The Paradox of Photography

Etudes de langue et littérature françaises
publiées sous la direction de
Keith Busby, M.J. Freeman,
Sjef Houppermans et Paul Pelckmans
Pierre Taminiaux
The Paradox of Photography
Photography cover: Pierre Taminiaux, Leaf and stone, 2008.
Cover design: Pier Post.
The paper on which this book is printed meets the requirements of
‘ISO 9706: 1994, Information and documentation - Paper for documents -
Requirements for permanence’.
Le papier sur lequel le présent ouvrage est imprimé remplit les prescriptions
de ‘ISO 9706: 1994, Information et documentation - Papier pour documents -
Prescriptions pour la permanence’.
ISBN: 978-90-420-2666-7
E-Book ISBN: 978-90-420-2667-4
© Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam - New York, NY 2009
Printed in The Netherlands
Table of Contents

IntroducWLRQ«««««««««««««««««« 5

No Art¶V LanG««««««««««««««««« 15

Reasonable MadQHVV««««««««««««« 59

The Image, One Image, ImaJHV««««««««« 97

The FasFLQDWHG(\H««««««««««««««« 143

Conclusion«««««««««««««««««« 183


Index««««««««««««««««««««..... 199


Modernity can be characterized simultaneously by its passion
for photography and its strong suspicion of it. In this book, both
positions are accounted for. It explores the critical writings and
narratives of four preeminent French writers and thinkers who express
their contradictory and vastly complex relationship with pictures, each
in their own way. Generally speaking, bringing these diverse
perspectives together in a single book is a difficult task. They all
represent different styles, sensitivities, and personal philosophies. For
instance, one can speak of Baudelaire’s post-romanticism, of Breton’s
surrealism, of Valéry’s neo-classicism and of Barthes’s new criticism.
But these labels, though they capture some essential aspects of these
authors’ works, fail to fully define their respective discourses on
aesthetics and in particular, on photography. They do not sufficiently
underline the radical and often surprising nature of their viewpoints,
which largely eludes the traditional classification schemes of literary
These authors are forced to adopt an unexpected language as
they navigate the unique identity of their discourse’s objects.
Photography is a highly unique object in that it remains, even today,
difficult to locate as a means of expression. It belongs simultaneously
6 The Paradox of Photography
to the domains of technique, art, and commerce, without being strictly
attached to any of them. One can find numerous examples of the
essential role played by photography in the development of modern
technique: first in the nineteenth century, and then in the
contemporary era, where it has fully integrated the world of digital
technology. One can also affirm the foremost artistic status of
photography in the context of the early twentieth century avant-garde,
from Dada to Surrealism, and later through the experimental and
conceptual work of many contemporary artists. It surely widened the
aesthetic perspective of uncompromising artists who were not content
with the constraints of classical painting. And finally, it rapidly
became a helpful tool for professionals involved in advertising and
journalism. Today we cannot imagine the media without the visual
support of images that expand our capacity to understand world
events, which so often occur far away from us. By being almost
everywhere in our society, photography is thus demonstrably hard to
locate with precision. Its center of gravity, so to speak, can always be
legitimately displaced.
According to the writers that I reference here, photography
undoubtedly raises the critical issue of technique, as well as its
meaning for both art and thought. It is therefore part of a global
strategy that attempts to redefine the very notion of representation in
modernity. In each case, photography asserts its privileged
relationship with reality. What separates these theorists, then, is their
construction of reality, a term that can obviously be interpreted in
many different ways. For instance, it is clear that reality for
Baudelaire is something to be feared or scorned, while Valéry or even
Breton will stress instead the imaginary or poetic power stemming
from it. When one analyzes the very process of picture-taking, one is
always confronted with the presence of an object that exists prior to
the image. Therefore, it is implied that photography always deals in
one way or another with the reproduction of this object, regardless of
the aesthetic choice of the photographer. But in contrast, one can also
take into account the process of picture-making, which emphasizes the
absolute freedom of the photographer towards his object. In this
particular process, indeed, photography becomes a true art form by
separating itself from the law of objective repetition. The subject
matter, here, is only a pretext: it is never the ultimate goal, or
destination, of the artist.
Introduction 7
For each of these writers and critics, photography is
constantly contextualized; it rarely stands alone. Instead, it is
definitively linked to the issues of literature and language, from
Breton to Barthes and Valéry. How can pictures illustrate a text and
enhance its descriptive and narrative role? How can they talk about a
particular subject, about his life and death? How can they enrich the
aesthetics of poetry beyond words, through visual means that appear
closer to those of the fine arts? Moreover, these authors often relate
photography to issues of representation that have been primarily
defined by painting in the history of Western art.
The comparison with painting thus seems irresistible. This is
the case because the number of critical works inspired by painting
was, and likely still is, infinitely larger than the number of theoretical
works devoted to photography. This was certainly the case at the time
when these authors wrote their essays. Consequently, the historic,
authoritative nature of the literature on painting has made it a primary
source for writers developing their own discourses on photography. It
provides critics of photography with an aesthetic and philosophical
legitimacy that is undisputable. Indeed, art is painting, in the Western
way of thinking, and it has been so for centuries. But art is not
photography yet, and thus we discover the underlying reason for these
authors’ frequent reliance upon critical forms that are actually alien to
the objects of their study.
Does photography, therefore, stand alone as a unique visual
language that has transformed our perception of the modern world?
Can it be identified without any reference to the more established
disciplines of the fine arts? Is it also possible to define "the writing of
light" as a radical form of writing, accomplished without or beyond
the written word? These pressing questions are undoubtedly raised by
the texts that I analyze here, but the answers provided remain open to
discussion, if not totally inconclusive.
Photography never ceases to reflect its own enigma, which is
the logical extension of modernity’s ambiguous attitude towards both
technique and art. It is the enigma of excess and its overwhelming
presence within modern culture. Put another way, the ever-present
must also be the most susceptible to a discourse of absence. What
remains missing, somehow, is the true knowledge of an object that
successfully resists any specific inscription within the cultural sphere.
In this sense, excess entails a definitive process of dissemination, that
8 The Paradox of Photography
which establishes meaning as well as pictures or signs. By contrast,
the space of both literature and painting is much more restricted and
therefore easier to determine.
This book is grounded in a critical context that emphasizes a
contemporary perspective on both photography and literature. In the
first chapter on Baudelaire, I try in this regard to move away from
Benjamin’s already classical identification of the poet with Le
Flâneur, a figure of both idleness and aimless wandering. The
references to Giorgio Agamben, one of the most preeminent European
philosophers and critics of post-modernism, enable me to stress
instead the complex and often conflicting attitudes of Baudelaire
towards the world of commodities. I also try to integrate Baudelaire’s
discourse into his broader work of art criticism, to the extent that the
issue of art remains key to his critical response to photography. In this
sense, the object of my reflection is neither the poetic aesthetics of
Baudelaire, as developed by the poet Michel Deguy, for instance, nor
is it shaped by a psychoanalytical approach, such as in Leo Bersani’s
Baudelaire and Freud.
The second chapter on Breton stems from the reading of art
critic Rosalind Krauss’s essay on Surrealism and photography, but it
also questions the so-called objectivity of pictures in both Nadja and
LAmour Fou, a notion that the literary critic and noted expert on
Surrealism, Michel Beaujour, has recently put forth. The third
chapter’s critical perspective on Roland Barthes’ La Chambre Claire
relies heavily upon theoretical writings on photography by foremost
contemporary French philosophers such as Jean-François Lyotard and
Georges Didi-Huberman. Moreover, it distances itself from the
essentially linguistic and semiological approach of Mary Bittner
Wiseman in her book The Ecstasies of Roland Barthes and borrows
instead from Reda Bensmaïa’s analysis of Barthes’ essay as a
reflective text in The Barthes Effect. I try to demonstrate here that the
main focus of Barthes’ discourse in La Chambre Claire is the unique
character and identity of visual representation in photography. This
identity largely escapes for him the power of history and of the
community that embodies it. In this regard, I attempt to stress the
important epistemological differences between Barthes’ essay and
Walter Benjamin’s Petite Histoire de la Photographie.
Finally, the last chapter on Valéry allows me to go back to the
work of a poet and art critic who has been largely ignored by
Introduction 9
contemporary readings of French poetry and criticism, especially by
Deconstruction, if one thinks in particular of Derrida: in his book La
Dissémination, he preferred to concentrate his analysis of a
fragmented and de-centered poetic language in modernity on the work
of Mallarmé. Moreover, Valéry’s study of photography must be
integrated into his general writings on art, as it is the case with
Baudelaire, since one of the main features of his argument is the
strong relationship between photography and the representation of
nature, a relationship that is constant in classical Western painting.
The main purpose of my reflection is to underline the sheer modernity
of Valéry’s critical perspective on art and aesthetics: for him, indeed,
the viewer is always a subject fascinated by the multiplicity of images
and their ubiquitous presence in society. I try to analyze this process
of fascination in the light of Maurice Blanchot’s essay on the issue,
included in LEspace Litteraire.
The paradox of photography is primarily (but not only) a
historical one. Photography is located at the very source of modernity,
of capitalism and the industrial revolution, of a technical era
characterized by the power of the machine. But it is also situated at the
end of art, at the very limit of a model of representation dominated by
painting and its primarily figurative aesthetics. Photography comes,
therefore, both too late and too early. It comes too late because it is
preceded by a long history of art and pictorial tradition which
threatens to distort or oversimplify its definition. But it also comes too
early to the extent that it anticipates the cultural development of
imagery in the twentieth-century, from film to television to virtual
reality. Photography thus signifies both an end and a beginning to
representation. It is precisely this two-fold identity that makes it
challenging to comprehend, especially if one still believes in the
intellectual sovereignty of the historical perspective.
This particular ambivalence is expressed in many ways by the
authors considered in this book. They often seem to hesitate between
analysis of the present or projections into the future on the one hand,
and remembrance of an authoritative past on the other. If technique
does not necessarily need a memory, art cannot live without it.
Therefore, these writers cannot avoid the confrontation between a so-
called modernity that is still growing and gaining in maturity, and a
classical age whose lessons are still largely relevant for the
philosophical interpretation of the age of mechanical reproduction.
10 The Paradox of Photography
Photography itself is able to record the past, creating a new memory
of events and history through the power of technique. But it also and
simultaneously accounts for a gradual disappearance of this memory
within social reality. The more we create sophisticated means of
preserving what has been through imagery, the more we are doomed
to forget the past as we bury it in its own inner landscape.
In other words, technique and photography, more particularly,
enhance the cultural presence of history, while at the same time
mimicking its inexorable decline in the modern world. Reproduction,
thus, constitutes a fight against effacement and oblivion, but it also
mirrors the very ills it resists. In this sense, a picture of the past does
not necessarily accomplish its impulse toward memory. It can actually
signify a profound and even traumatic break with its most subjective
truth, as both Baudelaire’s and Barthes’ texts imply.
Photography therefore captures the fragile and unstable nature
of life itself, of its traces and evidences. This quality distinguishes it,
to some degree, from both literature (the written word) and painting.
For a very long time, the pictures produced through this medium did
not seem to be part of a genuine history, whereas both literature and
the traditional fine arts were firmly established. Indeed, one had to
wait until the 1930s, and Walter Benjamin’s Petite Histoire de la
Photographie in 1931, to find a definition of the medium that sought
to encompass both its technical and aesthetic developments. It thus
took a whole century to undertake any serious classification of its
multiple expressions through time.
For modernity in particular, as opposed to ancient or pre-
modern times, one century is almost an eternity. This historical
vacuum is reflected in various ways by these authors, who are clearly
more interested in the significance of photography for the present (i.e.,
the present of both literature and culture at large) than in the actual
identification of its origin and evolution. Their respective discourses
are thus rooted in a specific moment that possesses its own utmost
importance and even urgency for the study of modern France. This is
the case whether one references the rise of the bourgeoisie’s social and
economic power in the middle of the nineteenth century, which forms
the context of Baudelaire’s article, or the revival of radical French
nationalism at the time of Valéry’s speech at the Sorbonne. It is also
impossible not to consider the general cultural background of Barthes’
landmark essay on photography, which is so obviously marked by the
Introduction 11
remarkable growth of mainstream popular and media culture in France
after World War II.
The apparent emphasis on the precise moment of the image
does not, however, prevent these various texts from retaining a
universal and wide-ranging meaning. In this book, I express the need
for an aesthetic perspective on photography that goes beyond a time-
delineated cultural approach. If photography is not always recognized
as a true and complete art form in some of the texts studied here, it
still leads to a profound and thorough reflection upon the role of
pictures in the visual representation of modernity. Therefore, pictures
are here defined primarily as the objects and tools of a specific
discourse on forms.
These four authors have, after all, written extensively about art
in the modern world, from romantic painting to the Surrealist and
Dada avant-garde, and from Japanese calligraphy to impressionism.
Their own work, in this sense, can never be separated from the issue
of art at large. This dynamic is especially evident if one takes into
account their critical writings, but it is also applicable to the field of
poetry in several respects. Thus these authors share an unbridled love
of forms that is inevitably expressed in their musings on photography.
By love of forms, I mean in particular a strong faith in the existential
and ethical powers of art, rather than a mere taste for mannerisms and
obscure details of style. Their esoteric perspective renders them
legitimate representatives of modernity, including its philosophical
contradictions and aesthetic intricacies, and despite the abrupt
critiques that they sometimes inflict upon it.
For these authors, forms do not only exist in the pure domain
of abstract ideas and concepts. They are also, and primarily, embodied
in the reality of art works and material objects. They define a political
discourse through their integration into the space of the community, of
its dreams and desires. Moreover, they constitute powerful agents of
cultural and social change. To the extent that these images’ fates are
inevitably linked, in modernity, to the development of technique, they
are to be conceived in their dynamic and fluctuating nature: indeed,
technique never ceases to move forward and to evolve through time.
In this sense, photography is not a field of expression that is being
fixed once and for all. The forms that it entails are submitted to
constant variations that highlight the uncertainty of any aesthetic
discourse about them. From this perspective, one must see these texts
12 The Paradox of Photography
as mere subjective propositions or hypotheses on a particular medium,
since they formulate a truth that is always partial or temporary. They
are all located within a particular cultural context and dependent upon
the spirit of the eras in which they occur.
In essence, photography calls for the relativism of thought. It is
an object whose contingent identity resists totality and any sense of
the absolute. It was born at a time when these notions and values were
already altered by the rise of a new cultural ethos that was radically
secular. Photography, from the start, was neither associated with the
representation of divinities, as was sculpture in ancient Greece, nor
was it destined to represent the Biblical legacy and the Christian
worldview in the tradition of Western medieval painting. This is one
powerful reason why it is still rare to see photographs in a church or a
cathedral today, despite the rich decoration of these same religious
monuments with paintings, frescoes, and statues of all sorts.
Photography, therefore, is a perfect mirror of modernity insofar as it
questions the universal and eternal quality of any system of
representation, and asks instead for the presence of a gaze that is
simultaneously paradoxical (if not ironic), and somehow fragile.
Moreover, photography is first characterized by its constant
dissemination in the realm of everyday life and mundane activities. In
this sense, it is always in our midst, existing in a state of both
proximity and familiarity. This constitutes its greatest strength, but
also its main weakness. In comparison, literature has never achieved
the same intensity in its daily presence, not even today, with the
growing commercialization of books and the availability of a huge
number of texts on the Internet. The uniquely instant closeness of
pictures has long alienated many writers and thinkers from
photography, and from this situation the problematic relationship
between the two has emerged.
Not only can anyone see photographs at any given time, but
anyone can also, perhaps more disturbingly, take them. Certainly this
is the most common view held about the medium, and it proves a stark
contrast to other familiar disciplines. Poetry and criticism, which
together constitute the main language of Baudelaire, Breton, Barthes
and Valéry, do not seem to possess the same democratic quality: they
were each still provided with a more elitist status when these four
authors wrote their respective works. Literature must therefore deal
Introduction 13
with a form that has yet to be defined as a true artistic discipline,
contrary to literature itself.
Of course, the argument that "anyone can do it" is largely a
myth. This argument is predicated on the assumption that because
anyone can take pictures, they must necessarily enjoy the ability to
make pictures, that is the ability to demonstrate unique or original
creative abilities. In this tortured logic, the artist is too often confused
with the mere amateur or casual practitioner. But action is not (or at
least, not always) equivalent to creation. The easy approach and
manipulation offered by modern technique does not automatically lead
to the proliferation and mass production of art objects. In
photography, then, art still remains a rare occurrence, an exception to
the rule of permanent repetition and series. The rest is a mere illusion
that technology grants to the average person.
Indeed, if one constructs an aesthetic discourse, one inevitably
refers to a whole set of forms that cannot be reduced to their practical
use. Beyond the world of commodities and daily affairs, then, one
ventures into a rather obscure or mysterious domain in which meaning
itself is not immediately offered. It is this very differAnce (in the
Derridian sense) or delay of meaning that turns the object (here, the
image) into something more than a utilitarian item, thus enabling it to
gain its artistic identity. To this end, The Paradox of Photography
attempts to debunk certain aspects of the utilitarian myth. I do not
pretend to rewrite the history of photography, but I nonetheless
demonstrate that photography essentially belongs to the history of
both modern art and criticism. More precisely, I show that any
discourse on representation cannot ignore the important role played by
pictures in the determination of our own visual spaces, inasmuch as
these visual spaces are also mental or intellectual ones in some sense.
More generally, this book highlights the aesthetic nature of
literature itself. Indeed, the work of the four authors studied here
would not be the same without their own contributions to the domain
of art criticism and aesthetic theory, which, though significant, are
sometimes overlooked. Language and the written word can never be
fully separated from the domain of images: they both stem from the
acute perception of the signs and symbols that define our relationship
to the outside world. The term aesthetic, in this specific case, is
definitively linked to the term poetic. Before putting his ideas and
feelings in writing, the poet is someone who observes things around
14 The Paradox of Photography
him. His gaze allows him to express his own inner universe through
numerous metaphors or visions. To see is to write and to write is to
Therefore, The Paradox of Photography puts forth a poetics of
forms whose unique character depends upon the sheer sensitivity of
the writer’s eye. Photography stirs the presence of such an eye, but it
also forces the writer, especially the poet, to analyze the various
figures of his own self and how the self manifests within the visible
world. In this process, critical discourse often underlines the radical
subjectivity and highly personal imagination of the writer, from
Baudelaire to Barthes and from Breton to Valéry. The so-called
objective dimension of technique does not prevent literature from
reflecting upon both the location and representation of the subject
within images. Forms do not just exist for an anonymous community
or culture; they also convey a particular existential meaning. In the
end, what is at stake in these texts is the presence of a powerful voice
looking for its own identity within, and ultimately beyond, the
relentless stream of modernity, a voice lost in the shadows of reality,
searching for a mirror of its own dreams and fears.


