Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 6, 2019
François Brunet La photographie: Histoire et contre-histoire Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2017. 400 pp.; 33 b/w ills. Paper €27.00 (9782130654322)

Editor’s note: François Brunet, the author of the book under review, passed away unexpectedly on December 25, 2018. Didier Aubert, Brunet’s first doctoral student, wrote this review and commemoration. While upholds firm conflict of interest guidelines that prevent the commissioning of reviews where there might be a personal or professional connection between reviewer and reviewee, here we made an exception in order to acknowledge Brunet’s significant contributions to the study of American art and culture, both as a scholar and mentor.

François Brunet, whose sudden and untimely death on Christmas day last December left countless students and colleagues deeply saddened, was not only an inspiring, original scholar but also a profoundly generous teacher and colleague. Brunet’s unusual career path led him from studying ancient Macedonia (his student research on Slavic toponymy is still footnoted in linguistics papers) to becoming France’s most influential writer on US visual culture. He almost single-handedly introduced W. J. T. Mitchell to French academia and was the first European member of American Art’s editorial committee (2013–17). That La photographie: Histoire et contre-histoire (Photography: history and counterhistory, or PHC) should be his last book is only fitting, as photography’s history and photography as history were always his subjects, although he approached them through an impressively diverse corpus of disciplines, objects, and case studies.

Brunet found his calling in the mid-1980s after meeting Peter E. Palmquist, who was both a rigorous historian of photography and an enthusiastic collector of pictures. Brunet followed his lead, as evidenced by two major exhibitions he curated, Images of the West: Survey Photography in French Collections 1860–1880 (2007) and L’héritage de Daguerre en Amérique (HDA, 2013). The former was the end result of the archival work he had done for his PhD dissertation; the latter built up William B. Becker’s idiosyncratic collection of daguerreotypes into a cultural history of photographic portraits in the United States. “Collectors came before museums and academics,” Brunet wrote in 2013, and “their meticulous investigations bespeak a positivist sense of history which may seem out of synch in an academic environment where the passion for hermeneutics and the deconstruction of all history are predominant.” The interplay between these various practices of history and photography is one of the underlying threads running through PHC.

Almost twenty years after La naissance de l’idée de photographie (2000; forthcoming in English by MIT Press and the Ryerson Image Center, in a translation by Shane B. Lillis), PHC returns in chapter 1 to the invention of photography, identifying diverging narratives that the rest of the book maps out onto the present. The “idea of photography” articulated by French authorities in 1839 was hardly concerned with the technology’s connection to history. François Arago’s famous speech at the time emphasized the new technology’s advantages for the reproduction of documents, works of art, and buildings; his goal was education, not preservation (40–48).

Conversely, across the channel, Henry Fox Talbot understood his calotype as a profoundly personal and intimate relation to time, memory, and perception. “One of the charms of photography,” he wrote, is “that the operator himself discovers on examination, perhaps long afterwards, that he has depicted many things he had no notion of at the time.” Thus photography “channels into a sense of history as well as an aesthetic feeling” (55). Hill and Adamson, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake’s reflections on the “historic interest” of photography (quoted 65), and most explicitly an essay attributed to Sir David Brewster confirm this “British” school: “Thus are the incidents of time, and the forms of space simultaneously recorded; and every picture becomes an authentic chapter in the history of the world” (61).

As often in Brunet’s work, technology is a point of departure, but its cultural uses and circulations transform it radically: British and Scottish understandings of photography contributed to the unparalleled success of the French-born daguerreotype in the United States as a celebration of individual conscience and collective identity (71). The second chapter explores this evolution, looking at the way the documentation uses that determined French discourse on photography proliferated in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, turning photography into a privileged medium of history. “The camera as historian,” to use Elizabeth Edwards’s phrase, appealed to the educated middle class concerned with the passing of traditions, in the United States as much as in England and Germany. But it was the American Civil War that “brought about the founding encounter between pictures, news and history” (125). The message initially conveyed was that the war was a “necessary horror.” Yet by the time Francis T. Miller published his Photographic History of the Civil War (1911), the focus had shifted from events themselves toward a history of war photographers: picture making itself became the stuff of history (142), while picture collections instituted by public libraries and camera clubs carved out a mass market for photographic histories aspiring to bolster the identity of the nation and shaping its memory.

Chapter 3 opens the second section of the book with an ambitious attempt to show the way a new “historical conscience of photography” emerged around the time of its institutional centenary. Walter Benjamin’s “A Short History of Photography” (1931) is now considered a seminal essay, yet Brunet insists that it represents a “German exception” (along with Gisèle Freund’s Photography and Society) because it is a social history of the medium. On the contrary, many European commentators, inspired by the invention’s one hundredth anniversary, adopted what Brunet calls an “internalist” perspective—that is, a “photo-centric” approach looking at the history of the medium itself. This derived from professionals’ accounts of the medium’s technological development to become, gradually, a formalist history of photography’s aesthetics, two apparently antagonistic approaches whose opposition is depicted as largely superficial (158). The emergence of photobooks and exhibitions such as Photography, 1839–1937 (MoMA) partake of this internalist vision (Brunet also uses the word “professional”), along with numerous celebrations of the technological progress of photography published in Germany (Erich Stenger’s Die Photographie in Kultur and Technik, 1938) and France (George Potonniée’s Cent Ans de Photographie, 1940).

