Dear Charles Baudelaire
Futures / VOID, 2023
On the Verge, Futures / VOID, 2023
Texts by Aaron Schuman • Alessia Glaviano • Brad Zellar • Cat Lachowskyj • Charles Baudelaire • David Campany • Elissa Marder • Salvatore Vitale • Tim Carpenter
Photographs byAlice Pallot • Cian Burke • Dániel Szalai • Julia Klewaniec • Mark Duffy • Pauline Hisbacq • Ugo Woatzi
A collaboration between Futures and Void.
On the Verge is the third publication by FUTURES, a Europe-based photography platform bringing together the global photography community to support and nurture the professional development of emerging artists across the world. Void joined FUTURES as a member in 2020.
On the Verge takes Charles Baudelaire’s famous letter of 1859— in which he outlines his contempt for photography— as a starting point to explore the role that photography and art can and should play in shaping the future. Eight writers have composed letters responding to Baudelaire to entertain, provoke, inspire and empower.
Just as Baudelaire lived through an era of radical societal changes in politics, science, technology and culture, we find ourselves sitting on the edge of a new era. Confronted by the rise of artificial intelligence, the challenges of climate change, pandemics and genetic engineering, these letters invite conversation as we similarly inhabit the verge of a new age.
‘As the photographic industry was the refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies, this universal infatuation bore not only the mark of a blindness, an imbecility, but had also the air of a vengeance.’ — Charles Baudelaire
Dear Charles Baudelaire
by David Campany
I saw your tombstone last month, at the Montparnasse Cemetery. Of course, I know it’s not really your tombstone. You were buried in your family’s plot in the same cemetery, but a kind of cenotaph was erected later in your honour alone. That’s the one I saw. It is a little dramatic but I think you would like it. It looked to me as if you are depicted twice in stone. Laying in death, close to the ground; and sitting above, alive with thought. I wasn’t looking for you. I was wandering in my own thought, and there you were.
I imagine you thought you’d be forgotten. To be honest, you were, for quite a while. A half century went by (which is longer than you had lived). Then, in the 1920s and 30s your writing caught the imagination of quite a few interesting artists and writers. I didn’t know French literature and criticism in my own youth, and I came to your writings and ideas by way of a couple of your greatest admirers: the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin, and the American artist Walker Evans. Evans studied literature and was in Paris in 1926. He wanted to be a writer, loved the French language, and even translated a couple of your prose poems, including ‘The Double Room’. He made an impressive job of it. Benjamin was translating your poems about a decade earlier, 1914-15, but eventually in 1937 he completed an extraordinary study of you and your relation to your times. But my real reason for mentioning these two is because of what they saw emerging in modern photography and how in tune it was not with what you disliked about the medium back in 1859, but with a new photography that was very much in your spirit. I know you might find this a little hard to believe but bear with me, Charles, and I will try to explain.
Back in 1859 I think your assessment was pretty accurate. The most prominent people pursuing an art of photography were rich and conservative, and you can see their rich and conservative tastes in what they made. The subject matter, the imitation of established artistic values. On top of this, there was a lot of anxiety about the mechanical and industrial aspect of photography, which the rich and conservative artists felt compelled to avoid (and which you felt might preclude it from being an art). Hence so much imitation of salon painting, and not even the vanguard painting of the time. Charles, it got a whole lot worse before it got better. But it did get better.
By an extraordinary coincidence, Walker Evans and Walter Benjamin diagnosed the change at exactly the same time, the autumn of 1931. They both published essays that were round-up reviews of the latest photography publications, but they each fashioned their texts into major statements about the medium. You would have been impressed.
Evans began his ‘The Reappearance of Photography’ by noting how the promise of photography’s early years had quickly faded as commercial imperatives took hold. Meanwhile, current practices seemed to be dominated by the “swift chance, disarray, wonder and experiment” found in the mainstream press and numerous photography annuals. This, he thought, was already tiresome. The arty commercialism displayed in the monograph Steichen the Photographer (1929) was “off track in our own reiterated way of technical impressiveness and spiritual emptiness […] his general tone is money.” Edward Steichen had begun as a rather po-faced Pictorialist photographer but slipped easily into flattering portraiture, fashion and stylish advertising. The German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch’s Die Welt ist schön (The World is Beautiful, 1928) was an encyclopedia of the modern world in one hundred images, “exciting to run through in a shop but disappointing to take home,” a “round-about return to the middle period of photography.” The slow and measured work of Eugène Atget was much more significant. The posthumous book Atget: Photographe de Paris presented a lyrical and enigmatic record of old Paris interspersed with portraits of street traders. Atget had cultivated his own patch, semi-visible between the centres of art and commerce. Evans found his temperament as striking as the photographs:
“Certain men of the past century have been renoticed who stood away from this confusion. Atget worked right through a period of utter decadence in photography. He was simply isolated, and his story is a little difficult to understand. Apparently he was oblivious to everything but the necessity of photographing Paris and its environs; but just what vision he carried with him of the monument he was leaving is not clear. It is possible to read into his photographs so many things he may never have formulated to himself.”