No Art’s Land

Baudelaire’s critique of photography, as expressed in his
famous essay "Le Public moderne et la photographie", published in his
Critique aArt (Paris: Folio/ Gallimard, 1992), has to be understood in
the broader context of a general critique of the French spirit of his
time. It starts indeed with an intriguing definition of the mindset of his
contemporaries. According to Baudelaire, mid-nineteenth century
French artists sought to surprise the viewer through means that were
alien to the art form itself. This constant desire to astonish or bewilder
the public was considered by Baudelaire to be the main vice of his era.
This peculiar goal became an absolute priority for many painters, even
for those who were talented and blessed with outstanding skills. At the
beginning of his argument, Baudelaire focuses his attention on the
misuse of titles that are supposed to enlighten the very subject matter
of each artwork. The title is somehow manipulated in order to impose
a shallow comment on the painting: it does not actually define its
identity, but rather illustrates the artwork in a playful and even
frivolous manner. The artist and his viewers are confused here: they
16 The Paradox of Photography
are embedded in a particular contract which betrays a profound lack of
faith in the aesthetic power of painting. "Cette race, en effet, artistes et
public, a si peu foi dans la peinture, qu’elle cherche sans cesse à la
déguiser et à l’envelopper comme une médecine désagréable dans des
capsules de sucre; et quel sucre, grand Dieu!" (Baudelaire 274). One
could speak, in this regard, of an ongoing strategy that always aims at
the public’s thirst for surprise and entertainment.
Baudelaire’s essential metaphor, in this case, is of a medical
nature. The title of the artwork acts as a sort of sweetener which
actually increases its aloofness and disguises its true purpose.
Evidently, this metaphor presupposes the existence of a sick body, that
of society as a whole in its global attitude toward art and the artist.
The poet also refers, in this perspective, to the presence of a
"deplorable symptom." To enhance his argument, he is forced to
confront the spirit of the French culture of his time with that of Italian
Renaissance, for instance, and this confrontation inevitably leads to
the feeling of a loss that is almost impossible to overcome. The bad
taste that he witnesses in his daily encounters with the French painters
of the mid-nineteenth-century seems to be the sole property of modern
French society ("Je considère ces horreurs comme une grâce attribuée
à la race française"

(Baudelaire 275)). Like Flaubert in both Bouvard
et Pécuchet and Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues, the poet turned art
critic is destined to represent the commonplaces inherent to a
particular people and to a particular zeitgeist. These commonplaces do
not appear only in the context of casual conversations or purely social
events; the experience of art, which should theoretically contradict
them, actually reinforces them and might even be the privileged space
for its expression. In the same vein, Flaubert was able to demonstrate
that the discourse of science was not itself immune to the appearance
of preconceived notions shared by the community.
In this context, Baudelaire tends to deny the very existence of a
French people that could be characterized by a common history and a
collective legacy. This cultural community has been replaced or at
least overshadowed by the power of the "French race", according to
his own words. This notion of race, here, is not ethnically determined.
It is essentially the sign of a lost community of aesthetic norms and
moral values. It is a sort of empirical association of human beings
linked by primitive instincts and lacking a true spiritual compass. By
denying thus the possibility of a genuine community, Baudelaire
No Arts Lana 17
deliberately stresses the emergence of the masses in nineteenth
century society.
These masses have signed a contractual agreement with the
artist. This contract allows ugliness to rule. The poet has witnessed a
profound process of "decadence" from the Renaissance to the
nineteenth century. But the poet does not put the blame solely on the
uneducated members of society. The artist himself has participated in
this long-term move towards aesthetic decline. A truly aristocratic
perspective would make the masses responsible for this state of
affairs. It would instead grant the artist with a presumption of
innocence. The war that Baudelaire conducts, thus, is a war against a
certain conception of art dominated by the complicity between the
artist and those who are supposed to receive his work. The very
sovereignty of the "French race" implies that the masses can no longer
oppose or merely contradict the artists’ position and the social order
that they represent. In this perspective, these artists can never be alone
or simply different: they mostly reflect the sensitivity and the ideology
of the larger segment of society.
It is important to notice in this regard that Baudelaire regularly
focuses on the notion of taste in order to question the general attitude
of the masses towards art work. Taste, indeed, is a rather neutral
notion that can be related to almost any object or commodity. One can
have a particular taste for a form of clothing, certain types of food or
cooking, or a certain style of decoration. As such, it does not entail a
specific relationship between the subject and the artwork. It is
essentially the result of a detached attitude of the masses towards all
things, within a world where art has ceased to be a true passion.
Above all it characterizes the preeminence of a system of consumption
stemming from the rise of modern capitalism. "Le goût du bête, du
spirituel, qui est la même chose" (Baudelaire 275), as the poet says, is
a middle-class or bourgeois attribute, because it is the middle class
that can absorb and seize anything that appears in front of their own
eyes at any moment. Taste, therefore, does not commit the subject the
way love or desire usually does. It reflects the paramount power of
visible and exchangeable artifacts at the moment when they are made
available to the general public. Taste, as such, is neither bad nor good,
but it does betray a casual attitude toward art, through which all works
are identified with potential objects of pleasure and material
gratification. The realm of emotions is barely affected by its action.
18 The Paradox of Photography
On the contrary, taste is in many ways a privileged means of
emotional repression or containment. Baudelaire’s discourse links its
power with the collective enjoyment and quest of silliness. Taste,
indeed, belongs to the average man, to those who want to take
advantage of things without having to make any sacrifice in return. In
other words, and in a paradoxical manner, it is the passion of men
without a passion. It imposes a perpetual attitude of irony towards the
world of forms. In this perspective, one never feels bound by a
cultural contract, and this in turn always makes the notion of artwork
more futile. The false passion of the masses leads to the dissolution of
the artist’s skills. Thus, the original beauty of painting is turned into
"monstrosity" or "horror". This is a strange and highly contradictory
relationship, where two sides achieve equal power and status but
where apparent equality is rooted in a system which always first seeks
the instant satisfaction of one sides’ needs. Baudelaire’s vision of the
art world is that of a universe in which the interests of the artist and
those of the viewer are intertwined. The trial of art therefore focuses
on no single suspect, but derives a verdict that puts the burden of
responsibility on all sides. The social law of taste is a law that is
somehow fluid and flexible enough to content everybody. It is the
ultimate proof of a so-called democratization of art in modernity. No
on except the poet feels restricted by this law, because the taste for a
particular object is never fixed and can always be adapted to the
cultural changes inscribed within bourgeois society. Taste underscores
the impatience of the masses, a people without real faith, inasmuch as
faith, in the secular, Baudelairian sense of the term, contains a specific
longing for the eternal. The poet does not deny the talent of the artist
who abides by this contract: he recognizes it first in order to
demonstrate how much it has been spoiled and even debased by its
submission to the taste of the majority. Within this new order of art,
the noblest things become the subject of mockery and light humor
("Chateaubriand, pardon! Les choses les plus nobles peuvent devenir
des moyens de caricature, et les paroles politiques d’un chef d’empire
des pétards de rapin". (Baudelaire 275)). The lost nobility of the
artwork and of its natural spirit stems from the immoderate love of the
people for anecdotes and juicy details.
Modernity, therefore, is that moment in history when the
ultimate seriousness of art is mixed with the most negative forms of
derision and sarcasm. The recurrent use of witty and funny titles by
No Arts Lana 19
the artist constitutes an accomplished strategy of self-deprecation. In
this perspective, artwork reflects the profound divide between the
aesthetic and the spiritual domain in the French society of the mid-
nineteenth century. In the French language, indeed, the word:
"spirituel" has two very distinct meanings. It can be translated first as
"spiritual", but it also refers to anything amusing or witty. Evidently, it
is the second meaning of the word that Baudelaire has in mind when
he criticizes "le goût du spirituel" within French culture. In other
words, "le spirituel n’est plus spirituel" ("what is witty is no longer
spiritual"). There is an element of parody in many of the titles that
Baudelaire quotes. The viewer is being attracted to the artwork
precisely because this dimension is constantly present. Wit operates
here as a strategy of distraction: one ends up paying as much attention
to the anecdotic character of the title as to the truly formal quality of
the painting. In his essay "The Work of Art in the age of mechanical
reproduction", included in the book Illuminations (New York:
Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968) Walter Benjamin defines this
attitude of distraction as emblematic of a culture dominated by
technique and mass entertainment, particularly film. As he writes:
"The film makes the cult value recede into the background not only by
putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that
at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an
examiner, but an absent-minded one." (240-241). In Baudelaire’s
discourse, taste can also be understood as "appetite," which gives it a
culinary connotation. Art, in this sense, is literally and not just
metaphorically food for the eye. By definition, the title refers
specifically to the subject matter or content of the artwork. It does not
explain its particular aesthetic identity. One is therefore confronted
with a process of displacement, from the domain of painting to that of
writing. For Baudelaire, the title itself is excessive. It comes after the
artwork, with no real reason of its own, as a separate message which is
more a casual illustration than an in-depth analysis of the painting.
The tone of Baudelaire’s critique is itself laced with dark
irony. The poet contemplates a systematic display of bad taste in the
Salons which verges on the ridiculous. One has only to open a
catalogue to find evidence of such aesthetic perversion. The bad taste
of both the public and the artist comes from the idea that the main
purpose of painting is to tell a little story, as a writer of popular fiction
would do with a series or feuilleton. It is of course these little stories
20 The Paradox of Photography
that the masses appreciate the most. A certain confusion is being
created, therefore, between the spirit of art and that of low culture. In
modernity, sheer talent is not in short supply, but it has been rapidly
diverted from its original meaning for the community. In many ways,
Baudelaire’s viewpoint deplores a particular process of representation
of art. This process is largely dependent upon the expectations of the
masses, which search first for the purely anecdotic character of the
artwork because it is what brings painting closer to their own
everyday experiences. The recurrent use of supposedly funny titles
thus serves a practical function, by which the artist makes artwork
more readily available to the public by stressing its narrative nature.
But this narrative is neither of an epic nor of a truly poetic nature; it is
made of words that mainly constitute a gross description of things.
Their proliferation defines a world where comments on art have
become more important than art itself. Somehow the distraction of the
public’s gaze through the presence of words inhibits its contemplative
power. In other words, the viewer reads in order to escape having to
read the actual work of art. The almost endless succession of these
little stories points to the preeminence of the entertaining value of art:
one now talks around painting instead of really talking about it. This
law of representation privileges the social role of conversation
between members of the public and everything they see. This peculiar
and unquestionably contrived form of conversation is regulated in
such a way that it identifies artwork as a mere tool of social
Thus, these little stories become the equivalent of small talk.
And what is small talk if not a type of language that deliberately
avoids the burden of meaning within words? Indeed, one can speak
forever so long as one admits the vanity of language for oneself and
for the other to whom one speaks. This casual conversation stemming
from the cultural presentation of painting seems to be the same for
everybody. Moreover, it has no particular source and is apparently
intended for all viewers. But this law is also the sign of a world for
which obscurity is no longer acceptable. The title must hold a basic
didactic value in order to assert the instant legibility of the artwork.
Any ambiguity would actually harm the social legitimacy of the
contract upon which both the artist and the public have agreed. In this
regard, the language of the title is that of an obvious truth. It is not to
be disputed, and it must remain as light and simple as possible in order
No Arts Lana 21
to accomplish its objectives. Thus, although the title may appear at
first as a key that opens the door to artwork and its meaning, in reality
it is more like a recipe for "food for the eye" which discourages the
public from questioning its form and content.
On a related note, it is interesting that Baudelaire confesses his
relative ignorance of art history. He does not pretend to have a
superior knowledge of Western painting, and in many ways his
critique remains that of both a moralist and a distinguished amateur.
The aesthete is a lover of beauty and of formal perfection: his
judgment does not establish definite standards of artistic value. His
discourse remains too subjective to be that of a true scholar or
specialist. The "I" is always dominant because, as an individual and
not as a member of any academic institution, the poet speaks for
himself rather than any particular group or school. The essay is
conceived like many others, as an open letter to a friend. It has the
nonchalant and down-to-earth quality of the epistolary form. (This
form is integrated into a whole literary tradition of French culture,
from Mme de Sévigné to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But it is either part
of an autobiographical or of a truly fictional endeavor. The association
of the epistolary form with that of criticism represents a significant
and original departure from this tradition).
In this sense, Baudelaire privileges the personal experience of
art, an experience that must rest on the ultimate power of the senses.
The senses dictate the words of the poet and not the mind, as would
most likely be the case with a so-called art historian. If an essay like
this one remains so close to us more than one hundred and fifty years
later, it is precisely because of its sensitive apprehension of art as a
cultural and social phenomenon. One should not try to read
Baudelaire’s critique, and this does not apply only to his essay on
photography, as a sort of theoretical or scientific discourse on art in
the context of modernity. For him, to be genuinely modern means
instead to be constantly open to the fluid and even unstable nature of
man’s sensuous identity. The paradigm of the Correspondances, in
their quest for a deep and intimate relationship between all the
dimensions of human sensuality, does not only concern the domain of
poetry. Since it necessarily involves an aesthetic viewpoint towards
the outside world, it also includes the work of the art critic to the
extent that the art critic is being led by his own gaze before allowing
for the expression of his own language.
22 The Paradox of Photography
Seeing is speaking and speaking is seeing (or as the Mexican
poet and essayist Octavio Paz once said, "No veo con los ojos: las
palabras son mis ojos", "I do not see with my eyes: the words are my
eyes"). But for the poet, seeing is also hearing and touching. The
apparently objective or at least generalizing cultural discourse is truly
a reflection of speech that only belongs to one single person:
evidently, the poet does not hold a monopoly over the power of the
senses. But he does have the unique ability to translate the common
experience of the senses into a formal language over which he
exercises almost total control. In this particular case, the "I" refers to
the possibility of an infinite dialogue between what the critic feels and
what he actually knows. As opposed to the traditional approach of the
art historian, which is logically influenced by numerous references to
the past, Baudelaire’s approach emphasizes instead the truth-value of
the present. After all, it is a present state of affairs that he describes in
his essay. Even though his relationship with the cultural order of his
time is undoubtedly problematic, it is still the particular time in which
he lives that draws his attention. For him, the past exists merely as the
rather shadowy and undetermined object of his personal nostalgia. It is
not truly deciphered, nor is it grasped in its detailed configuration.
In other words, the past is only fantasized about, and therefore
kept at a certain distance, whereas the present is brought ever closer
through the fiery rhetoric of the contemporary decline of art. By
definition, the sensuous person is someone who trusts the existential
validity of his own "being-there", and who commits himself to the
intensity of the moment. This person is likely to be captivated by the
magical power of what is happening in the present without any regard
for what has occurred or what is to come. The senses know, but they
only know because they can ignore or forget the abstractions of the
past. "Le Public moderne et la photographie", after all, is written
largely in the present tense. In this regard, most of Baudelaire’s
critical texts on art can be read as a set of timely chronicles. The gaze
of the poet is attracted by events that are happening in the world
where, for better or worse, he actually lives, loves and suffers. This
group of texts might even be described as a sort of critical diary, one
which concentrates primarily on the aesthetic nature of everyday life
instead of simply accounting for the mere facts of his existence. This
notion of a critical diary is again highly original and cannot be related
with any canonical genre of either classical or modern literature.
No Arts Lana 23
In this sense, the ongoing presence of the "I" enhances the
synchronic dimension of Baudelaire’s discourse. In many ways, the
inner time of the poet is deliberately mingled with the outside time of
social reality. Art must therefore be understood as being simultaneous
to its experience by the critic. This particular emphasis on the present
of art involves the radical subjectivity of the person who is speaking.
The lack of distance that the subject demonstrates towards himself
stems from his personal philosophy of time. In order to achieve some
sort of detachment towards things, and therefore to reach some sort of
rational objectivity, the poet has first to free himself from the burden
of the present. If he does not accomplish this, it is precisely because
he finds a definite intellectual (if not material) gratification in this
process. Words as heavy as "monstrosity" or "horror" do not only
express the profound hostility of the poet towards the taste of his
countrymen: they also establish the emotional link that binds
Baudelaire to modernity.
In other words, the apparent discourse of rejection and
negation is actually what enables Baudelaire to remain as close as
possible to the object of his vociferations. There is nothing that
Baudelaire would fear more than to lose contact with the world that he
seems to despise. It is precisely the public's atrocious taste that fosters
his discourse on art and makes it relevant. This provides him with a
sense of personal legitimacy and beyond, with a feeling of moral and
aesthetic superiority. After all, the era of disbelief in which he is
forced to live reflects and even fosters his own loss of faith:
Baudelaire is not the believer he pretends to be here. In this regard, the
very tone of his critique is itself ironic and sarcastic. He is also a
Godless man, like most men of his time, although different from the
masses in his capacity to analyze the roots of this particular
philosophical attitude. In this perspective, the poet’s hatred is
essentially the result of unrequited love. In other words, he constantly
stares at the public but the public does not really see him. Again, his
gaze is not that of a blind man or of a fanatic who would unilaterally
and unequivocally close the eyes on the positive aspects of nineteenth-
century art. As he says : " Ce qu’il y a de plus déplorable, c’est que le
tableau, si singulier que cela puisse paraître, est peut-être bon"
(Baudelaire 275). Sheer beauty has not vanished from the world; it has
just been distorted or disguised by a dominant cultural order that
imposes certain strategies of reception upon the viewer. Taste, in
24 The Paradox of Photography
itself, does not even imply a profound process of reading or
interpretation of the work of art: paradoxically, it engenders a
predetermined reading that is the very negation of what reading should
be. The painting still exists, though, beyond the social power of taste
and the main task of the poet might well be to rediscover its original
aesthetic quality. In this sense, modernity cannot be reduced to a mere
process of destruction or annihilation of art: it is, rather, the mirror of
a confused collective mind that is unable to distinguish artwork from
its cultural representation.
It is this kind of confusion that can turn the noblest and most
beautiful things into objects of mere caricature. In his relationship
with the present (and therefore, with modernity), the poet is
undoubtedly driven by a conflicting attitude of both attraction and
repulsion. His personal ordeal and torment, therefore, is that of a man
who cannot overcome his own psychological contradictions. In many
ways, he appears as an unsatisfied lover who is nevertheless unable to
tear himself away from the object of his affection. In this sense,
Baudelaire’s discourse is constantly torn between the profound
darkness of nihilism and the pure light of romanticism. His own brand
of modernism is a peculiar one: it is not strictly apologetic, as it would
be for early-twentieth century avant-garde artists and poets such as
Apollinaire, Léger, and the Italian Futurists. But it is not radical
enough to grant the present a death sentence either. His ongoing
assault against the very notion of artistic progress does not solely
question the dominant mindset of the culture in which he lives. After
all, this notion was already paramount for many Renaissance artists
such as Leonardo, who were attempting in particular to integrate the
language of science into their own aesthetic and philosophical
reflection on the role of perspective in painting. This notion, of course,
also appeared at the forefront of both the political and the moral
discourse of the Enlightenment. Its very filiation in modern Western
thought (inasmuch as art always entails, in its aesthetic developments,
the critical analysis of its own forms) renders somehow impossible the
mere adjustment of Baudelaire’s discourse to the cultural reality of
mid-nineteenth-century France.
The paradoxical and often conflicting attitude of Baudelaire
towards modernity has been discussed in particular by a contemporary
critic and philosopher such as Giorgio Agamben. In the article
"Baudelaire; or, the absolute commodity", included in his book
No Arts Lana 25
Stanza: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1993), he stresses in the regard the
poet’s enthusiastic response to the Paris Universal Exposition of 1855.
Baudelaire left his impressions on the event in a series of three articles
that appeared at brief intervals in two Parisian dailies. In the first one,
entitled "De l’idée moderne du progrès appliqué aux beaux-arts", he
focuses his attention on the spectacle of exotic commodities and
described their universal beauty. He indicates then the possible
transfiguration of the commodity into a work of art. These exotic
products would indeed inspire important elements of his own poetics,
notably his Correspondances. As Agamben writes:

The great novelty that the Exposition had made obvious to Baudelaire’s
perceptive eye was that the commodity had ceased to be an innocent object,
whose enjoyment and perception were exhausted in the practical use of it, and
had charged itself with that disturbing ambiguity to which Marx would allude
twelve years later when speaking of the "fetishistic character", the
"metaphysical subtleties", and "theological witticisms" of the commodity.
Once the commodity had freed objects of use from the slavery of being
useful, the borderline that separated them from works of art-the borderline
that artists from the Renaissance forward had indefatigably worked to
establish, by basing the supremacy of the artistic creation on the "making" of
the artisan and the laborer-became extremely tenuous. (42)

This potential synthesis between the commodity and the artwork
definitely constitutes one of the main features of modernity. It can be
witnessed, of course, in the aesthetic value attributed to photography
by many of Baudelaire’s contemporaries. It will be radicalized half a
century later, indeed, in Marcel Duchamp’s’ exhibition of a urinal and
his own definition of the commodity as a work of art through the
ready-made. The case of the Universal Exhibition demonstrated quite
well that Baudelaire was not only aware of this cultural evolution, but
that he actually praised it in several circumstances. This definite
attraction for what one could call the poetic nature of the commodity
(as opposed to its mere use-value or even its exhibition-value, to quote
Benjamin’s term in "The Work of Art in the age of mechanical
reproduction"), did not prevent Baudelaire, though, from expressing
his ongoing reluctance towards a world obsessed with the material
status of objects and the ideology of progress that they entailed.
Agamben’s words underline here the intricacies of the poet’s
discourse on modernity:
26 The Paradox of Photography

Before the enchantment (féérie) of the Universal Exposition, which began to
draw towards the commodity the kind of interest traditionally reserved for the
work of art, Baudelaire took up the challenge and carried the battle to the
ground of the commodity itself. As he had implicitly admitted when speaking
of the exotic product as a "sample of universal beauty", he approved of the
new features that commodification impresses on the object and he was
conscious of the power of attraction that they would inevitably have on the
work of art. At the same time, though, he wanted to withdraw them from the
tyranny of the economic and from the ideology of progress. (42)

Agamben’s analysis asserts the greatness of Baudelaire’s
attitude towards the commodity: the poet responds to its almighty rule
in modernity by turning the work of art into a fetish. As he says: "The
aura of frozen intangibility that from this moment began to surround
the work of art is the equivalent of the fetishistic character that the
exchange value imposed on the commodity" (42). In this sense, the
poet creates an "absolute commodity", so to speak, in which "the
process of fetishization would be pushed to the point of annihilating
the reality of the commodity itself as such" (42). This process is
simultaneous to an implacable critique of the utilitarian philosophy of
the artwork and also to the expression of the intangible character of
the aesthetic experience.
Moreover, the main mythology of the present that Baudelaire
opposes is also the property of the past. To confront this particular
mythology (which is nothing else, in Baudelaire’s eyes, than the
ultimate faith of those who have lost all faith) necessarily means to
return to a certain tradition of art and to stress the ongoing presence of
this mythology beyond its obvious inscription within modernity. In
this regard, Baudelaire’s nostalgia does not stem from his longing for
an object that is in the process of being lost, but rather from his
profound apprehension of an object that is already gone. His own
definition of progress is that of a constant evolution towards the
domination of matter in the field of art. But this particular situation
did not actually start with the industrial revolution and the rise of
capitalism in Western societies. Its origin must be traced to the
Renaissance period, an era when scientific discoveries already had a
major impact both on aesthetic expression and the philosophical
discourse of man.
In this sense, to go back to a world largely immune to the
cultural power of matter, one must remain as close as possible to the
No Arts Lana 27
spirit of the middle ages. So to speak, the matter, for the poet, matters
even more than progress itself. It is the foremost object of his critique.
But what exactly is this matter that he seems to fear with such
intensity? It is the result of the exclusive taste for what he calls "le
Vrai". "Le Vrai", in his perspective, has nothing to do with truth,
whether moral, philosophical or even scientific. It is rather the proof
of an excessive attraction for the crudest forms of reality, to the point
that man becomes completely immersed in them. However, it is not
reality as a whole which the poet condemns, but its cultural
identification with the subject of art. The dialectics of reality and
imagination will of course be later explored systematically by early
twentieth-century modernism: one of the main merits of the Surrealist
poets and artists will precisely stem from their ability to overcome this
tension through the creation of a unique aesthetic language.
But Baudelaire was still caught in the spirit of the nineteenth
century, and of a certain aesthetic idealism. In his own words, the
cultural obsession with "le Vrai" could only stifle the inner quest of
man for sheer beauty. To contrast the presupposed materialism of his
time, Baudelaire actually calls for an aesthetic model whose perfection
one can only reach through the exercise of patience. The cult of
matter, in this sense, implies a definite reign of precipitation. (The
critical analysis of this rule of precipitation will be developed in post-
modernity by social thinker Paul Virilio. In his writings, and
especially in his Vitesse et Politique, Virilio considers it to be one of
the main aspects of a contemporary cultural order dominated by
technology, the media and the power of instant information and
The ideal vision of a talented artist whose skills require a slow
process of apprenticeship remains here rather academic. In many
ways, it is rooted in a tradition that goes back to the medieval era. It is
that of a disciple of a particular master, or in the world of writing and
scholarship, that of the scribe who applies himself to the study,
reproduction, and preservation of manuscripts. If, in the France in
which Baudelaire lives, the natural painter has become an oddity and
even a monster, it is partly because the general public does not allow
for the perpetuation of the image of the artist as a meticulous
craftsman. The law of material reality is stringent, inasmuch as it
involves a specific acceleration of time: the time of art has now
become identical to that of the social and economic world. It no longer
28 The Paradox of Photography
exists in a state of suspension, outside of most concerns for the instant
cultural representation of the artwork itself, as was usually the case in
the middle ages. The transformation of the painter into a monster
reveals the secondary status of the aesthetic domain in modern French
society. What is a monster, indeed, if not a figure of utmost ugliness,
and radical evidence of the disappearance of beauty for those whose
role is precisely to recognize and even worship its presence?
It is interesting to notice that the poet, although passionately
attached to the issue of "le Beau", does not provide us here with any
true definition of this concept. It is as if the power of reality had been
able to obscure beauty, even in the mind of its main admirer. This
power is undoubtedly strengthened by the attitude of the public,
whose identity cannot be determined by Baudelaire. For him, the only
sure thing is that the public has no artistic nature. It lacks the capacity
to feel and think synthetically, a shortcoming that appears to
Baudelaire as an inherent aspect of French culture. Any true aesthetic
sensitivity and thought requires, therefore, the sense of the whole,
since beauty constitutes an entity that cannot be divided nor
fragmented. One can go further by saying that the synthetic approach
which the poet stresses reflects a specific quest for the absolute value
of the artwork.
By contrast, the public expresses the philosophical and cultural
relativism of a certain type of modernity. "Le Vrai", thus, does not
exist as such, although Baudelaire pretends it does. There are only
various forms of reality, since reality itself is always considered as a
set of different parts. So to speak, the definite article does not apply to
this concept; otherwise reality could still be approached as a
representation of the Absolute. In the mind of the public, what is ‘real’
is now located everywhere, but only as a symbol of cultural
dissemination. The social power of this concept is specifically related
to the impossibility of its unity. The relativism that is being unveiled
here is that of a viewer who can play as many roles as he wants, and
according to his or her own mood. He can be a moralist, an engineer, a
philosopher or a socialite, since he is actually deprived of the only role
that truly counts, for Baudelaire: the role of the artist. By artist, in this
particular context, the poet does not mean one who creates or actually
produces artworks, but one who clearly relates to the world in an
aesthetic way. The artist is the person who is primarily concerned with
No Arts Lana 29
forms, and who always searches for their expression in the visible
Although he is obviously not a painter, Baudelaire's narrow
definition of the word "le Vrai" implies that he considers himself an
artist, By contrast, a moralist is one who thinks of art as a means to
convey specific ethical values and principles to the community; an
engineer would tend to see art as a practical discipline destined to
improve the material condition of the community, while a philosopher
would emphasize the ontological dimension of art as opposed to its
formal nature. Finally, the socialite would be content with its
entertaining quality and its ability to distract people from their
everyday concerns. In many ways, the moralist, the philosopher and
the engineer share the same belief in rationality. They all belong to an
intellectual order which can be characterized by its analytical method.
What Baudelaire thus rejects in modernity is the sovereignty of
thought and knowledge over critical sensitivity. The critique of such
supremacy will be reiterated later by another great French poet, Paul
Valéry, in his Pièces sur lArt (Paris: Gallimard, 1934). In this book,
Valéry writes that: "En matière d’art, l’érudition est une sorte de
défaite: elle éclaire ce qui n’est point le plus délicat, elle approfondit
ce qui n’est point essentiel. Elle substitue ses hypothèses à la
sensation, sa mémoire prodigieuse à la présence de la merveille; et elle
annexe au musée immense une bibliothèque illimitée. Vénus changée
en document." (121-122).
The public, although often ignorant in the field of art, is still
capable of reflecting upon the objects he sees. This particular thinking,
thus, can be entirely distinct from the actual knowledge of things. But
it is also evidently distinct from any true emotional relationship with
the world of forms. Ultimately, for Baudelaire the analytical approach
of the public never leads to an actual critique of artwork. After all, this
approach is dominated by the power of positive thinking: the cultural
supremacy of reality is that of an order that can never be questioned.
As long as one sees something, one must accept the cultural
legitimacy of what one sees.
In this sense, Baudelaire stresses the necessary link between
the work of the critic and that of the poet. The average viewer of his
time is not a poet, meaning an artist, because he is unable to engage in
a true critical dialogue with the work of art. His judgment is largely
influenced by the rational mindset of his contemporaries. By
30 The Paradox of Photography
comparison, the critic must remain indifferent to the spirit of the
majority because the significance of his discourse is found in its
fundamental individuality. From an etymological point of view, the
word "individual" refers to the notion of a subject that cannot be
divided. One is an individual, in this perspective, because one is a
whole by oneself. It is therefore because of one’s own synthetic nature
that one can relate synthetically to the world of art. It is quite clear
that this emphasis on the total character of aesthetic sensitivity is
reflected in the poetic perspective of the Correspondances. The
individual who is constantly guided and inspired by the complete
spectrum of the senses demands a resolution of all contradictions and
differences within the realm of forms. Whether these forms are
musical, pictorial or literary, they end up constituting an aesthetic
entity which is impossible to dissociate. Therefore, when the critic
speaks, he simultaneously echoes the voice of the poet. Both agree on
the fact that modernity can be defined as the moment in Western
history when the dominant cultural ethos refutes the poetic ideal of
aesthetic totality. It does so, in particular, because the social order
imposes a compartmentalized perception of things, due to the ever-
growing process of specialization stemming from the rule of
capitalism and bourgeois rationality. The philosopher, the moralist and
the engineer are all, in their own way, the products of this process.
Their specific vision of the world is a limited one, inasmuch as it is
embodied in a discourse which, by definition, narrows the object of
knowledge instead of widening it. This is why Baudelaire does not
write or think as a so-called art critic.
Art criticism, as such, in its academic tradition, still abides by
this law of specialization. In other words, the poet is a true critic, a
free and independent one, precisely because he is not a member of a
particular professional group. It is in this very sense that Baudelaire
epitomizes the spirit of modernity while apparently opposing it
violently. He is therefore genuinely modern because he understands
that one of the main duties of the artist is to break free of the
fragmented conception of the artistic domain. In this perspective, art is
not simply made of various disciplines defined by their own
technique, mode of production and formal rules: instead, it is a
privileged space of gathering, and even fusion, among numerous
aesthetic languages and types of individual expression. In this regard,
Baudelaire’s art criticism deals primarily with painting, but it deals
No Arts Lana 31
also with photography, fashion and music. The perception of the
whole leads here to the integration of art into the cultural sphere in
general. One can thus define Baudelaire’s aesthetic discourse as an
authentic cultural discourse. By contradicting the original and well-
established separation of artistic disciplines, the poet anticipates one
of the most important characteristics of early twentieth-century
modernism. One could think of Surrealism, in particular, and of its
constant process of interaction among poetry, criticism, painting,
photography and film.
The essential paradox of Baudelaire’s discourse is that it
remains profoundly and radically modern while denouncing a certain
spirit of modernity. In this perspective, the true modernist is the one
who at first adopts a distant position towards the world in which he
lives in order to better embrace a hidden essence of the same world.
At its beginning, this negating process already contains the possibility
of a definite assertion. For this specific reason, Baudelaire might well
be more modern than someone like Apollinaire. A more traditional
and entrenched vision of Baudelairian aesthetics would tend to
confine his sensitivity to the limited domain of "art for art’s sake". The
lover of forms, thus, would be in a state of permanent and self-
imposed isolation from the culture that surrounds him. But since "art
for art’s sake", that is an ideal form of art completely detached from
both the material and the social constraints of the time in which it
appears, cannot objectively exist, the poet is forced to abandon this
project replacing it with the highly personal vision of a total art.
Nevertheless, the obvious idealism included in the notion of "art for
art’s sake" is still present in the notion of a total art.
In other words, the poet just moves, in this case, from one form
of totality to the other. The deep belief in "art for art’s sake" would
also impose the image of a timeless art. On the contrary, Baudelaire’s
aesthetic perspective is literally haunted by the burden of time and
more precisely, as said earlier, by the power of the present. This
power is not merely cultural: it is also and maybe above all, existential
in its nature. Moreover, the notion of "art for the sake of art" imposes
the classical and somehow academic image of an aesthetic purity,
which means that the integrity of the artwork cannot be altered by any
external language or artistic expression. In other words, it definitely
contradicts the baudelairian perspective that instead values the
crossing of borders among art forms. This notion remains trapped in a
32 The Paradox of Photography
compartmentalized approach of art. It is no accident, therefore, if
Baudelaire, in his broader critical discourse, praises above all the work
and the aesthetic philosophy of Eugène Delacroix. The French painter,
in fact, embodies for him all the qualities of a true modern artist,
inasmuch as his painting is profoundly influenced by the close reading
of many canonical authors of the Western literary legacy:

Eugène Delacroix aimait tout, savait tout peindre, et savait goûter tous les
genres de talents. C’était l’esprit le plus ouvert à toutes les notions et à toutes
les impressions, le jouisseur le plus éclectique et le plus impartial.
Grand liseur, cela va sans dire. La lecture des poètes laissait en lui des images
grandioses et rapidement définies, des tableaux tout faits, pour ainsi dire.
Quelque différent qu’il soit de son maître Guérin par la méthode et la couleur,
il a hérité de la grande école républicaine et impériale l’amour des poètes et je
ne sais quel esprit endiablé de rivalité avec la parole écrite. David, Guérin et
Girodet enflammaient leur esprit au contact d’Homère, de Virgile, de Racine
et d’Ossian. Delacroix fut le traducteur émouvant de Shakespeare, de Dante,
de Byron et d’Arioste. Ressemblance importante et différence légère.
(Baudelaire 424)

Delacroix was very well a spiritual brother, for the poet,
precisely because he was in his own original way a total artist. He
portrays him as a sort of Renaissance man, although Delacroix was
also inspired in his painting by both biblical and oriental subjects. In
this perspective, one has to notice the recurrent use of the word "tout"
in Baudelaire’s discourse. The modern artist is the artist who is
capable of enjoying everything, in his profound openness to all
aesthetic forms and genres. Delacroix, therefore, perfectly represents
Baudelaire’s idealism and translates it into the domain of art. But the
painter is also an avid reader of numerous classical texts that provide
him with vivid and grand images. These images are already "ready-
made" paintings. The love of all paintings implies in this sense the
love of all poets. One is very far, here, from any sort of aesthetic
nihilism. Moreover, the artistic or literary tradition does not contradict
artistic or literary modernity. To the contrary, they complete each
other. Delacroix’s painting, indeed, could not have existed without
both the intense study and the personal cult of this so-called
classicism. A superficial analysis of "Le Public moderne et la
photographie" would make us believe that Baudelairian criticism rests
upon the radical opposition between the past and the present, between
what has been and what is. But the truth is more complex than that.
No Arts Lana 33
The poet does not really choose between the past and the present, as if
they were essentially incompatible; he rather attempts to demonstrate
their similarities and affinities.
Delacroix is modern, thus, because he stresses in his own work
the aesthetic potential stemming from the relationship between
classicism and modernity. The key-notion of the "aesthetic whole", for
Baudelaire, expresses therefore the specific whole of time. In other
words, the time of art cannot be divided: it reflects instead the
presence of a continuum that precisely gives meaning to the concept
of modernity. Moreover, the respective histories of painting and
literature are necessarily linked: the great modern artist is responsible
for emphasizing this historical resemblance. What Baudelaire calls
here "la rivalité avec la parole écrite" ("the rivalry with the written
word") is not a true competition, in the crudest sense of the term. Both
painting and literature, indeed, search for the same figures of both
aesthetic and spiritual transcendence. This so-called competition
signifies that Delacroix, as a painter, deeply understands not only the
purely artistic power of poetry, but also, and maybe more importantly,
its particular definition as the origin of the work of art, that is of
painting. For instance, the word "translator", used by Baudelaire to
describe Delacroix’s pictorial representation of Shakespearean
characters such as Romeo and Juliet, underlines this profound sense of
an aesthetic origin for modernity. The process of translation, in its
narrow literary identity, implies the reality of a text that cannot exist
without being preceded by another text. It is clear that Baudelaire, in
his critical discourse, is trying to submit painting to the spirit of
poetry. His sense of wholeness stems from a particular sensitivity
which still grants a pre-eminent position to the written word conceived
in its lyrical form. In this regard, his passion for Delacroix’s work
expresses his own feeling of rivalry with the world of images.
Evidently, the poet and the painter use a different language, but they
must end up solving their differences by ultimately confessing the
poetic nature of all artistic expression.
In this perspective, the sense of origin does not negate the
aesthetic value of modernity. To the contrary, it enhances it. The quest
for "Le Vrai", which constitutes for Baudelaire one of the main
features of the modern viewer in "Le Public moderne et la
Photographie", precisely misses the aesthetic importance of this origin
for the construction of a modern discourse on art. The sovereignty of
34 The Paradox of Photography
reality is the sovereignty of a present with no source. It breaks the
essential continuity of aesthetic time, which is now being confused
with the mere social time shared by all men who live in the modern
world, regardless of their class or professional activity. The cultural
power of reality is associated here with the cultural power of progress.
Both contain an important mythological dimension without which
they could not define the new identity of art in mid-nineteenth-century
France. The notion of progress itself entails the same denial of origin
as reality. To believe in the supremacy of progress, indeed, is not only
to worship the future as such, but also, and more significantly, to
make the present ever more distant from the past. Therefore, progress
imposes its own history by erasing any other form of history. For
Baudelaire, beauty has a history that the present is destined to
represent. But this particular process of representation is annihilated
by the irresistible projection of the present into the future. Strictly
speaking, this future has no origin. The Baudelairian perspective on
the time of art emphasizes the idea that any discourse on modernity
must be above all a discourse on the birth of modernity. By contrast,
one can say that progress stems from a philosophy of time that
alienates modernity from the reflection upon its own beginning.
The main purpose of the artist is now to create a contrived
sense of surprise through the public exhibition of the work of art. In
this regard, the artist uses all means available to reach this goal.
Evidently, since everything is now permitted, he is going to resort to
various practices that do not belong in principle to the world of art. At
the time of Baudelaire, it is clear that the cultural power of
advertising, for instance, was not what it is today, in our age of
advanced technology and the global media. When the poet, indeed,
says in the English language that "it is a happiness to wonder", he
might very well have foreseen in his own way the personal feelings
and emotions of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century
publicist, in his constant desire to attract the attention of the consumer
through various strategies of seduction. Baudelaire, undoubtedly,
could not have identified in those same terms this cultural
phenomenon at the time when he lived. He could only perceive the
gradual but nonetheless systematic transformation of the artist into a
seducer of the crowd. In this regard, it is interesting to notice that the
new credo of the so-called modern artist is expressed here in a foreign
language, as if by its very nature it implied the weakening of French
No Arts Lana 35
cultural identity. Indeed, this credo has somehow already become
universal, and by being so, it expresses art’s alienation from its
original community. The poet is confronted with a particular process
of cultural appropriation, and therefore, of cultural dispossession. The
artist has now entered a system of representation in which art itself is
just a material means to achieve collective amazement. This is how
capitalism and bourgeois society can tolerate the presence of beauty,
but this can only be true so as long as beauty is submitted to the law of
wonder. The sense of surprise is apparently shared by all members of
the community: it retains a vague and rather shallow democratic
quality that reinforces its power.
In other words, beauty is not being destroyed by the modern
world: instead, it is being manipulated and used in order to produce a
false aesthetic equality among all things, and more precisely, among
all artworks. Any object can now engender an almost instant
emotional reaction from the crowd, since the artist has agreed upon
the terms of this cultural contract. In this perspective, of course, the
artwork is no longer an end, but simply a means of spreading the new
social norms of its reception. The crowd must now be struck by quick
sensual stimuli before being literally overwhelmed by the aesthetic
achievement of art. In this regard, Baudelaire refers to "procédés" and
"stratagèmes", that is, to a tactical approach stressing the control
exercised by hidden forces that do not belong strictly to the world of
art. These two terms reflect the profound conflict that now exists
between the realm of aesthetics and that of culture. For the poet,
indeed, there is no such thing as an aesthetic strategy (and there is no
such thing as a poetic strategy either). Forms express primarily the
strength of the artist’s personal vision. They do not stem from a sort of
objective calculation that would be influenced by the predetermination
of the public’s attitude. In this sense, art has become more and more
subject to the power of rationality. This type of rationality
paradoxically escapes the aesthetic reason of both dreams and
imagination. The emphasis on the tactical character of the artist’s
project actually stirs a sort of cheap emotional response among the
mass of viewers. But this emotional response is very much an
ephemeral one: it only exists as long as the artist is aware of the public
impact of his work. The common sense of wonder cannot last: by
essence, indeed, it is destined to fade rapidly. Therefore, a certain
philosophy of the time of art is once again at stake here.
36 The Paradox of Photography
To oppose this so-called happiness to wonder, Baudelaire
refers to the ethical value of the ecstatic relationship to the work of art.
The feeling of ecstasy, which relies mostly upon the happiness of
dream, implies a suspension of time: the viewer is now detached from
the constraints of real time and wanders through artworks by
surrendering to the power of imagination. Baudelaire’s ethical
ambitions also point at the necessary similarity between the approach
of the art critic and that of the poet. In other terms, it is not only the
painter who has to give up his rational mindset in order to become a
"true artist", but also the critic. In his article "À quoi bon la critique?"
(Baudelaire 77-79), Baudelaire attempts to define in this regard the
task of the modern critic. In this text, he clearly demonstrates that the
best form of criticism must be both funny and poetic. In addition, he
underlines the fact that it has to contradict the dominant critical
discourse which largely rests upon the vain pretension to explain
painting in a purely rational way. This "cold and algebraic" concept of
criticism, to use his own words, has to be rejected because it is
profoundly deprived of any hate or love. The so-called intelligence of
traditional or academic criticism is somewhat immune to both the
moral and the aesthetic power of passion. It is still penetrated by a
strategic and somewhat prudent approach to the work of art. In its
obsession with both reason and measure, it fails to express the very
feelings which, by essence, give birth to beauty and to the visual
transcription of the artist’s imagination. "Ainsi, le meilleur compte-
rendu d’un tableau pourra être un sonnet ou une élégie." (Baudelaire
The same suspicion that Baudelaire voices against the artist
can be found again in his negative attitude toward the official critic. In
order to re-establish the sovereignty of lasting emotions in modernity,
the poet must therefore identify art criticism with the work of the poet.
There is no such thing as an essay on art, in this sense. One can only
write poetry on art, even if one does not actually resort to the language
of poetry while writing criticism. This assertion must be understood as
a radical response to the spirit of the artist and the critic as mere
speculators. Criticism has to be independent from any philosophy of
usefulness. It is not a commodity, and it does not serve any practical
goal. "À quoi bon?" indeed: the very fact that this question is being
raised by the poet shows that he does not really believe in the cultural
application of the discourse on art. This discourse must remain highly
No Arts Lana 37
subjective, passionate and political. In other words, it constitutes for
Baudelaire the ultimate expression of the romantic soul in the modern
world. In the conclusion of his short essay, the poet actually asks for
as much romanticism as possible: the artist and the critic, therefore,
must be united in their quest for sincerity and the ethics of feelings.
To go back to the essay on photography, this means that the
strategy of wonder, so to speak, only leads to the concealment of
man’s true irrational nature. Criticism, in spite of what it simply seems
to be, constitutes very well a discourse of the Absolute, and not just a
cautious account based upon the failed ideology of relativism. This
radical conception has far reaching consequences: it implies for the
poet the strong belief in the metaphysical dimension of criticism ("La
critique touche à chaque instant à la métaphysique" as he writes
(Baudelaire 79)). By this, one has to understand a global assault on a
tradition of rationality which, in French culture, goes back to
Descartes and Malebranche (and even before that, to Montaigne), is
prolonged in many ways by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, in
particular Montesquieu, and will still be echoed in the twentieth-
century in the work of both Bergson and Sartre.
In this regard, it is no accident if Baudelaire, in his essay on
"Le Public moderne et la photographie" criticizes with a particular
violence what he characterizes as the "French spirit". It is a spirit
which, for him, is profoundly immune to the spiritual power of
romanticism. If other people or nations are superior to the French,
according to his own words, it is precisely because they are capable of
feeling with their whole being the call for the absolute included in any
true work of art. Philosophical, moral and aesthetic relativism has
already corrupt modern French society. Obviously, it is a clear
consequence of the rule of the bourgeoisie and of its fundamental
materialism. But it is also the consequence of a whole intellectual
tradition that has dominated France for decades and even centuries. In
this sense, Baudelaire’s discourse remains also cultural in the sense
that it reflects upon a certain legacy of thinking that belongs
specifically to French culture. Therefore, it should not come as a
surprise if the poet of Les Fleurs du Mal finds his true alter ego, which
is Edgar Allan Poe, in a foreign culture, namely the Anglo-Saxon
world of nineteenth-century America. One must notice in this regard
the important work done by Baudelaire both as a critic and a translator
of Poe’s work (for instance, his own translation of Arthur Gordon
38 The Paradox of Photography
Pym). If Baudelaire was hostile to the rise of the Daguerreotype in
modern culture, though, such was not the case for Poe, who quickly
celebrated the technical accomplishments of this photographic process
in an article entitled "The Daguerreotype" and published in 1840. Poe
praised in his text "the most beautiful miracle" of a plate that could
produce an image of great accuracy and realism. In other words,
photography could achieve for him a synthesis of both beauty and
truth, a statement which radically contradicts Baudelaire’s perspective
on the subject.
Baudelaire’s brother in poetry has to come from another
cultural tradition, one that is more open to the power of the
Supernatural and at the same time less tied to the obstinate faith in the
moral supremacy of Reason. In the same perspective, Delacroix is a
great artist because he borrows his pictorial inspiration from the
English, the Italian and the Oriental culture almost simultaneously. In
this sense, he is a "world artist" and not a purely French one, as
opposed, for instance, to what will happen later with the more obvious
and purer Frenchness of Impressionist painters such as Seurat or
Monet, and after that, of Cézanne. The emphasis on both the romantic
and the metaphysical nature of criticism is not just motivated by
aesthetic or even ethical concerns: it also reflects the intensity of a
cultural conflict that the poet constantly carries within himself.
But the metaphysical dimension that Baudelaire claims as an
essential part of critical discourse must also be related to the belief in
the individual expression through this discourse. The poet has to assert
his own unbridled form of individualism wherever he can: it is his
duty as well as his fate. By contrast, neither the modern artist nor the
modern public are capable of imposing their own selves, since they
are tied by a tactical contract which stresses their cultural similarities
instead of enlightening their original differences. The need for the
representation of radical subjectivity beyond any cultural order
constitutes the main feature of the romantic sensitivity, but it also
leads to a metaphysical conception of both art and criticism in the
sense that this need becomes no less than a matter of life and death.
Baudelaire’s metaphysical individualism is not just a circumstantial
individualism shaped by material concerns and the practical
constraints of the outside world: it is instead an absolute exigency
stemming from the faith in the creative power of man’s inner life. In
this context, the poet refers to the necessary temperament of both the
No Arts Lana 39
artist and the critic, by which term he implies both their strong
personalities and the profound vigor of their respective feelings. In
this sense, "temperament" contains the image of an uncompromising
soul, of a subject who cannot be satisfied with the strictly contractual
nature of art in modernity. It is this very same quality that Baudelaire,
for instance, will emphasize elsewhere in his apology of Delacroix.
Moreover, by putting forward this issue of "temperament", the
poet recognizes both the aesthetic and the moral value of sincerity: the
artist and the critic must not be afraid of their own naiveté, which
means the foremost transparency of their intimate emotions. By
contrast, the strategy of wonder is never naïve: it always conceals the
true intentions of the artist and it is only the proof of a suspension of
authenticity. This particular process is evidently imposed by the
cultural law of the instant public reception of the work of art. "Le
vrai", therefore, is not true. In other words, the romanticism that
Baudelaire displays in his article on Photography is not a romanticism
of forms; it is a romanticism of content. Art prevails when the painter
or the poet crosses the sheer limits of aesthetics and assert the
passionate inspiration of his own creative world. This is the reason
why Baudelaire opposes Delacroix to Victor Hugo and confesses
without any ambiguity his artistic preference for the painter. Hugo
remains trapped in the aesthetic norms of academic poetry: he is a
virtuoso of rhetorical conventions, of classical rhymes and tones, but
the formal perfection of his work stifles in many ways the raw
expression of his own feelings and emotions. On the contrary,
Delacroix is not afraid of a certain aesthetic clumsiness or even
disorder, because he believes profoundly in the ultimate power of
shameless audacity and unabashed lyricism. Hugo, therefore, is
primarily a skilled and experienced worker, while Delacroix is more
of a youthful but innovative creator. The poet already belongs to the
Academy from the start, while the painter explores an inner domain
that is only his own. In this sense, the true poet is not the one we
think. Baudelaire’s original definition of romanticism, in his emphasis
on both spirituality and intimacy, questions by nature the vanity of
strict formalism and calls for the supremacy of the artist’s instincts in
the birth of the work of art. In this regard, the poet is anything but an
esthete, in the traditional sense of the term.
If Baudelaire had been living in the twentieth-century, it is
almost certain that he would have been much more sensitive to the
40 The Paradox of Photography
pictorial primitivism of abstract expressionism, for instance, than to
the patient but cold geometry of a Mondrian or to the sophisticated but
abstract formal integrity of classical cubism. "Il faut en finir une fois
pour toutes avec ces niaiseries de rhétoricien", as he says in his
comparison between Hugo’s and Delacroix’s romanticism (Baudelaire
91). Baudelaire’s metaphysical individualism requires a radical
departure from any purely formal approach of art. His discourse is
metaphysical precisely because he asks for the artistic expression of
an Absolute that no aesthetic system, by itself, can really engender. To
put it differently, the poet’s romanticism, which is just another term
for his metaphysical individualism, does not reflect his unilateral
support of a specific school of art and thought: it is instead the symbol
of a highly personal vision of both the world and the artist’s role in
modernity. The moral supremacy of beauty, in his critical discourse,
cannot simply be associated with the superficial cult of nice objects or
artifacts. The demanding quest that it implies emphasizes instead an
ethics of hard work and even sacrifice, as exemplified by the life of
Delacroix. Beauty is by definition difficult to reach. The cultural
evolution that Baudelaire denounces in "Le Public moderne et la
Photographie" makes it indeed even more remote from the world of
everyday affairs. In this perspective, "le Beau" exceeds the limits of a
mere sensual fulfillment that could be achieved at any moment inside
the material world.
That is the reason why the common identification of
Baudelaire with the well-known figure of the dandy lacks critical
legitimacy, in this case. According to the poet’s discourse, the dandy
is a figure of idleness, and it is through this very quality that he can
establish some sort of aristocratic distinction between himself and the
rest of society. Moreover, his attraction to beauty is more a result of
his good taste than the consequence of his true passion. His own brand
of individualism, therefore, is too tempered to include the radical
philosophical perspective of romanticism in its metaphysical
dimension. Although Baudelaire is able to find some features of the
dandy in both Guys and Delacroix (and also in Poe), he actually never
indulges in the sort of "originality for originality’s sake" that
constitutes one of the main aspects of this character. In many ways,
the dandy is also the epitome of narcissism. "C’est une espèce de culte
de soi-même, qui peut survivre à la recherche du bonheur, à trouver
dans autrui, dans la femme, par exemple; qui peut survivre même à ce
No Arts Lana 41
qu’on appelle les illusions" (Baudelaire 370). But it is precisely this
narcissism in both the crowd and photography that Baudelaire abhors,
as his essay "Le Public moderne et la photographie" clearly
In spite of his aesthetic refinement and his personal pride, the
dandy therefore remains tied to the worst impulses of modern society.
At best the dandy is a cultural phenomenon that Baudelaire can only
appreciate as such. He is the mirror of a waning era in which the
aristocratic mind has not been yet completely overwhelmed by the so-
called democratic law of equality and transparency, a law that the poet
forcefully rejects. "Le Dandysme est un soleil couchant" (Baudelaire
372), which means it largely belongs to the past and is actually unable
to pave the way for a new order of art located in the present, as
opposed to the original romanticism of both Delacroix and Poe. It is a
sunset, not a sunrise. The dandy can also constitute the subject matter
of art, as he witnesses it in several of Constantin Guys’s drawings. But
he can never become the ideal figure of the artist since he is naturally
deprived of both the rigorous discipline and the emotional intensity
that this ideal calls for. "Le caractère de beauté du Dandy consiste
surtout dans l’air froid qui vient de l’inébranlable résolution de ne pas
être ému." (Baudelaire 372). He might be a cold and latent fire, and
admired as such by the poet, but his obstinate refusal to express or let
flow his own emotions nonetheless contradicts the ethical definition of
modern art which Baudelaire asserts elsewhere in his own critical
In his essay "Boundaries of time and being", included in his
book The Culture of Redemption (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1990), Leo Bersani has analyzed Baudelaire’s discourse on the
dandy, a figure that he defines himself as "the bizarre modern form of
individualism" (79). As he writes:

