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  • The Impossible Photograph: Hippolyte Bayard’s Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man
  • Michal Sapir (bio)

The public reception of photography following its official announcement on August 19, 1839 was guided by the prevailing nineteenth-century ideology of positivistic realism and its on-going quest for mimetic truth. Martin Jay, in Downcast Eyes, writes about this “commonplace . . . assumption of photography’s fidelity to the truth of visual experience.” He goes on to claim that “many of the first photographers in France, such as Hippolyte Bayard, Victor Regnault, and Charles Nègre, operated with a simple faith in the straightforward reproduction of the world; this earned them the sobriquet ‘primitive,’ even if their works could be appreciated by later generations in other ways” (126).

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Figure 1.

Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man. Hippolyte Bayard

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Figure 2.

“Suicide Note” inscribed *on the reverse side of Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man .

One such work by Hippolyte Bayard that definitely can be seen to shed a more complex light on the issue of the relationship between photography and truth is his Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man, dated 1840. In this photograph, Bayard presents himself as a victim of an act of suicide, provoked by the failure of the French authorities to recognize his own discovery of the photographic process as equal to Daguerre’s pioneering work. Earlier in 1839 Bayard put together what is considered by some to be the first ever photographic exhibition, in an auction room in Paris. This historical context suggests that the self-portrait can be read as a crossroads at which issues of recognition, authorship, display, visibility, invisibility, truth and illusion meet and play off of one another. The photograph focuses on death as the locus for a problematics of representation; [End Page 619] it plays on the tension between the notion of death and visualization as means of authentication, and the inauthenticity inherent in the act of making death visible. As such it can be seen as an early critique of the dominant ocularcentric scopic regime of post-Enlightenment modernity, which assumed a transparent relationship between photography and truth.

A similar problematic of representability emerges from the following narrative concerning the origin of Bayard’s interest in photography, as told by Jammes and Janis:

The account of how the idea for photography first occurred to Bayard places the event in a garden. . . . Bayard’s father, a local justice of the peace, was very proud of his peach trees. Every year at harvest season, he enjoyed presenting his friends with baskets of fruit to which he would add his signature in the form of a single “signed” peach. The peach designated to receive the signature was wrapped in leaves while still on the tree, so that it would mature but not turn color. When it had ripened, the covering of leaves was removed, and an elegantly cut stencil of papa Bayard’s initials was applied to the pale-complexioned fruit, which soon turned rosy after a few days in the autumn sun. The letters were then lifted, and the pale skin underneath revealed the signature, “heliographically” achieved, proclaiming the identity of the orchard’s proprietor.


This narrative suggests that the idea of fixing an image created by light is connected for Bayard with an impulse to assert ownership, to capture origin and to fix identity by signing and defining the name-of-the-father. At the same time, the signature is achieved only through an act of performance and artificiality, highlighting in fact the absence of the subject and the contingence of his identity on construction and convention. Furthermore, any image Bayard himself can create will be merely a double of this memory of the first chain of yearly images—already removed from the “real” origin, already created around a lack.

Bayard’s Self-Portrait, like his father’s orchard, is also accompanied by a signature. On the back of the print he wrote by hand the following “suicide note” (translated in Gernsheim 69): [End Page 620]

The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that...

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