Evans also highlighted Photo-Eye (1929) an influential survey put together to coincide with Film und Foto, a huge touring showcase that debuted in Stuttgart. Its mix of artistic, scientific and news photographs was “nervous and important”. The editors Franz Roh and Jan Tschichold included a press photo of a corpse in a street and it confirmed Evans’ suspicion of the idea that photography’s highest calling was art:
“The latter half of the nineteenth century offers that fantastic figure, the art photographer, really an unsuccessful painter with a bag of mysterious tricks. He is by no means a dead tradition even now, still gathered into clubs to exhibit pictures of misty October lanes, snow scenes, reflets dans l’eau, young girls with crystal balls. In these groups arises the loud and very suspicious protest about photography being an art. So there is in one of the anthologies under review a photo of a corpse in a pool of blood because you like nice things.”
Charles, I think Evans was really channeling your thoughts here, and even responding to you. Unpalatable, uncompromising and quasi-automatic, the raw document disturbs the comfortable aspirations of the photo salon and gallery. Evans strove to resist artistic pretension in his own images and soon began to use acquired archival documents in his work. Into his sequence of Havana street shots, produced for Carleton Beals’ exposé The Crime of Cuba (1933), he placed news agency photos of murdered dissidents and political prisoners. Evans ended ‘The Reappearance of Photography’ with a paragraph on Antlitz Der Zeit (Face of the Time, 1929), August Sander’s book of sixty portraits from his huge survey of the German people. These “type studies” were “one of the futures foretold by Atget… a photographic editing of society, a clinical process”. ‘The Reappearance of Photography’ was prescient. Evans had grasped the tensions between the photo as artwork and document, between the single image and the orchestrated sequence, between politics and subjective expression, and between image and language. I think often about how you might have embraced Atget and Sander, seeing in them a sensibility that was close to your heart but which you had not really seen expressed in photography.
Walter Benjamin in ‘Kleine Geschichte der Photographie’ (‘A Small History of Photography’) also considered the Atget, the Sander and the Renger-Patzsch books. Benjamin noted how nineteenth-century photography was undergoing renewed interest (“renoticed”, as Evans put it) and that the great early achievements were followed by commercialised decline. This had also been your complaint Charles, in ‘The Modern Public and Photography’. Both Evans and Benjamin were influenced profoundly by your aversion to pomp and artiness, and your ability to see through official culture to the resistant spirit of an age hidden in its overlooked details. Like Evans, Benjamin also thought photography might be now entering a third phase, one of intelligent documents assembled in book form to reward the socially alert viewer-reader. He also dismissed Renger-Patzsch’s book, championed Atget and thought Sander had produced much “more than a picture book. It is a training manual.”
Charles, when I think of some of the ideas you held so dear, I have to say photography did eventually find itself able not just to express them, but to really embody them and carry them forward. For example, your commitment to the notion that any art of its time must embrace and balance the ephemeral and the eternal… well, quite a number of photographers committed to describing the everyday and something of a longer timeframe would have really impressed you, and given you hope. Moreover, your twin figures of the ‘rag-picker’ and the ‘flâneur’ that you championed as the secret keys to modern times… it’s hard to imagine the photography of the last century without them, and I think the work of Atget and Evans himself would have fascinated you in this regard.
Although what I have described here may surprise you, I think you did intuit something like this was coming. To show you what I mean by this I will need to remind you of an essay you wrote a little later, which you will be pleased to hear is still read very widely, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863).
In the arts, it’s this essay, and your writings elsewhere about the painter Edouard Manet, that are appreciated although there’s some frustration about this too. “It’s a pity for Baudelaire,” sighed the critic Thierry de Duve, that “he had Constantin Guys in mind rather than Manet.” You died in 1867 and suffered poor health in your final years, the period in which Manet really came into his own. Manet may be the greater artist, but in that essay particularly, you were as interested in a new way of operating as an image-maker in 1863 as you were in any specific painter. Constantin Guys was not a painter exactly, but an illustrator/chronicler making drawings and graphic watercolours of daily events to be reproduced in the popular illustrated press.