There is, in short, nothing to be seen in the dandy except the determination
not to let anything be seen. In a sense, no one is more prostituted to others
than the dandy: his aristocratic individuality depends entirely on how others
will interpret his heroically scrupulous erasure of any signs whatsoever of
individuality, an erasure that may depend literally on the truly heroic, truly
impossible feat of monitoring the movements of one’s sleeping body in a
mirror. If in their self-prostitution the lover and the artist find themselves
dispersed in the images of otherness within them, the dandy-more radically
dependent on others-exists only in the astonished fabulations of those he
seduces into inventing him. (80)
42 The Paradox of Photography
In many ways, the dandy is an individualist without a true
individuality. His identity remains highly problematic, since it needs
the others’ gaze to exist. He is, so to speak, the mirror of his own void.
Moreover, his constant dependency upon others (upon other people’s
capacity to fantasize and imagine him) profoundly contradicts
Baudelaire’s philosophy of the modern poet, a figure that asks indeed
for a radical emancipation from the bourgeois social order and the
norms of the community. The modern poet is definitely not a figure of
seduction, let alone of prostitution: he constitutes instead a symbol of
utmost contradiction and even conflict with the other (as the poem
LAlbatros clearly demonstrates it).
To put it differently, Baudelaire is no Andy Warhol for the
nineteenth-century (indeed, the famous jet-setter of Pop Art could
have never qualified as a "doomed artist"). His ongoing concern for
both the eternal in art and the nobility of the artist renders him
somehow immune to the aesthetic appeal of trends. Moreover, in "Le
Public moderne et la photographie" the poet never yields to the cheap
temptations of popular culture. His critique of photography, indeed, is
above all motivated by the fact that the majority of the new medium's
intended audience basically uneducated in the field of art. The dandy’s
distinction is that of a man who actually confuses eccentricity, which
is primarily a psychological notion, with true originality, which is
more of an aesthetic or philosophical nature. His apparent exception
comes from a certain set of individual behaviors and attitudes rather
than from a thoughtful conception of art. It is the exception of a
character before being that of a vision.
In this sense, the figure of the dandy enables Baudelaire to
develop a specific cultural discourse against democracy and the reign
of the masses, but it does not lead to the definition of a new artistic
order for modernity. Clearly, the dandy raises the issue of
individualism and of its cultural meaning in mid-nineteenth-century
France. In his own way he stresses the need for human singularity in a
society whose values and principles have profoundly distorted it. But
he also reflects the conflict that exists between the self and the social
conditions under which he is forced to live. In other words, he cannot
identify with the dominant bourgeois class of his time because he still
belongs to the aristocratic world of the past. Therefore, his own
feelings of exclusion have to be defined primarily in sociological,
rather than in strictly artistic terms.
No Arts Lana 43
The nineteenth century was the century of the industrial
revolution in France. If Baudelaire could cope with the idea of a
Revolution and the historical events that it entails, as shown by his
enthusiastic and committed response to the Utopian political
movement of 1848, there is no way he could agree with the rule of
industry, especially when applied to the domain of art rather than that
of social and economic production. When the poet refers to
photography, he does not use the word "art", as if this word was only
reserved for painting. But in focusing almost obsessively on the
industrial nature of photography he yields to the gross generalizations
of cultural discourse, and thereby abandons the subtlety that generally
characterizes his meditations on modern aesthetics. While elsewhere
the poet is a sophisticated and careful analyst of forms in their most
tenuous details, he demonstrates here an irresistible tendency to
general statements and simplistic characterizations.
The problem, then, is not that Baudelaire criticizes
photography or even rejects it as a whole, but that in order to do so he
adopts a rhetorical position that lacks aesthetic legitimacy. In other
words, it is a problem of language and style rather than content. The
gaze of the critic has no role here: his discourse is not that of someone
who looks at things, but of a man who covers his own eyes before
writing or speaking. It is interesting that Baudelaire never makes
specific reference to individual photographs, as though photography,
unlike painting or sculpture, is not made of particular objects. For the
poet, even bad paintings have a name (we know this already through
his numerous comments, in the same essay, on their rather
preposterous titles). Yet all pictures remain anonymous. In this sense,
the subject matter of his discourse is a non-subject from the start, and
it is this very neutrality that renders his argument profoundly abstract.
Art criticism no longer exists, since it requires by nature the presence
of well-defined objects from which the critic can draw his inspiration.
Photography is deliberately denied its aesthetic dimension: it is not
just a bad art form, but constitutes the vacuum of all form. Baudelaire
does not merely emphasize the shortcomings of his subject: he erases
it almost entirely in a sort of nihilistic gesture. What remains is the
vaguely moral power of radical negativity. In other words, the poet
asserts his overwhelming subjectivity by systematically destroying the
image of the object to which this subjectivity is destined. Such a
perspective has no equivalent in modernity, and it is in this regard that
44 The Paradox of Photography
Baudelaire’s essay still deserves attention as a unique attempt to
obliterate the very foundations of critical discourse.
If photography is undoubtedly absent in this case, it is because
of the ubiquitous presence of the crowd. The poet shifts therefore from
an aesthetic position to a purely cultural one. In this sense, his essay
unconsciously reflects the rise, not only of a new medium, but also of
a new science in modernity. Indeed, sociology is the true new
theoretical discourse of the mid-nineteenth century. If the origin of
hard sciences such as mathematics and physics can be traced to
Ancient Greece, and if the same can be said about philosophy, the
science of modern society, by contrast, only develops fully at the time
of Baudelaire. In France, the work of both Auguste Comte and Gabriel
Tarde will soon establish the intellectual credibility of such a science
before the advent of Freudian psychoanalysis at the beginning of the
twentieth century. The era of the masses calls for an unprecedented
form of knowledge, one that will strive to underline the social
domination of collective entities and structures over the individual in
the modern world. (For an introduction to Gabriel Tarde’s
groundbreaking sociological work in the second half of the nineteenth
century, I want to refer in particular to his books Social Laws and
Communication and Social Influence).
Although he vehemently opposes the modern phenomenon of
photography, Baudelaire retains his own modernity by insisting on a
cultural approach which emphasizes the whole of the social order.
This is the fundamental paradox of his critique. His gaze becomes that
of a sociologist, one who can only witness the confusing movements
of the crowd and yet disregards the meaning of both particular objects
and individual lives. The main target of his discourse is the crowd,
inasmuch as it does not possess any personal feature. This collective
reality is not even made of people: it is merely a conceptual
construction that allows him to express his own hostility towards the
success of photography. It is clear that the poet’s dislike of any
industrial product echoes the social philosophy of Charles Fourier.
Fourier’s critique of modern industrial production and his call for the
return to a rural community where all men could live their passions
and their intimate feelings without any constraint will influence both
André Breton, who will write a poetic ode in his honor and the various
libertarian and Utopian movements of the nineteen sixties, from the
hippies to May 68.
No Arts Lana 45
But Baudelaire does not offer any true alternative to this
model. The enemy has won, and utopian possibility has been replaced
by the fatalistic certainty of technical dominance. The rule of industry
is identified with the irreversible loss of the divine within French
society. New Gods have already appeared and Baudelaire can only
acknowledge the cult of photography in the middle classes of mid-
nineteenth century France. Words such as "fanaticism" and "sun
worshippers" unequivocally assert the religious dimension of this
ever-growing passion of the masses for pictures. Even Daguerre
himself is compared to a sort of Messiah, albeit as a dark archetype.
One could talk, therefore, of a religious spirit in the shadow of its own
In his article "Daguerre, un Prométhée chrétien", published in
Études Photographiques (Paris: Société Française de Photographie,
May 1997, 2), the French art historian Éric Michaud analyzes in this
regard the important religious dimension of Daguerre’s invention. He
explains that this pioneer of photography was deeply concerned with a
politics of images that would have facilitated the propagation of
Christian universalism. Daguerre saw himself as a Promethean figure
destined to embody the heroism of modern technique put in the
service of a new Christianity. As he writes: "Ce Christianisme
pratique achevait de substituer au culte des images fournies par la
Providence, le culte de leurs techniques de production qu’apportait le
progrès. " (55)
In this context, it is obvious that Baudelaire’s radical
vocabulary alone questions the legitimacy of any critical discourse.
The necessary subjectivity of this discourse is so distorted that it
becomes an object of caricature and derision. In this sense, "Le Public
moderne et la photographie", especially in its second part, reveals the
ultimate crisis of the critical subject. In other words, this essay
becomes anti-poetic precisely because it is anti-critical, or rather
because it deliberately assaults the principles and proper qualities of
art criticism as defined earlier by Baudelaire himself. And this is how
photography leads to the annihilation of the poet’s personal means of
expression. The use of religious metaphors is evidently not an oddity
for Baudelaire, as they constitute a repeated feature of his poetry, and
most particularly in Les Fleurs du Mal. But the numerous references
to religion in his literary work always retain a lyrical, almost
apologetic dimension. They enable him to arrive at a sort of spiritual
46 The Paradox of Photography
ecstasy, and serve as a means of reconciliation between his own soul
and the material order of things. Of course, there is no such process of
reconciliation in his essay on photography, where religious metaphors
only emphasize the absolute distance between the poet and the world,
a distance that is clearly impossible to overcome. The religious
language of redemption and salvation has now turned into a language
of sheer damnation.
In this sense the essay is overwhelmed with a profound pathos,
one which his poetry is usually able to transcend. It is a pathos that is
obviously born out of fear: the fear of the unknown, of a language that
the poet is unable to decipher. What Baudelaire represents here is not
the failure of photography as an art form, but the failure of criticism as
an art form. The poet is confronted by a medium that is still in its
infancy, and it is precisely this "childhood of art" that he cannot grasp
or even analyze. While painting draws its aesthetic legitimacy from
the shadow of its own history, photography is still very much
identified with the present and with the world to come. It has no real
history, and therefore has no real origin. This is evidently what
separates Baudelaire from it. What can be said about the historical
nature of the meaning of painting can also be said, of course, about the
poetic language.
There is no way to look back, and this is why the poet's gaze
remains obscured by the limits of time. This is clearly the reason why
his critique of bad painting is less vitriolic than his attitude towards
photography. At least bad painting can still be integrated into some
sort of historical framework. The history of art, in the classical sense
of the term, does not solely rely upon the study of masterpieces. It can
also focus on the study of minor, if not mediocre works, as long as
they reflect a specific aesthetic (if not cultural) development of
painting at a particular moment in history. By contrast, photography
lacks a true system of references. Photography, so to speak, does not
rest upon anything ("La photographie ne repose sur rien"). If it is
essentially absent in Baudelaire’s discourse, it is because the main
issue it raises is the issue of its own cultural reception, and not of its
artistic significance as a means of representation. If photography does
not represent anything, it cannot itself be represented by criticism.
What is left is the fuzzy image of a mass of viewers that escapes any
authentic process of identification. The "worshipper", by definition, is
a mere dot within the crowd. He may be a human being, but he is not a
No Arts Lana 47
subject: indeed, the nature of the cult requires that he surrender his
own personality. Because of this, Baudelaire’s attack does not focus
on an art form, but on society as a whole, regardless of the individuals
that constitute it ("La société immonde se rua, comme un seul
Narcisse, pour contempler sa triviale image sur le métal" (Baudelaire
277)). The industry is not made of proud members of a particular
socio-economic structure. Instead, it is made of ghosts, and as such it
possesses no real physical identity.
Baudelaire's essay has often been interpreted as an
unambiguous condemnation of both the moral and the aesthetic value
of nature. Certainly, the notion of an art form conceived as the mere
reproduction of nature is contrary to the poet’s critical philosophy.
Nevertheless, in this case the word "nature" actually refers to the so-
called objective realism of photography. In other words, photography
pretends to be ‘natural’ because it is realistic. Therefore it is not nature
as a privileged subject matter of art that is scorned here, rather the
specific mode of representation that an exact and meticulous
reproduction of nature implies. Baudelaire is neither Rousseau nor
Thoreau: he never idealizes nature, and he remains constantly aware
of the presence of Evil within it. Yet he does draw his poetic
inspiration from his own intimate relationship with the natural world.
For instance, the remote paradise described in LInvitation au voyage
(an imaginary place where everything is "order and beauty, luxury,
calm and voluptuousness"), primarily reflects the formal perfection of
flowers, rivers and sunsets. And what is a poem like LHomme et la
mer if not a lyrical statement about the profound resemblances
between man and the natural elements ("la mer est ton miroir"), and
beyond that, about the passions which have always tied them, from
love to hate?
For the poet, nature is never the true other, or even a definite
stranger, but rather a brotherly soul that is also capable of
disappointing and even betraying him. Clearly, Baudelaire’s
relationship with nature is complex. This is why the apparently radical
perspective expressed in "Le Public moderne et la photographie"
should not mislead us. The poet’s inner vision could not exist without
a profound attraction to nature which is constantly mixed with a
feeling of repulsion. Poetry, whether classical or modern, cannot deny
nature. Such an attitude would be equivalent to the denial of poetry
(and of art) itself. But it can adopt a position of contradiction, while
48 The Paradox of Photography
simultaneously overcoming this original contradiction through the
moral power of aesthetics.
Baudelaire’s romanticism rejects both the natural idealism of
ancient Greece and the sheer nihilism of a particular modernity. From
his point of view, modernity is guilty of distorting the image of nature
through the blind action of industrial reproduction. In other words,
photography is not bad because it is natural, but because it pretends to
be natural. A particular cultural process of deception is at stake here: it
entails the deliberate confusion between reality and nature. But for
Baudelaire nature is precisely what is to be imagined or dreamt about,
and not what is to be seen as a purely material object. It is never taken
for granted, but instead permanently reinvented and reconstructed
through the magic of words. Representations of nature in photography
do not allow for such a creative process (which is of course, primarily,
a poetic process). The overpowering influence of industry thus
imposes a pre-determined image of nature, one that can no longer be
modified by its audience. Above all, Baudelaire’s disgust stems from
the supremacy of realism in the photographic form. In essence,
realism asserts the impossibility of moving beyond reality: nature
becomes a realm of objective facts, and is thereby rendered immune to
the influence of the light of dreams.
It is in this regard that Narcissus (a figure so vehemently
decried by Baudelaire in the same text) is the ultimate realist. By
looking at himself in the water, and by stating that the image he sees is
the perfect mirror of his own being, he actually implies that there is
nothing to be seen beyond what he sees. The mere surface of things
becomes the proof of his presumed beauty and physical perfection. It
is this unshakable belief in the superiority of the visible world which
leads him to the intimate conviction of his own superiority towards
others. The reality manifest in the reflection of his image thus
constitutes the most solid foundation of his self-love. To put it
differently, the unleashing of his absolute subjectivity (an almost
terrorist one) is conditioned by the absolute objectivity of his own
representation in the outside world. This particular representation is
now conceived as a totality that cannot be exceeded. There lies the
fundamental paradox of Narcissus, a sovereign subject whose
apparent power is necessarily linked to the deep awareness of his own
existence as a pure object inscribed within an indisputable reality.
No Arts Lana 49
It is clear that Baudelaire’s critique of modern narcissism rests
upon the foremost role played by the aesthetics of portrait in
photography. What he witnesses, in fact, is the birth of a new form
that emphasizes self-representation as opposed to the representation of
the outside world (the world of others). The cultural success of the
Daguerreotype was primarily that of a medium that enabled the mid-
nineteenth-century middle class to look at its own image. The main
subject matter of these pictures rapidly became the closed nucleus of
the family. Parents were thus seduced by the possibility of
representing their children, as well as themselves, in an almost
instantaneous manner.
The democracy that Baudelaire opposes is therefore, above all,
a deceiving equality of social representation. This particular process
actually signifies the domination of the same social order, that of the
bourgeoisie, through the endless production of seemingly singular
artifacts. The popularity of this kind of portrait thus expresses the
ardent desire of the masses for conformity, a conformity that needs to
be asserted and reiterated constantly through the world of images. One
is reassured in one’s own social integration through a form that
emphasizes one’s resemblance to the rest of the community.
Photography therefore constitutes a contrived space of similarity: this
very similarity of appearances is now confused with a declaration of
equality. This is precisely the reason why Baudelaire could enjoy, in a
twisted and almost perverted way, the creation of his own portrait by a
photographer such as Nadar. He was convinced that his artist-friend
could rise to some sort of aesthetic challenge by creating an original-
looking portrait. Baudelaire’s main purpose was to raise provocative,
even defiant questions about the cultural identity of photography. This
was a matter of personal pride, the pride of a poet who thought his
own uniqueness could prevail over the uniform character of the
medium (which is also the pride of a relentless fighter who thinks that,
even in defeat, he can still battle his enemy and inflict some wounds).
In this sense, Nadar's portrait of Baudelaire does not reflect a true
attitude of complicity towards photography, but can be viewed as a
parody of society’s narcissism, an ironic comment on its vanity. It is
the sign of the poet’s profound resistance in front of a language that
attempts to confuse his own personality with that of the masses.
Therefore, and in spite of all, it does not really contradict the
aggressive spirit of his essay "Le Public moderne et la photographie".
50 The Paradox of Photography
If one compares this essay with "Le Peintre de la vie
moderne," also published in his Critique aArt, one is immediately
struck by their differences of perspective as far as the crowd is
concerned. Whereas Baudelaire celebrates the artistic figure of
Constantin Guys as "l’homme des foules", the man who embraces the
dynamic movement of humanity as a whole at any moment and under
all circumstances ("sa passion et sa profession, c’est d’épouser la
foule" (Baudelaire 351)), he loathes photography's audience, both for
its complacency and its vulgarity ("obscenity" is actually the word that
he uses in this case). The ideal of art as the representation of modern
life entails a definite process of identification between the painter and
the people. M.G., meaning Constantin Guys, is therefore truly
modern, because he always feels at home in the crowd. As he says
himself, any man who gets bored in the middle of the multitude is an
idiot, and he can only have contempt for him. The experience of the
masses confronts him with the vital and irresistible energy of the
world, from which he draws his own artistic inspiration. This
experience is primarily aesthetic in nature: what M.G. admires in the
crowd is the profound harmony of ever-changing forms, the
overwhelming beauty of certain landscapes, clothes and faces. He is
staring at a model that he will later attempt to reproduce in his own
works. The relationship that he establishes with the crowd is thus
essentially visual: his gaze is fascinated by particular details that he
internalizes in order to create an original aesthetics. ("Harnachements,
scintillements, musique, regards décidés, moustaches lourdes et
sérieuses, tout cela entre pêle-mêle en lui; et dans quelques minutes, le
poème qui en résulte sera virtuellement composé" (Baudelaire 353)).
Therefore, the apparent fusion (both physical and spiritual) that
Baudelaire suggests between the painter and the masses does not
really abolish the sense of a distance between the two. It is first and
above all through the gaze that M.G. is connected to the subject matter
of his art: this very fact underlines the need for a clear distinction
(both material and spatial) between him and the world. He is the artist,
and the crowd remains his object, although a privileged one, by
reaching a formal perfection which is also the proof of its ultimate
It is worth remembering that this kind of aesthetic perception
of the crowd does not exist in "Le Public moderne et la photographie".
Baudelaire looks at it, but because he views it as the paramount
No Arts Lana 51
symbol of a cultural order that he despises, he finds nothing in it but
chaos and meaninglessness. Nevertheless, the two perspectives,
although contradictory in many of their statements, still regard the
crowd as an external force for both the poet and the artist. In one case
this force can be tamed and eventually controlled through the assertion
of its unique formal quality, while in the other case it remains the
sheer reflection of the poet’s powerlessness in front of the modern
Baudelaire’s conflict with the photographic portrait does not
mean that he rejects the representation of the singular subject as a
whole. On the contrary, one can find in his critical work a profound
respect for the tradition of portrait in painting. For instance, in his
essay "Le Portrait" he praises the aesthetic accomplishments of the
classical work of Holbein. For him, the artistic value of a portrait
primarily rests upon the use of his own imagination by the painter. In
other words, the great portrait does not simply reproduce the physical
features of an individual with utmost accuracy, but must also represent
his inner character and depth of soul. ("Le portrait, ce genre en
apparence si modeste, nécessite une immense intelligence"
(Baudelaire 315)). The apparent simplicity of the portrait as a genre,
its essential modesty, should not mislead the critic: its composition
requires the most rigorous work of the mind. Indeed, as Baudelaire
shows at the beginning of his essay, it is the bourgeois who believes in
the superiority of the model over the artist. ("Je pose et en réalité c’est
moi le modèle, qui consens à faire le gros de la besogne. Je suis le
véritable fournisseur de l’artiste. Je suis, à moi tout seul, toute la
matière." (Baudelaire 314)). For the poet, of course, it is the other way
around. The arrogance of the bourgeois stems from the idea that the
subject matter of art can almost single-handedly define its aesthetic
nature. The personal touch of the artist therefore becomes irrelevant,
because he is only the servant of a particular model that he faithfully
obeys. The pose, then, determines the identity of the artwork: it
dictates the gestures of the painter and monopolizes the whole
material substance of art.
It is evidently this cultural rule of the pose that Baudelaire
despises in the Daguerreotype. In this perspective, the portrait
constitutes a mere system of reproduction instead of being a true order
of representation. In "Le Portrait", the pretentious discourse of the
bourgeois is immediately contested by the poet, who asserts by
52 The Paradox of Photography
contrast the power of the artist’s imagination. What Baudelaire refuses
thus is the definition of the portrait as a closed form, both in painting
and in photography. So to speak, the good portrait is not a still life, it
is, literally, a moving life. It contains the visible presence of an
original drama, one which belongs to the subject himself. ("Un bon
portrait m’apparaît toujours comme une biographie dramatisée, ou
plutôt comme le drame naturel inhérent à tout homme" (Baudelaire
315)). The intensity of the expression cannot surge without this
particular presence. Because of this, Baudelaire’s philosophy of the
portrait is an active one, whereas the philosophy of the ruling classes
emphasizes its passive nature. The bourgeoisie deliberately avoids this
almost convulsive dynamics of the subject in art: it is a world without
a drama, a world that constantly imposes the image of its own shallow
order and deceiving harmony through the medium of the portrait.
However, this active conception of the portrait does not mean that the
artist must radically modify the model on which he is working. On the
contrary, Baudelaire stresses the mimetic essence of the genre. Thus
the issue of resemblance remains fundamental for the poet, even
through the aesthetic power of imagination. The mimetic quality of
the artwork reflects the artist's extensive knowledge of his subject: it
does not express the complete abdication of his own creative project.
("Holbein connaît Erasme: il l’a si bien connu et si bien étudié qu’il le
crée de nouveau et qu’il l’évoque, visible, immortel, superlatif"
(Baudelaire 317)).
It is this profound desire to know the subject that is missing in
photography. The industrial identity of the daguerreotype instead
emphasizes its instant seizure: the photographer has no time to analyze
or study the various features of the face. In this regard, the pose calls
for a precipitated form of representation that cannot be the result of a
methodical process of investigation. The time of aesthetic mimesis,
therefore, is radically different from that of cultural mimesis. The
social determination of the portrait in photography leaves the viewer
with a feeling of ignorance: it is the ignorance of a picture that has
never been conceived before actually being produced.
The problem, thus, is not just that photography is destined to
copy nature, but that it does so without a real knowledge of its main
subject matter. As Baudelaire writes in La Reine des facultés, his
essay on imagination: "Cependant, il eût été plus philosophique de
demander aux doctrinaires en question, d’abord s’ils sont bien
No Arts Lana 53
conscients de la nature extérieure, ou, si cette question eût parue trop
bien faite pour réjouir leur causticité, s’ils sont bien sûr de connaître
toute la nature, tout ce qui est contenu dans la nature" (Baudelaire
280). In this perspective, imagination rests upon a detailed and total
awareness of what is to be represented. It is the mirror of a global
science of aesthetics, which is of course different from science itself.
One should speak therefore of the totality of imagination, which is
also an analytical, moral and sensitive quality. This totality refers to
the profound relationship between imagination and the infinite: for the
poet, it constitutes no less than the origin of the world in an almost
religious sense of the term.
"Le Vrai", in this regard, is not necessarily as such the enemy
of art and beauty, or its radical contradiction, as one might deduce
from a quick reading of "Le Public moderne et la photographie". But it
becomes so when its actual representation overlooks the poetic might
of imagination, which is for Baudelaire, "la reine du vrai". And he
adds: "et le possible est une des provinces du vrai" (Baudelaire 281).
In other words, "Le Vrai", in photography, does not open us to a vast
realm of possibilities: it is instead the symbol of a set of sheer
certainties that cannot be transcended.
If photography is deprived of its true capacity for knowledge,
it must constitute a mere commodity, and is therefore confined to the
needs of practical reality. This is why Baudelaire dismisses its artistic
potential by emphasizing its utilitarian dimensions. It is, above all, a
technical innovation, and it can be compared as such to printing or
stenography. It is undoubtedly useful for the archivist, the astronomer,
the botanist or the traveler, but it is clear that this usefulness is the
sign of a profound spiritual vacuum, the vacuum of technical
modernity itself. Baudelaire’s furious assault on materialism finds a
perfect target in photography. It is in this regard that his philosophical
perspective radically separates the science of aesthetics from the
science of matter. But it would be wrong to interpret this approach as
a deliberate attempt to return to a pre-modern sensitivity. Rational
knowledge is not rejected here because of obscurantist or obsolete
belief. As already noted, the celebration of imagination by the poet
instead implies a deep sense of the analytical relationship between the
artist and his subject (what we could call the reason of artistic
representation). Rationality, though, is unilaterally questioned when it
inhibits the genuine aesthetic expression of dreams and the happiness
54 The Paradox of Photography
that it necessarily creates. ("Cependant, c’est un bonheur de rêver"
(Baudelaire 279)). In other words, the main issue here is not to
determine whether rationality is good or bad, but to ask without any
ambiguity what the true purpose of such rationality is. The practical
rationality of photography, therefore, essentially opposes the
imaginary reason of art, that of poetry and painting.
The spirit of photography can be characterized as a global
assault on romanticism. Its focus on the portrait and on the private
world of the middle class signifies the absence of an epic or tragic
sensitivity, which is so dominant in the pictorial romanticism of
Delacroix. One could say that, in many ways, photography returns to
one of the most important aspects of eighteenth-century French
painting, that is the obsession with the representation of domestic life.
The quest for order and tranquility, for a sense of measure in all
natural things, echoes thus the work of Chardin and Boucher. In both
cases, indeed, the formal emphasis is on the stillness of the subject.
Whereas Delacroix, for instance, strives to underline the motion
contained in all bodies, (both animal and human), some of the best
painters of the previous century seek instead to represent the formal
perfection of a static reality. The aesthetic choice of domesticity over
history, of intimacy over the outside world, somehow excludes the
possibility of violence and chaos from the domain of art.
Thus photography repeats through new technical means an
artistic attempt to defeat the most irrational forces of nature. The
subject of the Daguerreotype, in its apparent detachment and serenity,
becomes the guardian of an aesthetic order which prolongs a certain
tradition of modern French painting. For Baudelaire, the celebration of
pictorial romanticism evidently implies a strong belief in the need for
a break with this very French tradition: art is destined to the most
sincere expression of the eternal turmoil of mankind, a turmoil which
is not only individual but also collective. The so-called Narcissism of
photography therefore reflects the blindness of a form that refuses to
see the obvious instability (a very existential one) of its own subject
Baudelaire’s discourse is filled with radical dualisms: Good
and Evil, beauty and reality, morality and obscenity, and it leads
inevitably to an apocalyptic vision of the world. Because it fails to
acknowledge the aesthetic legitimacy of such a vision, photography
cannot be identified with a true artistic discipline. The poetic feeling
No Arts Lana 55
of the end, though, does not solely concern a society primarily driven
by the mythology of progress: it also and maybe more importantly
applies to the modern condition of art itself. "Le Public moderne et la
photographie" asserts the death of painting through the birth of
photography. The photographer is defined here as a failed painter
("Comme l’industrie photographique était le refuge de tous les
peintres manqués, trop mal doués ou trop paresseux pour achever
leurs études, cet universel engouement portait non seulement le
caractère de l’aveuglement et de l’imbécillité, mais avait aussi la
couleur d’une vengeance" (Baudelaire 278)). The new medium entails
a global conspiracy against the artistic power of painting. Thus what
photography truly wants to achieve is the undoing of art and the
proclamation of its downfall in modernity.
To most early twenty-first century observers, this kind of
discourse might be seen as profoundly reactionary. We all know by
now that this was not the project of photography. Many of us view
Baudelaire’s negativity as an unfounded assault on the validity of any
novelty in art. The invention of any given new medium and its rapid
cultural dissemination through society does not mean, as the history of
Western art in the past one hundred and fifty years has clearly
demonstrated, that this same medium has ever been able to put an end
to the particular art forms that it was supposed to threaten. The
remarkable artistic development of photography in the twentieth-
century, for instance, from Surrealism to the Magnum group, never
prevented cubist and abstract painters from accomplishing their own
work and reaching full recognition. The advent of cinema, contrary to
what was feared at the beginning, did not signify the disappearance of
theater or even the decline of its popularity. Television itself, although
seen by many as the main rival of both cinema and literature, has not
so far really weakened the cultural and economic power of film, nor
has it truly succeeded in diminishing the appetite of educated people
for books and writing. In the long run, somehow, the new never quite
ends up erasing the old, for the very reason that it is not its original
Modernity has thus successively absorbed each of these new
techniques into its own process of production without profoundly
damaging the status or the integrity of art. Technique, in this sense,
can do many things, but it cannot silence the original aesthetic
languages of both the past and the present. Baudelaire’s dark
56 The Paradox of Photography
pessimism was largely the result of his own overestimation of its
cultural power (and of the cultural power of the masses). Indeed, the
history of modernity is the history not only of the irresistible
movement of humanity towards technical change and its increasing
sophistication, but also of the numerous (and often ambiguous)
strategies of resistance towards this same phenomenon. In this sense
the death of art can never be pronounced, because there are always
some artists who are willing to confront the main consequence of
technique’s social supremacy: the cultural order of objective
reproduction. In "Le Public moderne et la photographie", the poet
underestimates the artist’s ability to unmask the illusion of sheer
material progress, as well as his capacity for turning this illusion into
the reality of art’s tireless efforts towards new forms and modes of
representation. Even if the artist cannot go on, he will go on, as
Beckett told us, against all odds and in spite of all the myths spread
hastily and carelessly by modernity. In many ways, Baudelaire's
somber prophecy reflects the disarray of an era that did not know
which political and cultural directions to take.
The so-called democratic spirit that the poet criticizes in his
essays on art was actually a very fragile one in the mid-nineteenth
century France, as is demonstrated by the strong ideological tensions
between the rule of monarchy, authoritarianism, and the people’s
quest for social utopia and republican ideals. French art itself had not
yet been shaken by the aesthetic innovations of Impressionism, and
therefore remained largely dominated by the academic canons of
pictorial classicism. In this perspective, modernity was as much a
fantasy (or a ghost) as a reality, beyond the evident social and
economic transformations stirred by the industrial revolution (a
process that came late in France, if we compare with England, for
instance, and that could not stifle the social importance of the rural
world, anyway, in spite of its utmost brutality). In this sense, "Le
Public moderne et la photographie" expresses the insecurity and the
anxiety of a whole society, and not just that of an isolated man. It is
the expression of an individual as well as collective identity crisis.
Modernity had not yet been accomplished, and that is the reason why
it was to be feared.
Finally, one must recognize that Baudelaire could not have
foreseen the subsequent blossoming of photography as a true art form.
The poet-critic could not adopt the position of an art historian since
No Arts Lana 57
the medium on which he was writing did not possess any authentic
tradition. In this case, the lack of an historical discourse was not his
fault. After all, he could not have predicted that right after World War
I cinema would become one of the most powerful artistic languages of
the twentieth century, and not just an entertainment for the troops or a
curiosity for the idle masses? By putting the Baudelairian critique in
perspective, and by emphasizing its cultural context, we underline the
essential relativity of all aesthetic judgment, even those judgments
which pretend to be absolute (or maybe especially when it is so).
More than twenty years after the first endeavors of the Lumière
brothers, many among the brightest minds of their generation could
still not figure out the truth about the medium they had invented. The
Soviet cinema of the October Revolution was barely beginning its
march towards artistic greatness, and the pioneering Charlie Chaplin
had yet to produce most of his cinematographic masterpieces. How,
then, could Baudelaire have embraced photography, only a couple of
decades after its official birth? And how do we know today if virtual
technologies are going to lead us to a new age of art or instead to its
ultimate undoing? Revolutions and radical changes are not to be
evaluated at the moment when they actually appear: in this case, like
in many others, time is the only reliable judge.
The problem with Baudelaire’s discourse is that it came too
early. It would be easier to condemn him if he had formulated the
same negative approach more than fifty years later, if he had been
armed with the full knowledge of photography’s historical identity.
After all, whether they have been enhanced or not by technical
creativity, some of the most profound aesthetic changes of modernity
have started as apparent new trends and have matured consequently as
lasting and influential art forms and movements. In other words, the
poet was only witnessing the first steps of a long and arduous process
of representation. He might have missed its actual significance from a
purely artistic point of view, but he nonetheless attempted to raise the
foremost issue of its reception by the community. One should read his
essay as a highly contextualized comment on a particular cultural
situation, and not as a rather abstract and timeless meditation on a
specific artistic discipline. Art is essentially what artists make of it,
but then so is technique. They are not defined by either the critic or
the crowd. This is precisely the most important conclusion that one
can draw from the contemporary analysis of "Le Public moderne et la
58 The Paradox of Photography
photographie". The poet as critic could only determine a general
zeitgeist, and a certain self-image that society was presenting to the
masses. If modernity constitutes the rule of the ephemeral and the
contingent, then we have to consider Baudelaire's essay as a broad
reflection on modernity. But that is only one half of art: the other is
largely dominated by a sense of the eternal. It is rooted in a particular
history, one which defies the mere urgency of the present. In other
words, the poet could not escape the close reality of his own era, but
his was a fight against a culture (to which photography already
belonged) and not a fight against art.


Reasonable Madness

If Baudelaire took on the issue of photography frontally by
using criticism as a weapon, Breton sees it in a more cautious way
through the prism of fiction. We have known, at least since Proust, the
importance of the first words of a novel. Breton’s Nadja (Paris:
Gallimard, 1964) reminds us of this literary truth. "Who am I ?" asks
the narrator, before even starting to tell his story. But this troubling
and eternal question is immediately coupled with another one: "Whom
do I haunt?" The verb "to haunt" refers to the presence of a ghost, a
form without a true substance or material dimension. The narrator thus
questions the reality of his own existence by suggesting that it could
somehow be reduced to an image of this kind. He might be forced to
return to his own footsteps, and this move backward might well lead
him to a process of self-knowledge. These two questions thus pave the
way for the determination of what he calls his "differentiation". In
order to reach the end of this process, the narrator must first establish
the set of features that distinguish him from the others: he will then be
able to understand the meaning of his life in this world. It is clear,
therefore, that this work stresses from the beginning the existential
goal of literature. Writing cannot simply be identified with story
telling. But it also cannot be identified with a mere autobiographical
project. The self, here, is confronted with the need for the
representation of the other: it is only through this representation that
60 The Paradox of Photography
the self is known and defined.
As opposed to someone like Blanchot, who, as a fundamental
principle, asserts and celebrates in his essay LEspace Litteraire the
withdrawal of the writer from his own work to the point of a sort of
ecstatic neutrality, Breton claims the supremacy of subjectivity as an
ever-visible and legible phenomenon. If Lautréamont constituted a
spiritual father for all the members of the Surrealist movement, and in
particular for its leader, the narrator cannot embrace his wish for total
disappearance behind literature. This wish might be fascinating and
even unique, but it remains superhuman in its excessive ambition. To
erase the expression of the subject means therefore to erase the
expression of literature itself. ("Il serait par trop vain et prétentieux
d’y prétendre et je me persuade aisément que cette ambition, de la part
de ceux qui se retranchent derrière elle, ne témoigne en rien que de
peu honorable" (Nadja 19)). Nevertheless, this in no way implies that
the narrator longs for the tradition of classical psychological literature.
Rather, he refers to Huysmans in order to demonstrate the writer’s
capacity to question its validity and to counter its cultural influence.
His only purpose is to account for the most striking moments or
episodes of his life ("Ma vie telle que je peux la concevoir hors de son
plan organique", as he states (Nadja 19)).
In Nadja, though, this unprecedented project cannot be
accomplished through the power of words alone. The will to move
beyond one’s own obscurity or opacity is translated into a whole set of
images or, more precisely, of photographs. In the history of modern
French literature, this book constitutes one of the first major attempts
to integrate this new visual medium into a particular narrative
structure. For this reason, it remains worthy of critical attention,
regardless of its actual role in the development of the Surrealist
movement. One can still read Nadja today precisely because one can
always stare at a series of pictures that constantly interact with the text
and enhance its existential project. It is interesting to notice, though,
that the ongoing juxtaposition of words and images is never truly
supported by a narrowly focused discourse on the image itself, and
specifically on the relationship between the visual and the literary
dimension of the text. Instead we witness the empirical practice of this
relationship: pictures and words are both treated and explored
primarily as material realities, the necessary evidence required by an
original process of self-investigation. What is being unveiled is the
Reasonable Madness 61
concrete experience of photography for literature, which is the
deliberate use of pictures as the main tool for narrative strategies. This
experience could not take place without the narrator’s strong feeling
of their fictional power.
The narrator here enters a forbidden territory: in this unknown
world, numerous coincidences and accidents determine the nature of
his story. Chance is of course the key word, making the
predetermination of both language and images almost impossible.
This set of unexpected events is not only to be told: it is also, perhaps
primarily, to be seen. In this regard, the metaphor of lightning is quite
significant ("Des éclairs qui feraient voir, mais alors voir, s’ils
n’étaient encore plus rapides que les autres"

(Nadja 20)). Lightning
reflects the possibility of a bright vision, but a purely circumstantial
and ephemeral one. It is the symbol of an instant surge, of an
irresistible thrust that cannot be contained or preserved. In order to
grasp the identity of his relationship with the outside world, the
narrator must therefore define the moment of his own gaze. This time
is not to be delayed: it only exists in the present and it is never stable.
His original project stems from the belief in the ongoing closeness of
all objects and places around him, beyond their apparent distance. The
inner closeness of things enables him to overcome his profound sense
of solitude, and the expression of a poetics of everyday life is
predicated on this imaginary link between man and world.
In this very peculiar context, photography must occur rather
than simply appear. Pictures must themselves suggest the complicity
between the narrator and the visible universe. They do not just state
the obvious reality of things that are, but instead assert the
undisputable presence of the subject within or with them. In this
regard, In this regard, I would question some of Michel Beaujour’s
assumptions in his article "Qu’est-ce que Nadja?", included in his
book Terreur et Rhétorique. Autour du Surréalisme (Paris : Jean-
Michel Place, 1999) :

Il est clair, par surcroît, que le lecteur de romans le plus obtus ne saurait exiger
la description de la librairie de l’Humanité, mentionnée au passage, ni celle du
château de Saint-Germain. Moins encore celle du manoir d’Ango, où le poète
est en train d’écrire, ni le portrait verbal d’Eluard, de Desnos, de Péret, de Mme
Sacco, voyante, ou celle de l’auteur lui-même. Or nous trouvons dans Nadja les
photos de ces lieux, de ces personnes. Dans la plupart des cas, il nous est
possible de vérifier leur authenticité. Leur fonction est donc de vérifier que rien
n’a été inventé ni transposé. Les clichés ne remplacent rien de ce qu’on trouve
62 The Paradox of Photography
d’ordinaire dans un roman. Au contraire, presque à chaque page, ils affirment
que Nadja n’est pas un roman. (86)

Beaujour’s analysis obviously emphasizes the strictly objective
dimension of photography. But this apparently objective dimension is
always confronted with the implicit presence of the subject within
pictures. This subject might often remain unseen, but it can
nonetheless be perceived by the imagination of the reader (the
viewer). A mere certificate of authenticity cannot reveal here the
power of visual strategies that stress the profoundly hypothetical and
almost ghostly nature of reality and consequently, of the subject that
inhabits it. In other words, reality is always to be recreated through
photography and not just confirmed, beyond the obvious presence of
places and monuments.
The first photograph of the book represents l’Hôtel des Grands
Hommes, which is located at the Place du Panthéon: Breton actually
lived here in 1918, at the end of World War I. As the narrator clearly
states, it is a starting point ("Je prendrai pour point de départ l’hôtel
des Grands Hommes"

(Nadja 24)). The image of the hotel’s façade,
and the square in which it stands, inevitably accounts for the
existential relationship between the object and the subject. It also
reveals, strikingly, the paradox of absence that constitutes one of the
most important features of photography in Nadja: the narrator is
excluded from the image, but this does not prevent him from creating
the feeling of his own presence within it. The image never ceases to
refer to him, somehow, beyond its objective nature. We could further
argue that it is precisely the objective nature of the image that makes it
capable of integrating the narrator’s existence within its frame. The
reader, who is also a viewer, is always free to create his or her own
representation of the subject, because the image is essentially a
vacuum that constantly asks to be filled. We know that something is
missing within the picture, and this knowledge allows us, both as
readers and viewers, to superimpose our mental picture on top of the
material one. To put it differently, photography’s emptiness is what
reminds us of the power of imagination. The picture remains an open
form which never really ends in front of our eyes.
The starting point, literally, is an image. Photography appears
thus at the beginning, and is itself nothing more than a beginning. The
early emphasis on places within the narrative structure sets the tone of
the whole endeavor. Consider Le Manoir d’Ango, which is the second
Reasonable Madness 63
visual example in the book. It alludes to a particular moment of
Breton’s life when, in August 1927, he was invited to stay at
Varengeville-sur-Mer and escape the usual agitation of the French
capital. Places are never truly inhabited: they always go back to a
biographical reality that does not require a full explanation or
revelation. Thus, they underline a vast realm of possibilities within the
circle of certainties. Their ultimate truth always rests upon the
expression of the "I", which is related by essence to the work of
daydreaming and meditation. The third image of the text, which
figures the statue of Etienne Dolet on Place Maubert, therefore
enables the narrator to stress his personal interest in psychoanalysis
while simultaneously questioning its ability to fully comprehend the
problem of dreams. If the psychoanalytical method had really been
entirely successful in its scientific approach of man’s unconscious, it
is clear that Surrealism itself would have lost much of its intellectual
In other words, these very limitations of modern science and
rationality made the need for an aesthetic conception of dreams more
pressing. The scientific discourse, by definition, attempts to provide a
specific and detailed explanation for certain phenomena, but what is
often lacking in this discourse is the perception of the unique ability of
representation to understand these same phenomena. Psychoanalysis
could only interpret man’s creation of images within the realm of
dreams to the extent these images could be controlled by the mind,
and thus turned into mere objects of scientific study. This process
necessarily implied a sort of epistemological distance between science
and man’s inner images. By contrast, Surrealism refused to even
consider this objective distance in its artistic project. Images were not
to be tamed, much less achieved by the work of reason: they always
contained the promise of more images through the flow of the poetic
In this regard, Breton asserted in his First Manifesto of
1924 the supreme reality of images and their spontaneous creation. As
he writes: "Il en va des images surréalistes comme de ces images de
l’opium que l’homme n’évoque plus, qui s’offrent à lui spontanément,
despotiquement. Il ne peut pas les congédier; car la volonté n’a plus
de force et ne gouverne plus les facultés." (Manifesto 48). These
statements constitute a reference to Baudelaire.
It is this very emphasis on the creative power of ongoing
representation that is at stake in Nadja’s photographs. The poet never
64 The Paradox of Photography
ceases to present new images to the world, regardless of all material
constraints and personal contingencies. In this sense, representation
always prevails over any method of interpretation. Photography is not
destined here to explain the cause of the narrator’s actions and
thoughts. It is mostly a sign (as he puts it, a "signal") of his own
existence that opens up to a large number of hypothetical statements
without any true resolution.
Language itself belongs to this visible reality that the narrator
faces every day. In this sense, it constitutes an important part of the
process of representation. The episode where he searches for all the
boutiques and shops with the words "Bois-charbons" written on their
façades is a perfect example of this truth. In this particular case, the
narrator is able to accurately predict when and where they are going to
appear. These words actually refer to the last pages of Breton’s
Champs Magnétiques; and in this sense, their repeated presence in the
streets of Paris reflects a deep continuity, and even complicity,
between the domain of literature and that of everyday life. According
to this perspective, the urban landscape is supposed to confirm the
inner world of the poet instead of contradicting it, because it expresses
the same words and uses the same idiom. Yet it does so inasmuch as it
is seen, and not just read. Language calls therefore for more images,
for their spatial dissemination and their almost ubiquitous nature. This
also means that the outside world must constantly be read and
consequently deciphered. Photography, thus, reveals the profound
feeling of an endless set of forms and appearances in which the
narrator willingly gets lost. The paramount surrealist principle of
coincidence is, above all, that of the coincidence between language
and images. Evidently, these images are both external and internal: the
narrator can always turn them into genuine visions, as shown by his
apprehension of the piece of wood on which the words "Bois-
Charbons" are written from the mere contemplation of Jean-Jacques
Rousseau’s skull on a statue beneath him.
One could easily think here about the identification of
everyday life with a sort of labyrinth-like structure. But the narrator
always manages to leave some doors open. More precisely, he
consistently remains both inside and outside of this powerful reality.
Pictures, in this regard, do not constitute for him a symbol of radical
closure or mental imprisonment. This is made possible precisely
because the narrator does not really attempt to thoroughly interpret all
Reasonable Madness 65
these signs. He favors instead the creation of imaginary ties between
things, a poetics of relation that does not impose a stringent meaning
on each of them. The possibility of an exit is still present here, since
representation emphasizes the sense of a free movement from one
image to the other. The metaphor of the poisson soluble could be
relevant in this context: it provides us with the feeling of a true
fluidity which stems, above all, from the narrator’s ability to wander
within the world of phenomena without ever being stopped or
captured by them
In the First Manifesto, Breton actually writes the
following: "POISSON SOLUBLE, n’est-ce pas moi le poisson
soluble, je suis né sous le signe des Poissons et l’homme est soluble
dans sa pensée!" (Manifesto 53). Photography, therefore, reflects the
fundamental mobility of both the subject and his gaze, beyond its own
identity as a static and fixed object.
Of course, Breton could not have conceived of this work
without his strong attraction for the urban background of Paris. The
big city, here, does not solely constitute the foremost setting in which
the two main characters of the novel evolve: it also determines their
existential fate and shapes their relationship to the world at large. The
Paris that is being described here is, naturally, different from the Paris
that we know today. It is already a major center of European
civilization, a capital of artistic and political life, but its sophisticated
urban configuration and cozy atmosphere has not yet been spoiled by
all the ills of modernity (and post-modernity thereafter). For instance,
the intensity of traffic was certainly not at the time what it is today,
nor was the level of stress and the general pace of life: in this regard,
Breton’s celebration of bohemia and casual encounters does not seem
excessively unrealistic. The original philosophy of time that the writer
expressed in Nadja did not entirely contradict the habits and the way
of life of the Parisian population. It was more a subtle shift of
consciousness than a brisk departure from common social conditions.
The Paris of the nineteen-twenties could still be considered as a big
village of sorts, in which people would be willing to "waste their time"
instead of constantly rushing toward their next professional or social
obligation. It constituted for Breton, and the other members of the
Surrealist movement, a privileged place where a true community of
artists and writers could be gathered in spite of the rapid economic
transformations imposed by a post-World War I era of reconstruction.
(The same thing could actually be said about the Paris of the
66 The Paradox of Photography
existentialists, that of Saint-Germain des Prés in the late forties and
early fifties). Photography itself asserts the notion that a public space
can always be turned into a private one, since the subject feels at home
in the streets, the cafés, and the parks of the big city. The close
relationship between the narrator and his environment has a lot to do
with sharing in a common time: one never gets the sense that he is
alienated from the space that surrounds him, regardless of its
intriguing and supernatural nature. What prevails here is the
possibility of a true fusion between the two, and a rather serene
attitude towards the existential determination of the subject
engendered by the urban model of Paris.
It is no accident, then, that thinkers and critics such as Henri
Lefebvre and the Situationists will later be inspired by the Surrealist
conception of the city,

in their own attempt to create a new and unique
interaction between man and everyday life, as demonstrated in
particular by Henri Lefebvre’s essay Critique de la Vie Quotidienne
and Debord’s own La Société du Spectacle. (I have analyzed myself
the complex political and existential relationship of Debord with
everyday life in modern society in my essay "The Show must not go
on", which is included in my book Surmodernités: Entre Rêve et
Technique, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003).
Of course, at the time when Lefebvre’s and Debord’s works
appeared (that is, in the fifties and sixties), this relationship had
already become much more problematic due to the increasingly
capitalist and consumerist identity of the French culture emerging
from the economic boom of the "Trente glorieuses". What was at first
a mainly aesthetic statement about the poetic nature of urban reality
became, some forty years later, a radical political project and a true
cultural Utopia. The urban space could no longer be celebrated or
even tolerated as such, as its recent evolution had produced major
conflicts between man’s aspirations and his actual social condition. It
must become the object of a profound conceptual change in order to
achieve its ideal and most perfect form.
In Nadja, time passes without flying. The book is mostly
written as a diary, in which each day seems to contain a myriad of
microscopic events. Something always happens for the narrator
because a spirit of adventure guides him in all of his actions. One
cannot appreciate fully the meaning of the work today without
understanding the existential importance of slowness for its two main
Reasonable Madness 67
characters. Pictures, in this context, crystallize the presence of a
suspended time, through which one can walk freely without having to
think about the future, or even the next day. The photographic
medium embodies here a sort of perpetual present; its foremost
purpose is not to construct a visual memory of personal experience.
The image of the past is, indeed, somehow negligible. Rather, what
needs to be represented in the first place is a "being-there", the sheer
presence of a subject who faces both the other and the outside world
in a mere succession of moments. The form of the diary also stresses
the imaginary power of anecdotes, little stories that lack a strong
narrative identity. As such, traditional narrative is questioned in its
ability to figure this "being-there" inscribed within the realm of
everyday life. Photographs thus express a particular process of
undoing, wherein the main point is no longer to tell a story in all its
details and in a linear way, but rather to insist upon the fragmented
aspect of the subject’s relation to the visible world. Instants, after all,
constitute pieces of time. Therefore, his perpetual present is also and
maybe essentially the mirror of an impossible unity that can only be
apprehended (and never really accomplished) by photography.
The narrator must also confess the weaknesses and limitations
of his own gaze. When he refers, for instance, to the famous poetic
visions of Robert Desnos in his sleep, he says: "Il dort, mais il écrit, il
parle", (Nadja 35) and he immediately adds: "et Desnos continue à
voir ce que je ne vois pas, ce que je ne vois qu’au fur et à mesure qu’il
me le montre".

(Nadja 35) The pictures of the Surrealist poet in a state
of awakening thus assert the power of the other as the one who sees
things better than he does himself. One never enters the realm of
everyday life alone: a community of gazes is always necessary in
order to achieve a visual knowledge of the surrounding universe.
Notably, the set of photographs that appear in Nadja are not authored
by one single artist, but several of them, from Man Ray to J-A.
Boiffard and from Henri Manuel to André Bouin. The book
constitutes a structure that welcomes various viewpoints, in the strict
sense of the term. In other words, photography does not belong to a
single subject because the Surrealist gaze, by definition, asks for the
presence of multiple eyes. This gaze does not have to be fully
identified; it is more important is that one keeps seeing even if I, as a
specific individual, do not see. After all, it is mainly the reader who is
invited to see these pictures, that is a person who is not known in
68 The Paradox of Photography
advance by the writer. Ideally, then, the "one" in the expression "one
keeps seeing" should be a "we" so that "we keep seeing". By
extension, dreams are not the property of the dreamer himself: they
are to be shared by a whole group of people around him, as in the
poetic approach of Robert Desnos. The very notion of possession or
appropriation of images is to be questioned constantly by Surrealist
philosophy. If the subject creates an image, it is to be spread
throughout a common space that is both conscious and unconscious.
As a particular example of this visual production, photography abides
by the same rule. In Nadja, it appears regularly in order to stress this
possible confusion of perspectives, which must be interpreted in a
positive way.
According to this logic, the identity of the gaze remains largely
problematic. If the other sees, it is also I who will ultimately see what
he sees, and what will actually prevail is a definite closeness within
the act of seeing. The original question "Who am I?", which opens the
book, thus becomes "Who sees?" through the ongoing experience of
the outside world. The uncertain dimension of the gaze and its specific
belonging is embodied, above all, in the character of Nadja. She is, in
essence, the wandering subject who cannot stop floating among all
things. What she sees, in other words, is never entirely determined by
either herself or the narrator. The gaze, here, is a purely speculative
phenomenon, mostly a space of random encounters, and as such, a
space of unpredictability. If one wants to read Nadja as the process of
identification of a particular woman through a work of literature, one
must admit that this process is not a finished one. This process
remains open and incomplete at the end of the narrative. If the gaze is
never the property of a single being, it cannot really answer the
question that the narrator is asks at the start of his journey. Who am I
when I see, if not someone else as much as myself? The Surrealist
utopia of togetherness within vision renders its subjectivity
paradoxical in that it is simultaneously more relevant and less
decisive. It is more relevant because I cannot be without seeing, but it
is also less decisive because I cannot see without the other seeing.
Through this perspective, photography often hesitates between
a principle of identity and its contrary in Nadja. Consider the portraits
of Surrealist poets such as Paul Eluard and Robert Desnos, but also of
the actress Blanche Derval: they retain a ghostly quality that stems
from a contradictory feeling of distance and proximity. All these
Reasonable Madness 69
characters, represented by photography, only pass through the
narrative as shadows without true substance. They do exist, but only
in the moment of their apparition. They do not truly intervene in the
development of the main story, which is the relationship between the
narrator and Nadja. We are shown an imaginary gallery of portraits, a
series of faces that only fiction can define as real space. The term
"gallery" evokes a place where one can wander almost endlessly,
without having to stop for a long time in front of the same portrait. In
this sense, photography does not impart any lasting emotional
attachment between the subject of the picture and the one who looks at
it. What is emphasized instead is a profound freedom of movement
from image to image. We can always return to a particular image, but
we do not have to be tied to any of them, and this is the case both for
the narrator and the reader. In fact, one could say that these faces do
not have to be inhabited: instead, they remain close to us through their
own indifference and their ephemeral presence.
Therefore, the representation of the subject escapes any common
mid-nineteenth-century conception of photographic portraiture at a
time when its social dissemination was already particularly striking.
There is simply no need, in Nadja, for the physical preservation of
someone’s image beyond his or her own death. But there is also no
need to assert the social identity of the subject within a concrete
structure or institution such as the family. The subject of photography,
in this book, exists outside of these two imperatives in a state of pure
independence. One could question his material reality, of course, and
it is true that the viewer/reader faces some sort of enigmatic presence.
This presence of the portrait, in Western tradition, belongs definitively
to the history of painting rather than photography. It is thus a quite old
phenomenon that one can trace back to the Middle Ages, and later to
the Renaissance, with the most famous example being Leonardo’s
Mona Lisa. The birth of photography, by opposition, imposed a much
more transparent representation of the subject, particularly through the
huge success of the Daguerreotype. The cultural obsession with social
status and identity in the new capitalist societies of the West created a
specific form of individual representation deprived of any obscurity or
ambiguity. The issue here was not that photography demanded a
mimetic and realistic style of representation; this law of mimesis ruled
the figurative tradition of pictorial portraiture for centuries.
Photography asked instead for an instant and predetermined image of
70 The Paradox of Photography
the subject.
By doing so, it denied the viewer any possibility of interpreting
the portrait on his own terms and according to his own sensitivity. The
viewer was supposed to receive this raw image (as one talks about
"raw material") in a purely passive way, confirming and taking for
granted the identity of the subject. In other words, the portrait
suddenly became the privileged visual example of the subject’s
obviousness, regardless of his complex personality and biographical
history. This obvious nature of the photographic portrait stemmed
from a discourse that was largely dominated by social concerns: it was
never really the consequence of a deep aesthetic philosophy.
It is this return to a more opaque conception of the portrait that
constitutes one of the most original features of photography in Nadja.
The portrait is not required from a strictly narrative point of view, but
it is precisely because of its somehow superfluous nature that it
becomes intriguing and even captivating. In other words, the portrait
does not bluntly assert the physical existence of the subject within the
community; it transforms the subject, in a suggestive manner, into the
mere presence of signs or traces. Breton’s portrait itself only appears
at the end of the book, as if the process of self-representation by the
author could always be delayed without hurting the development of
the story. It is important to notice that in Surrealist art in general,
which consists primarily of painting, portraiture as a genre occupies
only a marginal position. In viewing the work of Masson, Tanguy,
Dali or even Magritte, one will always be struck by the realization that
the human face is rarely the main focus of the pictorial project.
Portraits cannot avoid the issue of resemblance, meaning some sort of
identification between the subject and his representation, and beyond,
between art and reality. Even the most radical forms of modernism
have to confront this sometimes overwhelming fact.
In this sense, there is an essential contradiction between the
fundamental rebellion against the alienating character of realism
inherent to Surrealist art and writing and the very nature of the
portrait, which necessarily implies a visual reference to an original
model from a mimetic perspective. This model is very much external,
whereas Breton’s definition of pictorial automatism in Le Surréalisme
et la Peinture underlines instead the primacy of an internal model for
Surrealist art. This essential "realism" of the portrait, therefore,
opposes the aesthetic spirit of Surrealism (expressed also in Breton’s
Reasonable Madness 71
first Manifesto). In many ways, the pictures of Nadja express this
profound tension, which can never be truly resolved. By putting too
much emphasis on the expression of the face, the author would yield
to a certain law of objectivity, and would also enhance against his own
will the power of a purely conscious mode of representation within
In his new introduction to the book, written in 1962, Breton
explains that the abundant use of photographic illustrations enables
him to eliminate any kind of description. It is this descriptive nature of
literature, exemplified in the nineteenth-century French Novel, which
the founder of the movement questioned vehemently in his
Manifestos. By this logic, photography describes in order to signify
the absence of description. But this description is no longer of a
narrative nature: it is essentially of a visual one. The almost obsessive
attention to detail that one finds in a realist novel by Balzac, for
example, becomes irrelevant. Places and characters do not have to be
framed with excessive accuracy; photography, instead, asserts an
instant and holistic presence of both objects and subjects regardless of
their possible fuzziness. As Breton explains it, there is a definite anti-
literary imperative by which this book abides. Photography here
reflects the desire of the author to go beyond words, and even beyond
any classical notion of the book, but also his willingness to adopt a
tone of the scientist rather than the writer or the poet. Nadja, indeed,
must be conceived as a medical report on a particular patient, in this
case the young woman who gives her name to the work. It is clear that
Breton’s medical training had a profound influence on this choice, and
that it was motivated by autobiographical events. But the comparison
with scientific discourse inevitably enlightens the author’s attempt to
reach some sort of aesthetic compromise between subjectivity and
objectivity within writing.
More particularly, photography is destined to be used as a form
of evidence, as the sign of a phenomenon from which the scientific
method draws its own deductions and conclusions. Undoubtedly, this
specific instrumentalization of photography had been key to the
spectacular progress of both medicine and the natural sciences as early
as the mid-nineteenth century. At the end of his introduction, Breton
stresses this ongoing conflict between subjectivity and objectivity for
the human condition. He even confesses that the former often ends up
being more bruised by this problem than the latter. This conflict is
72 The Paradox of Photography
also that of art and science, of writing and thought. Surrealism, as
demonstrated by its own history, will never be able to fully overcome
this situation. For instance, it is clear that in the case of Breton, the
early focus on dreams and their significance for the expression of
man’s inner feelings in literature was founded upon the
psychoanalytical perspective of Sigmund Freud. Breton needed this
scientific legitimacy to support his main aesthetic project, that of
automatism. The fundamental contradiction here was that automatism,
by definition, entailed the notion of a pensée parlée that developed
outside of any control exercised by reason, but it actually stemmed
from the highly rational discourse of psychoanalysis. The apparent
spontaneity of speech that Breton claimed and celebrated in order to
demonstrate the overwhelming creative power of dreams and visions
was not a real one; it was instead the result of a profound and
thorough reliance upon modern reason and its Western legacy. This
might explain why so many artists and poets who were originally
members of the Surrealist movement ultimately decided to go their
own way: for most of them, automatism became objectionable not
because of its sensitivity to instant freedom of expression both in
literature and art, but rather because this so-called freedom was
transformed into an almighty law that could not escape the intellectual
determination of rationalism. The search for this specific link between
aesthetics and scientific knowledge separated Surrealism from its most
important historical root, Dada, and underlined instead its similarities
with another modernist movement that idealized the artistic meaning
of both science and technique, Futurism.
No text reflects the acute character of this tension better than
Nadja. The poet cannot be separated here from the man of science.
The story of his personal relationship with a disturbed young woman
does not just constitute a romantic narrative in the traditional sense: it
also has to be seen as a detached account of a particular clinical case.
Photography, in this perspective, articulates a constant process of
confusion between the distinct languages of poetry and science. Each
picture can be identified with a document in its entire factual
dimension, but it simultaneously makes a subjective statement about
the magical or supernatural content of everyday life. In the end, one
can say that the poet prevails over the scientist, but this happens only
after a long series of contradictions. In this regard, the literary form of
the diary, which Breton obviously prefers as the main narrative
Reasonable Madness 73
structure of his book, contains the same essential ambiguity. If a diary
is, by definition, a very personal and even intimate account of one’s
own life in its daily occurrences, it is also prone to objectivity in its
focus on concrete events and anecdotes, as Michel Beaujour states it
in his article "Qu’est-ce que Nadja?":

Tout journal affirme: j’y étais, j’ai vu, j’ai vécu ceci (ou, plus précisément,
puisque le décalage entre l’événement et l’écriture doit paraître négligeable :
j’y suis, je vois, je vis ceci, et je n’entrevois pas les tenants et aboutissants, ni
l’issue de l’aventure où je suis engagé). C’est pourquoi le journal se présente
comme l’antidote de l’invraisemblance. Il fait passer le fantastique. Son
caractère brut et inachevé affirme au lecteur qu’il ne peut être victime d’un
coup monté de longue main, d’une simulation littéraire du délire
d’interprétation. Il garantit sinon les faits, du moins l’authenticité de leur
perception. Avant même de nous dire de quoi il s’agit, ce genre désigne
l’inusité, car en dehors des rares individus qui se confient quotidiennement à
leur cher journal, ce sont les circonstances exceptionnelles qui nous jettent vers
le papier pour témoigner à la fois de notre incapacité à passer l’extraordinaire
sous silence et de nos efforts pour l’apprivoiser en le faisant rentrer dans les
limites d’un discours intelligible. (92)

In other words, the diary remains highly dependent upon the
factual nature of human existence, even if this existence is marked by
outstanding circumstances and original encounters. Its self-proclaimed
subjectivity can always be undermined or at least tempered by the
ongoing reproduction of common realities. The "I" of the poet that the
diary contains is thus nearly doomed to the inevitable documentary
identity of the same literary form. This self is not made solely of inner
feelings or impressions: it is regularly marked by the sheer, almost
mathematical precision of dates and days of the week.
It is well known that Breton intended in this book to assert his
own negative, and even confrontational, perspective on modern
psychiatry. The portrait of Professor Claude, a distinguished physician
who was working at Sainte-Anne, was integrated here in order to
enhance the critical argument of the writer. When describing his
physical features, the narrator talked about "ce front ignare et cet air
buté qui le caractérisent"

(Nadja 161). This portrait, therefore, was
that of a man whose alleged professional competence could not mask
his actual ignorance and failure to understand the real problems of his
patients. Nadja’s fate was to be the victim of a medical institution that
this specific portrait represented in all its alienating force. In his
genuine defense of this young woman, Breton was willing to take on
74 The Paradox of Photography
the medical establishment of his time. His main point was that the
mental asylum created madness instead of curing it. ("Il ne faut jamais
avoir pénétré dans un asile pour ne pas savoir qu’on y fait les fous tout
comme dans les maisons de correction on fait les bandits"

161)). More profoundly, any form of detention for therapeutic
purposes had to be rejected unilaterally because of its arbitrary
character. For the leader of the Surrealist movement, the fundamental
issue here was human freedom. Science was negating itself when it
made the general public believe that the deprivation of freedom could
actually improve the health and well-being of sick people. Detention
had, after all, been primarily used throughout modern history to
marginalize and even to eliminate those who refused to abide by
traditional social rules of both thinking and conduct.
Breton, in this regard, referred to the case of unconventional
poets and thinkers such as Baudelaire, Nietzsche and the Marquis de
Sade, all of whom had been forced into seclusion by society under the
pretext that they were mentally unstable. Furthermore, through the
voice of the narrator, he advocated the possible killing of a member of
the medical staff by any patient trapped in this intolerable situation. In
this sense, the "anti-literature" elements of Nadja are at the same time
"anti-science", rendering it a peculiar treatise which borrowed the tone
of scientific discourse while demonstrating, paradoxically, a profound
contempt for the institutions and methods on which traditional science
was based. In this perspective, the portrait of Professor Claude, in all
its official pretension and contrived seriousness, symbolized all the
figures of power that Breton resisted and scorned. Photography, thus
employed, could be an essential tool in the articulation of a radical
political and social thought.
It is clear that Breton’s passionate, angry comments on the
appalling state of mental care in nineteen twenties French culture were
some of the first steps toward a widespread movement of protest
against the conservative and even reactionary nature of mainstream
psychiatry. Four decades later, the landmark work of Deleuze and
Guattari in France, LAnti-Oedipe, as well as the libertarian school of
both Ronald Laing and David Cooper in the Anglo-Saxon world,
enabled the development of an entirely new approach to the study of
mental dysfunctions and disorders. One also cannot ignore Foucault’s
genealogical investigations on madness and its history. The same
philosophical and ethical premises that Breton had unequivocally
Reasonable Madness 75
supported, the sacred but simultaneously revolutionary character of
individual freedom and emancipation from any social structure and
institution, were certainly still relevant for these scholars and
therapists. But the main focus of their attention shifted from the issue
of mental asylum and detention itself to the highly repressive
environment of the family in bourgeois society. Their unique point of
view also implied a rigorous and thorough critique of classical
Freudian psychoanalysis and its politics, a critique which Breton
himself did not dare to undertake in spite of certain timid reservations
towards this theory.
The science of anti-science, in Nadja, was therefore inevitably
linked to the expression of a poetic sensitivity towards social
exclusion and mental isolation. For Breton, obviously, it was the
writer and the philosopher who had historically suffered the most from
this devastating condition of otherness. In this regard, Nadja’s mind
and behavior was constantly identified by the narrator with those of
the free and uncompromising artist. Several of her own drawings, in
particular, are reproduced in the book, from "Le Rêve du chat" to "Le
Salut du diable". They are all deeply imaginative and rather obscure
works, a succession of personal visions that the narrator attempts to
describe in detail without providing meaning for the reader.
For Nadja, the outside world presents itself as a set of signs
that have to be deciphered and interpreted constantly. She is by nature
a visionary character, and it is undoubtedly this quality that the
narrator finds most fascinating. One could say that, for her, "the eye is
the I". It is these eyes that catch the narrator’s attention when they
meet for the first time, whereas (except for being a blonde) the rest of
her physical features are barely noticed. As he says: "Je n’avais jamais
vu de tels yeux"

(Nadja 73), and furthermore, "Je la regarde mieux:
que peut-il bien passer de si extraordinaire dans ses yeux? Que s’y
mire-t-il à la fois obscurément de détresse et lumineusement
d’orgueil ?"

