buildings under construction, clowns on stage sailing ships setting out from and returning to port, and even some pets. A great deal of 19th-century life, in other words, is spread out for us to see.

In a way we have Louis XIV to thank for the exhibition. By royal edict, two copies of each product of the graphic arts intended for sale in his realm -- originally only etchings, engravings, and woodcuts, but later extended by law to include lithographs and photographs -- had to be registered and deposited in the Bibliotheque Nationale.

Many of these prints and photographs, long (but safely) buried in the files of the Bibliotheque, have not been seen by anyone since the artist and photographers first placed them there. (In the case of the photographers, that was a far back as the 1850s.) Systematic searches through these files, however, recently brought them once again to light.

It is from this cache that most of the works in this exhibition were drawn. It is the first foreign loan exhibition to be shown at the Metropolitan, and is also the introductory exhibition for most of the 100 pioneer photographers whose work is on view. Many of these, well-known or even famous in their day, have long since been foogotten. That oversight, however, will certainly be rectified by this show, which reveals that some of these French pioneers, by anticipating many of the styles and themes since explored by 20th-century photographers, laid the formal groundwork for photography as we know it today.

The most immediately astonishing fact brought to light by this exhibition is how rapidly some of these early photographers achieved technical mastery over their brand new medium. Not much more than a decade after Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot, inventors of the daguerreotype and of negative/positive photography respectively, first made their discoveries known to the world, photographers were producing works of remarkable technical profiency.

It is hard to believe, for instance, the Gustav Le Gray's "In the Forest of Fontainbleau" was made in 1851, and Charles Marville's "Path in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris" in 1958.

Such rapid mastery of technique can only be attributed to a need for what this new medium had to offer. Indeed, as Weston Naef writes in his introduction to the exhibition catalog, "The invention of photography can be viewed as the creation of a tool to satisfy the need for increasingly detailed representations , as more and more artists saw their role as that of delineators of visual facts."

On the other hand, once technical mastery was achieved, some photographers insisted on using the medium to create works hardly distinguishable from paintings in conception or appearance. Louise Laffon's 1862 "Still Life of Guinea Hen", for instance, looks so much like a painting that at first glance I mistook it for a photograph of one.

Still, most of these pioneer photographers did try to define and to bring into focus was unique to their infant art -- something which sounds easier to do that it actually was.

For me the outstanding feature of this exhibition lies in the evidence it presents of several generations of pioneer French photographers wrestling with the implications of photography's realities and future. In many ways this is an exhibition of primitive art, for there is more groping for expression, more tentative experiments with techniques and subjects, than consistent masterful performance.

The presence of the camera, unfortunately, lies heavily over much of the work. Even if we take into account that cameras in those days were big and clumsy affairs, it still seems that everyone, photographer and model alike, was unusually nervous and self-conscious in its presence. On the other hand, it is truly startling to come across an image here and there with such a quality of immediacy that it is hard to believe it was taken over a hundred years ago and not this very morning.

This is an extremely interesting show, even, in some respects, a fascinating one, for it shows many of the problems photography had to contend with in its primitive days -- as well as a few of its earliest and most dramatic successes.

It was selected and organized by Weston Naef, associate curator of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum, in conjunction with J.P. Seguin, curator-in-chief, and Bernard Marbor, curator of 19th-century photography at the Bibliotheque Nationale. It will remain on view at the Metropolitan through Feb. 15.

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