Constantin Guys, Au foyer du théatre
Such a marriage of crafted, responsive expression with wide dissemination, and of descriptive text with image, is what seemed so worldly and modern to you. Guys was light on his feet, sharp and alert to the small informal details of dress, gesture and place that were the essence of modern life. His fluid and informal sketches were on the cusp between fine- and applied art and this, too, you thought modern. This was a direction photography took as cameras became smaller and portable, and emulsions became more sensitive to light. Eventually it was possible to take photographs spontaneously and in almost any situation. Guys and his band of reporter-illustrators came to be replaced by what was eventually called ‘photojournalism’, and many independent photographic artists borrowed this model of picture making for themselves.
So, Constantin Guys was a kind of proto-photojournalist, noticing and reporting in reactive pictorial form. But, as you had already noted with great disgust in 1859, photography was already mired at the time in artistic pretension and narcissism, showing few signs of transcending its functions as publicity and commerce. It was not yet a ‘quick’ medium and rarely a socially incisive one. It had not yet discovered what would eventually become its defining métier in the modern era: reportage. Eventually it did and there would be any number of photojournalists, of great vision and sensitivity, to meet your criteria of the painter of modern life. The illustrated press may have provided a context and living for Guys, as it would for photojournalism, but it was a ‘low’ cultural forum, fated to be discarded when the next issue of the journal or newspaper appeared. If we know of Guys today it is due in part to your celebration of him.
Manet’s context was not ‘low’ even if the modern life he painted often was. Guys and Manet thus represent the two possible paths or working sites for the painter/photographer of modern life in the age of mechanical reproduction: the page or the gallery (which we must not mistake for ‘applied illustration or art’). Eventually the art of modern photography would be faced with the same two paths. Would it commit itself to the page as its primary site, as had Guys, or to the wall, as had Manet?
For a critic such as you the choice need not have been so stark. You actually came to know quite a lot of art through reproduction, whether it was intended to be seen that way or not. We may flinch slightly when the art historian André Malraux cruelly reminds us:
“Baudelaire never set eyes on the masterpieces of El Greco, Michelangelo, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca or Grunewald; or of Titian, or of Hals or Goya – the Galerie d’Orléans notwithstanding […] What had he seen? What (until 1900) had been seen by all those writers whose views on art still impress us as revealing and important; whom we take to be speaking of the same works we know, and referring to the same data as those available to us? They had visited two or three galleries, and seen reproductions (photographs, prints or copies) of a handful of the masterpieces of European art; most of their readers had seen even less.”
Reproduction was a diminution of such painting both in size and in psychological charge but something of it survived in a form opened up to the ‘intellectualising’ of art that Malraux felt reproduction made inevitable. Malraux also noted that Manet’s realism and his pictorialism could not be separated since he came to “treat the world as – uniquely – the stuff of pictures.” The pictorial becomes a form of experience of the everyday. Manet edges towards reportage but retains the ideal of the tableau that is pictorial art’s inheritance and gift.
Charles, I know in your essay of 1859 you look down on all kinds of artifice in front of the camera. Dressing up. Posing, Acting. Fake emotions. I agree, a lot of the examples of this from your era were truly awful, because, as I said earlier, they were a reflection of the conservative cultural and aesthetic values of the dominant makers. But eventually some really interesting artists re-imagined what could be done with photography made not just as observation but through preparation and collaboration. Working with models or actors just the way painters do, they often posed people or asked them to perform gestures so they could capture something of them.
Étienne Carjat, ‘Portrait of Charles Baudelaire’, c.1862. Woodburytype, printed c. 1880s
I am going on too long here, and I have to teach a class (yes, they are photography students and they study your work.) But I wanted to show you something. I bought a print of that portrait Etienne Carjat made of you. In fact, it’s the only print I have ever bought at an auction. Please don’t be insulted when I tell you I got it for next to nothing. It was a Wednesday afternoon and there were no other bidders. Walker Evans liked this portrait and in 1969 he had this to say:
“The name Charles Baudelaire is under this piercing, sardonic portrait by Nadar, Paris [yes, for a while it was thought your good friend Nadar had made it]. The print would stand as a remarkable photograph even if uncaptioned. Baudelaire or no, this is unmistakably the image of a nineteenth century man of sensibility. The face is brought burning into the viewer’s mind with accuracy, honesty, and, above all, intensity – attributes that happen to fit C.B. uncannily.”