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European Views on Early American Photography

Presented by François Brunet, Professor of Art and American Literature, University of Paris; member, L’Institute Universitaire

In many European histories of photography, it would almost seem as if 19th-century American photography did not really exist, or did not matter, at least until least George Eastman and Alfred Stieglitz. And from many American accounts of early American photography, it would seem that the medium developed in autonomous fashion in the U.S., primarily as a practice and a business, and away from European “philosophers” and “scientists”. This presentation explores European views on the American daguerreotype, and what significance they could have in the U.S., in order to promote a more international or more transnational history of the medium. It is primarily focused on the World Fairs of 1851 (London) and Paris (1855) and comments elicited by American daguerreotypes at and around these events. I review several documents, including American testimonies and editorials in the context of the Crystal Palace exhibition, comments by the juries of both Fairs, and French texts in the contexts of the hillotype affair and the Paris Fair of 1855, especially by the critic Ernest Lacan. Beyond the mixture of skeptical admiration, condescension, and derision found in many of these European comments, one gathers two tentative conclusions from this review: a) the prolonged significance, for early American photography, of the weak institutional or academic context in the U.S., which contrasted with a perceived efficiency of the English and French frameworks in guiding and supporting invention; b) the European perception that the durable

American taste for, and success with, the daguerreotype reflected higher technical application as well as a peculiar commitment to portraiture, which drew the medium’s development away from the art/science polarities and toward a more social-political course.

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