A much more significant distinction, then, opposes these perspectives to Benjamin’s “externalist” approach, focusing on the way pictures and archives call historians’ attention and shape their understanding of the past. Photographs are read as material traces of historical events, fragmentary yet “real,” to be grasped in complex series, requiring an understanding of “montage” and the intervention of a historical conscience. Unsurprisingly, Benjamin gets his inspiration from David Octavius Hill’s Newhaven Fishwife (ca. 1843–47) to identify something “that goes beyond testimony to the photographer’s art . . . that fills you with an unruly desire to know what her name was, that woman who was still there, who even now is still real” (160). Thus emerges an “externalist” approach, which Brunet calls during this period “philosophical histories” of photography.

This mostly European survey sets the stage for the fourth chapter, which confronts and compares Beaumont Newhall’s Photography: A Short Critical History and Robert Taft’s Photography and the American Scene (both published in 1938). Brunet details the ways these two books fed off each other and established not one but two traditions of photography’s history in the United States. While Newhall’s “internalist” approach legitimized photography as a fine art, it mostly stayed away from photography-based history and documentation as social practice (161). Taft’s accumulation of dates, facts, and data, on the other hand, seems on the surface to be a new version of nineteenth-century technical histories of the medium. Yet Brunet emphasizes rather the profound originality of the book’s focus on the mass production and social reception of photographic portraits, which he compares to Gisèle Freund’s approach (220–21). As a “social historian,” Taft was also a collector who encouraged his readers to create (popular) photographic history (whether collecting pictures or photographing places over time) and to appropriate photographs as historical documents (226–30).

Scrutinizing footnotes as well as Taft’s correspondence with Newhall, Brunet shows that the latter appreciated Photography and the American Scene as “cultural history,” but that he was extremely critical of Taft’s understanding of photography as art. Taft’s increased emphasis on the historical value of pictures thus seems to have developed as a reaction to Newhall’s report on this book for Macmillan (244–53). In the back-and-forth between the two writers, positions become increasingly entrenched—until Taft simply abandoned his chapter on what he ended up labeling the “pseudo-aesthetic” nature of photography (257). Brunet’s detailed study shows the dialectical workings of history (as a discipline) in the making.

Taft’s “amateur” history lost relevance in the 1960s, as the institutionalization of photography as a fine art was concomitant with growing concerns about the power of photographs to depoliticize and commodify our vision and understanding of the world, to the advantage of a US-led globalization. Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977) continues to stand as a towering reference in this respect, while Roland Barthes and visual studies theorists have continued the “conventionalist” deconstruction of photography sketched out by Ernst Gombrich or Umberto Eco. This suspicion about the “naturalism” of pictures only increased with digital technologies, reinforcing a strong iconophobic and antimedia sentiment already articulated by the likes of Daniel J. Boorstin (The Image, 1964) and Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman (Manufacturing Consent, 1988) in stark contrast to Taft’s heroic understanding of photography as constitutive of history (e.g., Lincoln’s portraits by Mathew Brady). Chapter 5 explores the way the discrediting of photography’s documentary value for both past and present events has generated “anti” and “counter” histories.

Antihistories are predicated on a criticism of the very notion of historical “events” and the ability of images (and media in general) to picture them. After Boorstin’s distinction between “pseudo” and “real” events, Pierre Nora suggested that the relevance of events is no longer in historians’ hands. It is now defined instantaneously by ubiquitous images. The “event” is thus always contemporaneous, including when the past is reinvented as “experience” by contemporary artists (287). Experience is also at the emotional core of Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980), which introduces another form of destabilization of photography in historical terms by suggesting that intimate connections to a photograph are the only consistent path to (personal) history. Barthes’s stance is a form of antihistory insofar as it defines photography as a form of private, emotional connection to the past, opening the way for W. G. Sebald’s and Don DeLillo’s “connective” use of photographic memory (327).

Brunet is in fact more intrigued by “counter-histories,” exemplified by less-scrutinized writers such as Michael Lesy (Wisconsin Death Trip, 1973), amateur historian William A. Frassanito (Gettysburg: A Journey in Time, 1996), and Errol Morris (Believing Is Seeing, 2011). All three question the way historical photographs have helped construct official histories, and they suggest rewriting counterhistories with photographs (rather than against or without them). Wisconsin Death Trip, for example, is akin to a “counter social history, dedicated to individual and collective misfortunes” (300). What this “empirical” criticism brings to the table, according to Brunet, is a detailed history of pictures that engages with them while keeping away from the twin fictions of photography as pure vision or systematic manipulation (326). Recent studies on African American visual culture of the civil rights movement (Martin Berger, Seeing through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography, 2011) have furthered these attempts to use the “mysteries of photography” (Morris) to uncover counterhistories hidden in plain sight within the main narrative (334).

Brunet’s conclusion focuses on what he calls “photo-history for all” (354), and the current fascination with photographic archives (the plural is deliberate) as the most recent form of “external history.” The rediscovery and reinterpretation of photographs—an activity facilitated by digital technologies—has fed a “memory industry” shared by individuals and institutions alike. The proliferation of narratives based on these collections encourages us to reverse the usual perspective: rather than trying to define archives by their documentary intention, we might want to see them as “semantically undetermined endeavors, or rather, merely determined by their potential ‘realization-as-document’ or ‘realization-as-history,’ entrusted to the passage of time and to the memories of the future” (353). Thus Brunet claims that photography’s democratic project is no less vivid today than it was in Arago’s time, as today’s technologies tend to facilitate the reappropriation of history—unless, that is, digital content companies become algorithmic historians for us all. Fighting off this perspective, and inspired to a large extent by Palmquist, Taft, and Walker Evans, Brunet encourages us never to forget the collector’s faith, which is “to mend the threads of communication, broken by death or even simply by forgetting, and made possible again, as well as necessary, by the strokes of good fortune and the curiosity of the collector” (HDA, 324).

Didier Aubert
Associate Professor of American Studies and Director of Undergraduate Programs (English and American Studies), Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris