When Photography Was New

The buildings in these photographs seem outside of time, existing in a private universe where shadows exist only to point up architectural features.

Sep 10, 2014 at 10:46 am
click to enlarge Pont du Gard, Provence
Pont du Gard, Provence

A great advantage of early photographers using buildings as subjects instead of people is that buildings hold still. No messy business of a smile gone wrong or an inadvertent cough; a building can maintain a lengthy pose.

Perhaps that is why Édouard Baldus chose to photograph buildings — indeed he seemed to prefer the built environment to the natural one.

When he retreated to the country — at least as the small show of his work at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Building Pictures: Architectural Photographs by Édouard Baldus, suggests — what he chose to photograph was the splendid skeleton of the Pont du Gard in Provence, France, built in the first century B.C. to carry water into the town of Nîmes. The river that flows across the lower portion of this scene reflects not nature — although it’s clearly in the country — but the Pont du Gard itself. The result is a handsome and deservedly famous photograph.

Baldus, who had trained as a painter and worked as a draftsman and lithographer before taking up photography, found in the new art the perfect outlet for his talent. Photography was still an extremely young profession when he turned to it in the middle of the 19th century, but it proved to be one in which his skills excelled. It’s a treat to see this little exhibition, only 12 works in all, pulled from the museum›s permanent photography collection.

These are all albumen prints, the successful commercial base at the time, a term helpfully explained in one of the exhibition’s labels. The paper base had to be high quality, often made from cotton, and was treated with a substance that included egg whites, plus chemicals “beaten to a thick froth” and allowed to liquefy before being applied to the paper to dry overnight. It must be said a century and a half later that these prints have held up remarkably well. They are sepia in color, a tone that always seems to me more like a memory than an actuality.

Indeed, some of Baldus’ work was meant as memories, for his commissions came at a time when Paris was under mighty change in the hands of Baron Haussmann, sweeping centuries aside with his new boulevards. The buildings in these photographs seem outside of time, existing in a private universe where shadows exist only to point up architectural features.

Baldus trains his camera toward the front face of Notre Dame, the clarity of vision one of his hallmarks. That clarity is in part the result of his use of paper negatives, which provided the sharp and definitive images he wanted.  He also shows the cathedral from the side, slightly to the rear, from across the river, so its situation on the island is clearly established.

Building Pictures subtly suggests in its title that Baldus “built” his pictures, as well as took pictures of buildings. I am sure that is true, in that he was as cognizant of the building’s position in the photograph as the architects would have been in positioning it on the ground. His viewpoint is never ground level but always slightly higher, putting the viewer of his pictures at the same superior elevation as his camera. This does only good things to the buildings themselves.

The buildings we see are some we have perhaps seen in life, given the propensity to travel in the late 20th and early 21st century. In addition to Notre Dame, they include the Louvre, the Palais des Papes in Avignon and other handsome stone structures. There is a striking absence of people, for whom these structures conceivably were meant to serve. Only once, in an expansive view of gardens as well as structures, are two tiny figures suggested, looking as though they were added in ink for fun. What’s going on here? It’s questions like that that keep us looking at pictures, in addition to the visual pleasures they provide.

You are more likely to come upon Building Pictures by chance rather than by design. It is on the Art Museum’s second floor, Gallery 212, close to the American galleries. Baldus, born in Prussia, is always identified as French. If you go upstairs from the Great Hall, veer right and ask a guard where the French photographs are he will take you there. Small shows like this are among the delights of an old museum with deep storage. Interesting things are there, hidden away much of the time. Now and again they emerge, as is the case in this exhibition.

BUILDING PICTURES: ARCHITECTURAL PHOTOGRAPHS BY ÉDOUARD BALDUS is on view through Oct. 26. More: cincinnatiartmuseum.org.