"Since all centuries and all peoples have their own form of beauty," Charles Baudelaire wrote in his 1846 essay, "On the Heroism of Modern Life," "so inevitably we have ours...There are such things as modern beauty and modern heroism!"
In this collection of over one hundred photographs, many from a private collection in Paris and published here for the first time, Mark Haworth-Booth, author of the first book on Camille Silvy, (Camille Silvy: River Scene, France) consistently though not always convincingly argues that the 19th century commercial photographer embodied many of the qualities Baudelaire ascribed to modern painters in his 1863 essay, "The Painter of Modern Life."
Modeled on Constantin Guys, Baudelaire's modern painter is an urban flâneur who portrays the fleeting beauty not of the Classical world but of "the world around him...the beauty of the present:" its fashion, its street life, its manners. During his highly successful but mere decade-long career (1857-67), Silvy never purported to document modern beauty or modern heroism, nor did he ever refer to himself as "modern," but his images reflect an elegant mastery in crafting and capturing the aesthetic pleasure of the everyday during a period when photography was not considered fine art. 2010 is the centenary of Silvy's death, and this book's publication coincides with a Silvy retrospective currently on view at London's National Portrait Gallery.
The 19th century version of Facebook, Haworth-Booth points out, was the carte de visite (a small, photographic calling card) and Silvy was mid-19th century London's preeminent carte-de-visite photographer. Born in 1834 in a town outside of Chartres into an upper middle class family, Silvy studied Law and was a diplomat in the French foreign office. While posted in Algeria, he was commissioned to draw buildings and landscapes to encourage French immigration to its new colony. During the project, Silvy quickly favored photography's ability to replicate "exact views" over drawing's imprecision and began studying photography upon his return to France in 1857.
These few biographical details are in the book's first chapter and though organized chronologically with a photograph on almost every page, Haworth-Booth's text is far more the story of Silvy's images than of Silvy himself. He traces the photographer's evolution from his early images of Algiers to his last panoramic landscapes of the Champs-Elysée and reveals new elements in one of Silvy's best known images, La Valée de l'Huisne (1858), uncovering the photograph's illusions and composite techniques. Other chapters include his evocative light studies, street scenes, portraits of actors and actresses, cartes-de-visite and portraits of upper-class Londoners and their children.
Silvy's portraits of children are among the most striking images in the book. Mrs. Holford's Daughter (1860) shows the young girl with her lace dress suggestively pulled just below her not yet formed breasts, in a pose echoing one of Lewis Carroll's best known photographs of his model for Alice in Wonderland, Alice Liddell. In Alice Hall and Mrs. Hall (1862), the child faces the viewer, her face scrunched and pouty, as if on the verge of crying. Her mother's back is turned toward the viewer revealing the glistening ripples of her dress and the severe, perfect plait of her hair. It is an eerie portrait of mother and child, more post-modern than modern.
Also remarkable is Silvy's Studies on Light: Twilight (1859), a mood study that combines four negatives and hand drawing on the negative to create an image contrasting defined foreground figures and blurred background landscape, revealing the nuances of light as day passes into night. Silvy's portrait proof sheets and postage stamp portraits, whose series of differentiated repetitive images not only recall photography's commercial power of mechanical reproduction but also its later influence on artists like Andy Warhol and Randy Hayes.
Haworth-Booth's prose possesses a spare elegance that deftly complements the quietude of many of Silvy's images. Yet some biographical omissions frustrate: he never mentions whether Silvy had any early ambitions as an artist and even more glaringly unclear is how and why Silvy decided in 1859 to leave diplomacy for photography - a sizable and strange omission. The reader learns the photographer was married only when Haworth-Booth references, more than halfway through the book, a letter Silvy wrote to "his wife," who remains nameless. And while we learn that Silvy became London's most successful carte-de-visite photographer, at his peak taking a portrait every twelve minutes and praised by contemporary Félix Nadar, Haworth-Booth never deigns to explain just how he did it.
In 1859, the same year Silvy moved to London to open his portrait studio, Baudelaire wrote a scathing Salon review in which he warned the public about the "madness" and "extraordinary fanaticism" of those "buffoons, male and female" who equate photography with art. Photographers, he wrote, are little but peintres manqués, of "too slender talent" or "too lazy" to actually become painters. Photography, he wrote, will never transcend "external reality" and is therefore not an art but its "very humble servant," akin to printing and stenography.
It is therefore curious that Haworth-Booth, a noted photography historian who has written books on Lee Miller, Paul Strand and Bruce Davidson and is former Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, never mentions Baudelaire's famous critique. It is even more curious considering Silvy himself considered photography "industrial" rather than imaginative. "Fine Arts create," Silvy wrote to the Photographic Journal in 1862. "Photography copies."
Perhaps implicit in Haworth-Booth's association of the photographer with Baudelaire's modern painter is an effort to challenge Baudelaire's critique of photography by now defining Silvy's diverse, sometimes haunting and often meditative images as art, and Silvy as an artist. "Modernity," Baudelaire wrote, "is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable." Silvy is this modernity's photographer par excellence.
Joscelyn Jurich is a freelance journalist and critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including Bookforum, Publishers Weekly and the Village Voice. Jurich is currently a Fellow at the Writers' Institute at the City University of New York.