Issue #234  9/18/2017
Photo Books: Great Artists Make for Great Photography in Extensive 19th-century French Photo Survey

By Matt Damsker

By Alex Novak. Published by Vintage Works Ltd. Hardbound; 216 pgs.; limited, signed and numbered first edition of 150 copies; $125; numerous four-color reproductions. For information and to order: info@vintageworks.net; http://www.vintageworks.net; http://www.iphotocentral.com; phone: +1-215-822-5662.

Alex Novak's distinguished history as a collector and dealer of 19th-century photography is powerfully showcased in his new survey of the French masters who gave artistic life to the medium in its early days. As he notes in his preface to this volume, which features finely printed and well-sized reproductions, it's not so much that France was the birthplace of photography.

"I believe that the key difference has to do with the type of practitioner that was first drawn to photography," he writes. "In the U.K., early photographers came largely from two professions: scientists and businessmen…In France it was a very different situation. Even its pioneer Louis Daguerre was an accomplished artist first…For the French aristocracy, who were among the few who could afford the equipment and time, art was a pastime that most practiced or studied. It informed their photography from the beginning. And great artists made great photographers…and great photography."

Who could argue? Novak begins with a sampling of some seminal French daguerreotypes, including a rare back view of the historic Chateau de Blois, circa 1845, which may be by another pioneer, Hippolyte Bayard, and beautiful hand-colored stereo daguerreotypes of nudes by Felix Jacques Moulin and others. From there, he presents superb examples by the post-daguerreotype greats of French artistry, beginning with Charles Nègre and his stunning 1860 albumen print of a woman in black with white poodle, followed by a generous tour of Nègre's country and architectural views, still lifes of game birds and cathedrals.

Next, the work of the "most influential 19th-century figure in photography," Gustave Le Gray--a grouping of many excellent works, some in collaboration with his friend Mestral and with Firmin-Eugène Le Dien. These include views of everything from the Place de la Concorde in Paris to the forest of Fontainebleau (a fine salt print from waxed paper negative, with a horse and cart adorably perched at the edge of the road by the trees), grand architectural details, military images and such moody seascapes as The Brig from 1856 with its lone ship in the middle distance.

Eugène Nicholas, Édouard Baldus and Henri Le Secq follow in this firmament, with their increasingly detailed views of ramparts, the evolving Louvre, the Paris rail system, and important images of France's great church works, from Reims to Notre-Dame. In all, Novak features 38 of France's 19th-century masters, and there are visually exciting discoveries on nearly every page. For example, Durandelle's well-exposed shots of the ornamental details of the New Paris Opera under construction and a stunning group shot of its architects and workers, or Disderi's full-on view of the 1855 reception of Queen Victoria in France.

Ultimately, there are so many impressive and enlightening photographs here that to single out one or another seems unfair to the wealth of artistic and historic milestones surveyed by Novak. The volume includes full, newly researched biographies, a recommended bibliography and extensive annotation of each photo, pointing out the known and potential attributions, provenances, and the inevitable uncertainties that attach to many of these treasures. Novak is a rigorous documentarian and tireless truth-seeker when it comes to his 19th-century passion and professional calling, and this compelling book does him, and its artists, justice.

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 in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)