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  • Photojournalism and the Origins of the French Writer House Museum (1881–1914): Privacy, Publicity, and Personalityby Elizabeth Emery
  • Edward Welch
Photojournalism and the Origins of the French Writer House Museum (1881–1914): Privacy, Publicity, and Personality. By E lizabeth Emery. ( Histories of Material Culture and Collecting, 1700–1950.) Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012. xii + 262 pp., ill.

In this wide-ranging and exciting study, Elizabeth Emery explores the complex relationship among French writers, their audiences, and the print media in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her focus is the growing interest in the writer at home, and how the home comes to be seen as an expression of a writer’s character during his lifetime, and a locus of memorialization after his death. She begins by examining how Edmond de Goncourt curated his home and the objects it contained as a kind of autobiography in material form, at once recognizing and feeding the public’s curiosity over the life and sensibility of the writer. She considers how this curiosity was fuelled further by the popular press through interviews and articles that, as printing technology developed in the 1880s, began increasingly to be accompanied by photographs of writers such as Mallarmé and Zola in their ‘habitat’. Indeed, it is notable how all the examples she discusses involve male writers. There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for the historical emphasis on male writers ‘at home’, a good many of which are self-evident; but perhaps the only regret one might have is that Emery does not really engage with the gendered aspect of her material. This bémolaside, the strength of her investigation lies especially in how she reveals the specific phenomena of the writer’s house and the writer ‘at home’ to illuminate a much broader set of processes at work in French society and culture at the time. She maps how it tracks intellectual trends and fashions. Dornac, for example, one of the leading exponents of ‘at home’ photography, was influenced by Taine and Zola in emphasizing the relationship between writers and their milieu. In exploring the relationship between writers, photography, and the popular press, she offers a pre-history of the culture of celebrity that would preoccupy Barthes and Morin in the 1950s. More and more, writers stage their identity through photographs, negotiating a delicate balance between self-exposure and privacy while attempting to maintain attention on their artistic output; but they also have growing concerns over the slippery nature of photographic meaning, and how it challenges their ability to control the creation and dissemination of their public persona. Another important pre-history in the book is that of photojournalism itself. The use of the term at first seems anachronistic in [End Page 270]the context of the period and material discussed by Emery, more readily associated as it is with the figure of the roving photo-reporter producing images for the mass print media of the twentieth century; but in her discussion of the emergence of the ‘photo-interview’ especially, Emery draws out how the notion of a reporter telling stories with photographs rather than words began to take shape in the French press of the late nineteenth century, and how the presentation of writers ‘at home’ played a key role in that innovation.

Edward Welch
University of Aberdeen


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pp. 270-271
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