Published by Galerie Daniel Blau, Odeonsplatz 12, 80539, Munich, Germany. 259 pages; 102 plates. ISBN No. 3-00-015442-6. Information: Phone: +49 (0) 89-29 74 74; Fax: +49 (0) 89-29 58 48; email: email@example.com
Georges Poulet's cyanotypes of the construction of the Santa Fe railroad network in Argentina are evocative curiosities in the photography world. After all, Poulet was not so much a photographer as a French engineer, a builder of roads and bridges, whose commission to set up the Santa Fe Railway Company led to six years of pioneering work, from 1889 to 1895. In that time, he documented the railroad's progress with a rigorous series of cyanotypes, charting a new frontier in the Southern hemisphere, from Santa Fe to San Cristobal, Rosario, and finally Tucuman.
More commonly known as blueprint, cyanotype ranks as the third photo process to be discovered, after the daguerreotype and the talbotype. Invented in 1842 by Sir John Frederick Herschel, the cyanotype is the result of iron salts that leave behind a characteristic blue deposit when rinsed away by water after exposure to light. The relative ease, low cost and practicality of this running-water technique accounted, in part, for its popularity among artists, architects and engineers. Poulet took advantage of this, making contact prints from collodion-glass negatives as he moved along with the construction of the railroad. With its informative essays and full annotation, this book is a fine appreciation of Poulet's achievement.
Poulet's blue chronicle admirably sets its scenes, from the Argentinean ports where railroad supplies arrive to the interior of the rugged country. His images capture crisp details of the railroad trestles and ironwork that begin the industrial transformation, and many of his shots view the railway construction from a distance, over swampy, scrubby expanses. These photos of an undeveloped terrain in the throes of modern change are vital documents, memorializing not only the engineering spectacle but also the humanity behind it, as teams of workers are caught in the act of hauling, hammering, and subduing the rough clay of Argentina.
Railroad tracks, of course, are ideal subjects for photography, affording a receding perspective from the bottom of the frame to a vanishing point on the horizon, and Poulet's instincts in suggesting the infinity of distance were superb. One shot, titled "Canada Vigre" is a masterpiece of such perspective, as the tracks lead our eye to a tiny glimmer of light notched in the dead center of the frame, with a cloudless sky smoothly contrasting the modules of earth, scrub, water, trees and iron that occupy the bottom half of the image.
This was a favorite technique of Poulet, and he worked wonderful variations on it, with groups of workers along the tracks or glimpsed in their makeshift camps by the trackside. The monochromatic blue lends a dreamlike aura to each scene, no matter how mundane some of them are, and the effect is of a landscape that exists only in memory--a primal garden on the verge of irrevocable change. Poulet was certainly sensitive to the upheaval that his engineering project was causing, and his images of Argentina's natives and its natural wonders--giant, serpent-like cacti, or the grassy pampas--reveal a genuine love and comprehension of this wild world.
Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.