City of light

Paris and photography 1850s–1930s

NGV International, Melbourne

24 April - 22 August 2004

Light writing in the city of light. The National Gallery of Victoria 's exhibition of Parisian photographs from the 1850s to the 1930s testifies to the power of light to reveal, capture and celebrate the diverse faces of this iconic city. Drawn from the NGV's permanent collection, the photographs which comprise City of Light: Paris and Photography 1850s-1930s reflect many of the contradictions and paradoxes that pervade both this luminous city and medium. As we take the opportunity to revisit works by the likes of Felix Nadar, Eugene Atget, Brassai, Andre Kertesz and Jacques-Henri Lartigue, what is striking is their ability to resonate with contemporary photographic theory and practice. Although the exhibition focuses on two key points in the history of photography, the pioneering period from the 1850s to the 1900s and the development of 'human interest' photography during the 1920s and '30s, of greater interest is its ability to exceed these limits and document the complex relations between photography, memory and perception.

Like Henri Bergson's concept of memory and perception as processes of reflection and refraction, these photographs mark a freezing or interruption of the movement of the light with which Paris is famously identified. Although light makes both perception and photography possible, both of these modes of seeing are contingent upon an interruption of light as it falls on objects. As interruptions of the flow of light, photographs, like memories, are destined to remain virtual, partial and fragmented when they return their light to us.' In Lartigue's photographs of the idyllic, pre-war, bourgeois lives of his family and friends, the lightening speed of the camera's shutter is employed to accordingly arrest time and return its events in marvellous and fanciful fragments. An airborne terrier frozen on its way from a gentleman's arms into a canal in Monsieur Folletete and Tupy (1912), and an elegantly dressed woman in full length skirt and puffed sleeves flying gleefully, arms outstretched and legs in mid air, down a flight of garden stairs in My Cousin Bichonnade (1905) encapsulate the camera's ability to return the clear light of day as a fantastic illusion. In an age dominated by digital technologies and new media, it is pertinent to review the legacy of this much longer history of photographic illusion and magic.

The magical quality of much early photography also radiates from the stereoscopic views produced by M. Leon and J. Levy of the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle. During the mid-1800s Paris hosted a series of these international exhibitions where displays from participating countries could be seen in this huge circular glass and steel structure on the Champ de Mars. As they showcased myriad wondrous sights from all over the world, these exhibitions became beacons of international modernity within the city of light. Leon and Levy's albumen silver stereoscopic photograph of the Emperor's Pavilion, Exposition Universelle Paris (1867), which is pierced and modified with coloured inserts to trim the pavilion and the hot air balloon that hovers above it with tiny glowing stars and lights, beautifully embodies this intersection of modernity, photography and the magic of luminosity. However, as a manipulated stereoscope, this piece also anticipates the more recent interest in the subjective experience of perception and digitally 'enhanced' photographs.

Given the paradoxes that remain embedded in many of these older technologies, it is not at all surprising to witness their popular resurgence. Of particular interest to numerous contemporary photographers is the daguerreotype as a site of excess, slippage and fluidity. Many of these issues are reflected in the shiny surface of the exhibition's untitled stereoscopic daguerreotype of a reclining nude with long hair (1852-54 ). As light is both absorbed by its sensitive silver amalgam and reflected from its shiny surface, this daguerreotype by an unknown photographer is a ghostly arrangement of dark and light, absence and presence, and likeness and distortion. The light and dark tones in the daguerreotype shift according to the angle of incident light, and the image alternates between positive and negative as we approach it from different angles. Although the nude woman's gaze is averted, as was the convention for such erotic photographs, the daguerreotype's polished metal surface uses light to return our gaze. The voyeurism associated with viewing such a nude intimately and privately through the stereoscope's viewfinder is undercut when we also glimpse ourselves in this act of looking.  This shady and ambiguous side of light-writing is made evident in a more metaphorical way in Brassai's series of eight gelatin silver photographs of the brothels, bars, opium dens and nightclubs that dotted Paris during the 1920s and '30s. An ambivalent force, the bright light of modernity brought into the open an array of temptations and vices that were formerly cloaked in darkness. From 1814 when street lights were introduced in Paris, there developed a fear in some quarters that the morals of the populace would be corrupted as people ventured out into the streets at night. An 1819 report on the establishment of the Paris gasworks warns that 'Artificial light dispels the fear of darkness that prevents many a weakling from committing sins. The light assures the drinker that he can stay in the bar until nightfall, and it debilitates couples in love ... '.2 As Brassai introduces us to La Mome Bijou at the Bar de Ia Lune, Lulu de Montparnasse, members of Big Albert's Gang and a patron of the brothel, 'Suzy's', who is being greeted by unclothed prostitutes at the door, the vibrant reality of this once pessimistic vision is confirmed. Brought to light by Brassa'l's camera, the nocturnal world of Paris is at once menacing, tawdry and deeply seductive.

City of Light does not aspire to present a fully resolved or coherent view of either this multifaceted city or photography's early history. In contrast, as it encompasses a wide range of periods, genres and subjects, this exhibition wonderfully captures photography's ability to defy the limits of time, space and theory.