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  • Literature and Photography
  • Edward Welch

What is at stake in the order of things? Does it matter that this is an état présent of literature and photography, rather than of photography and literature? In one sense, the word order is neutrally sequential, or at most, reflective of the chronological and technological reality that literature predates photography as a mode of representation. Considering the relationship between literature and photography is therefore a matter of exploring how literature has come to accommodate, respond to, engage with, or understand the strange new medium of ‘light writing’ since it came on the scene in the early nineteenth century. As François Brunet notes in his survey of the question, ‘most accounts of photography’s relationship to literature published so far have been told by literary scholars, from the point of view of literature, and are therefore more often identified as studies of “literature and photography”’; but Brunet poses the inversion of the terms in the title of his own book as a challenge, or at the very least, ‘somewhat provocative’.1 He takes issue with the implications of hierarchy that lurk in the placing of literature before photography, a hierarchy which might result simply from the age difference between them, but which inevitably comes to suggest greater or lesser degrees of artistic and cultural legitimacy.

Thus, to turn things around and place photography before literature is to draw out the delicate balance of power between the two modes of representation; and, indeed, to assume that there is a balance of power which is at once delicate and unstable. Put another way, an alternative title for this article could well have been ‘the odd couple’. It is concerned with a relationship that is strikingly longstanding, extending as far back as the invention of photography in 1839. The relationship is also invariably complex and shifting, taking on a range of forms, stages, and preoccupations through the following centuries, and shot through with uncertainties the one about the other. In many respects, those uncertainties are about status — social and cultural status, claims to legitimacy, and cultural significance. Its impressive longevity notwithstanding, there is a sense in which the relationship still has the feel, to borrow Brunet’s elegant phrase, of an ‘emergent meeting’.2 [End Page 434]

Nowhere, arguably, are the histories of photography and literature more intertwined than in France; perhaps inevitably so, given French claims on the invention of the photographic process. A number of French writers quickly entered the orbit of the new image-making practice, observing with more or less scepticism how it worked, what it did, and the claims (of veracity or artistry) being made for it. In his role as Inspecteur général des Monuments historiques, Prosper Mérimée commissioned what became known as the Mission héliographique in 1851. Recognizing the valuable documentary qualities of the photographic image, Mérimée sent five pioneering photographers, among them Henri Le Secq and Gustave Le Gray, on a tour of the country to record historic buildings with a view to their restoration. As a major government commission, the Mission héliographique was a milestone in the early life of the medium, and established a template for photographic surveys into the late twentieth century.

In 1849, Flaubert set off with Maxime Du Camp on a two-year photographic tour of Egypt and the Middle East, at once admiring of and irritated by the mechanical means by which Du Camp produced his pictures (he would make photography the last resort of the chancer Pellerin in L’Éducation sentimentale3). Baudelaire launched what is remembered as a coruscating attack on photography in his review of the Salon of 1859, condemning it as a vulgar, debased, and debasing mode of representation that strips the world of its poetry, and celebrated sketch artist Constantin Guys as the most important ‘peintre de la vie moderne’; yet he had an enduring friendship with photographer Félix Nadar, posing for portraits on numerous occasions, and urging his mother to do the same.

Baudelaire’s involvement with Nadar illustrates how writers were becoming increasingly photographed, and how their photographs were starting to play an important role in cementing...


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pp. 434-443
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