(Nadja 73). In this regard, the most potent metaphor is
that of the Mazda lamp, which appears in a photograph by Boiffard as
a luminous ad on one of Paris’s main boulevards at night. In fact, the
young woman likes to compare herself to a butterfly whose body
would have the shape of this lamp. In many ways, this object
expresses the dream of the "great reflector", that of an almighty light
that brightens all things by a sort of photographic flash that can be
instantly and repeatedly triggered. Her eye thus suggests the power of
76 The Paradox of Photography
a subject who is able to look through the entire visible world and to
penetrate its surface. In this sense, Nadja’s gaze is a photographic one
in its unique capacity to shed light on the most hidden aspects of
reality, and to capture and frame them despite their obscurity or their
flimsiness. She constitutes the "eye of an imaginary camera", and it is
this peculiar gift that allows her to represent and not just reproduce
what she unceasingly sees and contemplates in the realm of everyday
life. One of the best examples of this ability to represent (and
therefore reinvent) the world in a creative way is that of "la main de
feu", a troubling and uncanny vision that Nadja develops as an
analogy to Breton’s writing about her.
From the reading of the First Manifesto, it is clear that Breton’s
original definition of the Surrealist image did not rely primarily upon
the rising cultural status of photography in the early twentieth century.
This definition was essentially influenced by Pierre Reverdy’s
reflection on the subject, which stated that the image stemmed from
the confrontation, and even fusion, of two distant realities. Breton
could not agree more, although he quickly departed from the cubist
poet’s statements by asserting that this possible fusion was of an
unconscious nature, and not strictly deliberate. The main point,
however, was to produce a particular light, and the sheer value of the
image could only depend upon the beauty of the spark that sprung
from it. Reason did not intervene actively in this process: it had to be
carried away by the overwhelming force of these images, what Breton
called "La Nuit des éclairs". For Breton, Surrealism was above all a
poetic movement. His own conception of the image thus dealt
primarily with the language of poetry, in its capacity to assert a set of
original visions to the reader. He established a classification of images
along these lines, while simultaneously emphasizing and praising their
arbitrary character. The work of language and words was paramount
regardless of a possible translation into the domain of the visual arts.
In other words, the subject who could see was primarily the subject
who could write.
But the emphasis on physical, and more precisely electrical,
phenomena (Breton suggests that the beauty of the spark, for example,
is based upon the difference of potential between the two conductors)
also implied that the definition of the image was shaped by the power
of modern science and technique. The writing of the image, therefore,
entailed certain metaphors that were alien to literature itself. It was
Reasonable Madness 77
linked to another essential process, which is the writing of light.
Etymologically, the expression "writing of light" necessarily leads to
photography, if we think of the Greek root of the word. In this sense,
Breton’s theory of the Surrealist image involved, even unconsciously
and indirectly, the reference to photography and its material reality.
Just like the photographer, the poet could not create original images
without the presence of light. The radical poetic logic of Breton’s
discourse could very well be interpreted as an attempt to reflect upon
the image (and poetry) within the whole scope of modernity, which
means in regard to all its forms of expression from science and
technique to photography. The unilateral, unequivocal nature of his
reflection could thus be misleading: it could conceal a call for the
extension of the power of images to other fields besides literature. The
emphasis on "la lumière de l’image" was particularly significant here,
since one could define modernity as the era when the power of light
became universally celebrated and disseminated for its practical use.
In the First Manifesto, Breton writes more particularly that the
value of the image depends upon the beauty of the spark obtained.
("La valeur de l’image dépend de la beauté de l’étincelle obtenue; elle
est, par conséquent, fonction de la différence de potentiel entre les
deux conducteurs." (49)). But the substantive "lumière" did not just
refer to Edison’s invention and its major consequences for mankind. It
also alluded, in French, to the foundation of sociopolitical modernity,
individual freedom, and human rights by the thinkers of the
Enlightenment ("Les Lumières") and to the brothers Louis and
Auguste Lumière, who created cinema at the end of the nineteenth-
century, a medium which would become one of the most important art
forms of the modern world.
It is clear that Breton’s theory of automatism applied first and
foremost to the field of literature, although, in the first pages of Le
Surréalisme et la Peinture, he clearly established the supremacy of
sight over all senses and stressed its ‘automatic’ character, as opposed
to the more premeditated aspect of thought. In her landmark essay
"Photographie et Surréalisme", included in the book Le Photo-
graphique: Pour une Théorie des Écarts (Paris: Macula, 1990),
Rosalind Krauss states in this regard that psychic automatism is a
particular form of written expression that leads to the production of a
text. Even when transposed to the domain of visual practices, as it is
the case with André Masson, for instance, automatism is still to be
78 The Paradox of Photography
conceived as a kind of writing. For Breton, in this sense, writing
always remained superior to vision. This hierarchy corresponded to a
classical opposition in Western culture between perception and
representation. Perception was considered to be more authentic, to the
extent that it was based upon the true experience of things, whereas
representation was more suspicious, since it constituted essentially a
set of signs that merely replaced the experience itself.
Nevertheless, there are several similarities between Breton’s
concept of automatism and the process of picture-taking in
photography. First of all, automatism stressed the instant character of
the poet’s work; it asked for a new time-frame for both literature and
art in Western culture. Its logic was that of speed, of a definite
acceleration of time within the realm of words. Man’s self-expression
could not wait. It had to happen now, and could not tolerate any delay
because it was moved and shaken by the irresistible force of desires
and inner feelings. It is interesting to notice, in this regard, that the
word "automatic" also recalls the ongoing presence of machines
around us. The unbridled assertion of subjectivity that it implies is
therefore paradoxically translated into the objective terms of the
technical domain. But this word also suggests, metaphorically, the
idea of a technical device that did not need man’s total intervention in
order to function (as we speak today of an "automatic camera"). This
constitutes one of the main features of photography, in both its
relation and its opposition to traditional visual languages from
painting to drawing and sculpture. With photography, one could now
produce an image without having to follow a slow and painstaking
process of fabrication. The camera did most of the job, and the
photographer was essentially engaged in a reduced number of
operations for which the machine eventually dictated its own law. The
hand of the artist, in this sense, was no longer a decisive factor in the
creation of the artwork. The "automatic" identity of photography
therefore signified a profound break with the academic tradition of art
in the Western world.
In this perspective, Breton’s passionate praise of Duchamp, in
Le Surréalisme et la Peinture (Paris: Gallimard, 1963), was based
upon the ability of the avant-garde artist to question the supremacy of
both painting and drawing in modern art. His well-known intellectual
crisis of 1912 stemmed from an original attitude of negation, which
led him to reject the power of manual skills in the definition of the
Reasonable Madness 79
artist’s work. As Breton wrote in his essay "Marcel Duchamp. Phare
de la Mariée": "L’exercice du dessin et de la peinture lui fait l’effet
d’un jeu de dupes: il tend à la glorification stupide de la main et de
rien d’autre. C’est la main la grande coupable, comment accepter
d’être l’esclave de sa propre main ?"

(Peinture 123). "Jeux de mains,
jeux de vilains" could have been the words of Duchamp himself, in
this regard. The fundamental conflict between the most radical form
of modernity and the identification of art as a manual practice was
also, in many ways, central to the issue of photography. Since the new
medium blossomed at a time when the aura of painting was already
starting to fade, it was expected that it would question many values
associated with it, particularly the ethics of patience and the emphasis
on the hand as proof of the artist’s unique expertise. In this sense,
photography participated in a global trend towards the precipitation
and the escalation of forms, a trend that artistic modernism was
destined to support in its own terms. The new world born from the
ashes of World War I was an impatient one, engendering an
unprecedented philosophy of time that art and literature could no
longer ignore.
As opposed to Breton’s automatism, though, the possibility of
the artist’s rational control over his work was more relevant for
photography. The various techniques of framing, focusing, and
zooming signified that photography could not be a purely
instantaneous expression. They implied the power of an individual
mind that could always determine the exact formal characteristics of
the image. Moreover, the existence of the dark chamber underlined the
need for a slower process of creation due to specific material
constraints. This was obviously required by the purely technical
demands of the medium. The automatic dimension of photography
therefore remained only a partial one, in that it still faced concrete
realities linked to the actual production of the image.
In "Photographie et Surréalisme", Rosalind Krauss stresses the
numerous contradictions of Breton’s critical discourse, particularly
when it comes to the relationship between Surrealism and
photography. The writer’s hatred for the "real figuration of real
objects" should have logically resulted in the complete rejection of
this medium, given its original identity as a realist mode of
representation. (We know that Breton’s assault on the tradition of
realism in Western culture implicated all artistic genres and
80 The Paradox of Photography
languages, not just literature; this is demonstrated by some of his
fiercest statements in The First Manifesto). Instead, several of his
major works, particularly LAmour Fou and Les Vases Communicants,
allowed for the integration of photography within the creative process
of writing. Rosalind Krauss refers to this allowance as Breton’s
"strange tolerance for photography"

(Krauss 108). She goes back in
this regard to some statements by Breton in which he asks for all good
books to be illustrated with photographs instead of drawings.
I accept that Breton paid some attention to the medium, and that
he did not remain entirely indifferent to its artistic achievements. I do
think, however, that this so-called "tolerance" (or even understanding)
has to be contextualized and questioned. In order to better grasp the
essence of Breton’s attitude towards photography, one has to go back
to the broad discourse on art that appears in his thick collection of
essays, Le Surréalisme et la Peinture. The title of the book is
unambiguous: Surrealism defined itself as a poetic movement from
the start, and only later acknowledged the participation of visual art
forms in its collective project. Thus, if painting constituted a sort of
other that had to be made closer by his art criticism (albeit with some
reservations; we know, for example, the problematic nature of his
relationship with the work of both Chirico and Magritte), it still
represented an artistic expression that could absorb the theory of
automatism. André Masson’s work played an essential role in this
process. In fact, Breton did not pay attention exclusively to Surrealist
art, strictly defined, in his critical endeavor.
His book also included various essays on artists whose ties to
the movement were loose if not non-existent, from Gorky to Picasso
and Kandinsky. Nevertheless, this discourse on art, although
apparently exhaustive and certainly very ambitious in its scope,
largely overlooked the creative power of photography not only for
Surrealist art, but also for modern art in general. In this regard, one
will have a hard time finding any analysis of specific pictures in the
book. "Art" was considered by the founder of Surrealism as primarily
painting, but also drawing, sculpture, and the production or the
presentation of objects such as Joseph Cornell’s boxes and the ready-
mades of Marcel Duchamp.
The only direct and detailed reference to photography, and its
connection to Surrealism and its history, appears when Breton
comments on the pictorial work of Man Ray. Breton shows that the
Reasonable Madness 81
American-born artist, like Max Ernst, used some basic principles of
photography in order to better transcend them in his famous
Rayographs. Man Ray’s main merit, for Breton, was precisely to
question the purely positive dimension of photographic representation
and beyond that, to deprive photography of its so-called arrogance and
natural pretension ("Il s’est appliqué d’emblée à lui faire ôter son
caractère positif, à lui faire passer cet air arrogant qu’elle avait de se
donner pour ce qu’elle n’est pas"

(Peinture 52)). It is obvious that, in
this text, Breton adopts a certain attitude of distance towards the
medium. As he writes:

L’épreuve photographique prise en elle-même, toute revêtue qu’elle est de cette
valeur émotive qui en fait un des plus beaux objets d’échange, (et quand donc
tous les livres valables cesseront-ils d’être illustrés de dessins pour ne plus
paraître qu’avec des photographies ?), cette épreuve, bien que douée d’une
force de suggestion particulière, n’est pas en dernière analyse l’image fidèle
que nous entendons garder de ce que bientôt nous n’aurons plus. Il était
nécessaire, alors que la peinture, de loin distancée par la photographie dans
l’imitation pure et simple des choses réelles, se posait et résolvait comme on l’a
vu le problème de sa raison d’être, qu’un parfait technicien de la photographie,
qui fût aussi de la classe des meilleurs peintres, se préoccupât d’une part,
d’assigner à la photographie les limites exactes de ce que à quoi elle peut
prétendre, d’autre part de la faire servir à d’autres fins que celles pour
lesquelles elle avait été créée, et notamment à poursuivre pour son compte, et
dans la mesure de ses moyens propres, l’exploration de cette région que la
peinture croyait pouvoir se réserver. Ce fut le bonheur de Man Ray d’être cet
homme. (Peinture 52-53)

Breton’s definition of pictures as objects of exchange, even the
most beautiful and emotionally charged ones, already sets the tone of
his argument. Photography is apprehended here in its socioeconomic
status before being taken as an art form. It belongs to a particular
cultural logic of modernity, and it is from this perspective that it can
be studied. Could Breton have defined modern painting the same way,
by insisting first on its existence as a commodity? The answer is no.
Quickly, though, Breton questions the so-called accuracy of
photography in its mimetic representation of the outside world. This
does not prevent him from suggesting at the same time that this
supposedly essential quality of the medium remains his main asset in
regard to painting. Moreover, his celebration of Man Ray as the first
modern artist to demonstrate a deep understanding of photography as
a creative practice, and not just as a mere reproduction of reality, still
82 The Paradox of Photography
assigns a rather inferior position to photography. After all, in his
perspective, the artist is to be recognized for drawing the very limits
of the medium, and particularly of its artistic ambitions, and not
simply for exploring all its visual possibilities. In other words, Man
Ray’s project is to be praised precisely because it does not take
photography for what it actually is, but instead for what it could be.
Breton adds that his work allows for a unique fusion between
photography and painting, to the point that the two can no longer be
distinguished from one another. The ambiguity of Breton’s position
stems from the fact that, by his logic, photography still needs the
legitimacy of its pictorial definition in order to exist as a true art form.
Thus photography is art because it is also painting, or more
concretely, because (as in the case of Max Ernst) it constitutes a
privileged tool for painting. The eye of the painter turns it into a
genuine expression of human imagination.
Similarly, when Breton dreams of books that would no longer
be illustrated by drawings but instead by pictures, he actually
underlines his own doubts about the medium. Photography is to be
treated as a sort of complementary object for literature, such that its
radical independence and self-sufficiency are denied. In Nadja (and
also in LAmour Fou), he emphasizes this same illustrative nature of
photography, reflecting one of the most common and even banal uses
of photography since its birth. After all, Baudelaire, in his ferocious
assault, still recognized the relevance of pictures as purely illustrative
or decorative forms as early as the mid-nineteenth century. This kind
of identification, therefore, could be considered a poisoned gift. By
comparison, the same function was never attributed to either painting
or sculpture in relation to literature. But photographic illustrations had
been in high demand in both popular magazines and journals of
scientific vulgarization for quite a while. Mainstream culture had
therefore exploited them in order to pursue its own practical,
profitable goals within bourgeois and capitalist society.
This short passage on Man Ray enlightens some of the most
fundamental contradictions of Surrealist aesthetic discourse. Beyond
the issue of photography, he raises the question of the hierarchy of art
forms. Artistic modernism implied, from the start, a belief in the
equality of all artistic expressions; as such, the traditional authority of
academic disciplines such as oil painting, drawing and sculpture were
suddenly questioned by the advent of new genres such as collage and
Reasonable Madness 83
found objects. This was more obvious in Dada than in any other
movement. But the attitude of Surrealism towards this so-called
principle of equality was less clear. After all, it is mainly in painting
that foremost artists such as Dali or Tanguy excelled. In this sense,
Duchamp could get rid of this long-term and privileged relationship
with painting precisely because he was not so much a Surrealist artist
as a Dada. When Breton speaks or thinks about art, he definitely
speaks or thinks first about painting, even if works such as the
automatic drawings of André Masson play an important role in his
reflection on art and Surrealism. One has to wonder, therefore,
whether modernism (and this is even more true of Cubism) really
achieved what it was supposed to do. No one will argue with the
premise that all forms were actually used and exploited for artistic
purposes by the Surrealist artists and writers. But this does not mean
that the hierarchy among all these forms eventually disappeared. If I
were to establish such a hierarchy in reference to Surrealism and its
aesthetic discourse, as defined by Breton, then poetry would occupy
the first rank, followed by painting, and only then by photography and
film. Music was almost completely ignored by Breton, who disliked it
It is from this perspective that we must consider the integration
of photography within André Breton’s literary work. It is a process
that, beyond its openness and "tolerance", betrays a particular way of
thinking that still belongs to the past of Western culture. One could
compare this viewpoint, for instance, with the philosophy of art
expressed by Hegel in his Esthétique. The real equality among all art
forms would only be accomplished some four decades later in
conceptual art, particularly in the project of the international avant-
garde group Fluxus. (Let us also think of the work of Robert Filliou,
in France, in this regard.) Here, the notion of an "artistic discipline"
would no longer be relevant: it would forever be replaced by the
general notion of "artistic expression", with its emphasis on the
eventful nature of art and its collective production. The classical
hierarchies and rankings that modernism entailed, even unconsciously,
could finally be overthrown inasmuch as the original reference of
artistic discourse to both poetry and painting could now be abandoned.
In other words, art could become truly modern (and also truly radical)
by virtue of the following sentence: "Anything can be art and art can
be anything, which is life itself". This statement, obviously, could also
84 The Paradox of Photography
have been pronounced by Marcel Duchamp. For Surrealism, by
contrast, this "anything" still concealed a more cautious (and less
defiant) approach to the legacy of Western culture. In other words, it
still divided the map of art between centers and margins, in spite of all
declarations of intention expressed in various Manifestos.
In his musings on Man Ray, Breton particularly questions the
unique status of the pose in photography. The work of the
photographer requires from the subject a pre-determined attitude in
front of the camera. As he says: "Le cliché photographique commence
par exiger de ces figures une attitude propice, quand il ne les surprend
pas dans ce qu’elles ont de plus fugitif. Les mêmes réflexions
s’appliqueraient du reste à la prise de vue cinématographique, de
nature à compromettre ces figures non plus seulement dans l’inanimé,
mais encore dans le mouvement."

(Peinture 52). To contradict this
common approach of the portrait, Breton stresses the originality of
Man Ray’s models, those women who do not seem to be caught in
contrived positions. "Les femmes très élégantes et très belles qui
exposent jour et nuit leurs cheveux aux terribles lumières de l’atelier
de Man Ray n’ont certes pas conscience de se prêter à une
démonstration quelconque. Comme je les étonnerais en disant qu’elles
y participent au même titre qu’un canon de quartz, qu’un trousseau de
clés, que le givre ou que la fougère !" (Peinture 53-54). He shows how
the human face and other parts of the body are confused here with a
specific set of objects, and how, together, they construct a profoundly
poetic world. It is in this specific transformation of the classical
portrait that Man Ray demonstrates his own creative power through
the medium of photography. The law of the pose is transgressed; the
subject no longer exists by itself as the single focus of the image, but
instead as a figure that relates to (and reflects) the material things and
natural world around it.
Again, this implicit critique of the pose does not clearly appear
in the pictures of Nadja. Most of the portraits found in the book are
actually of a classical form, that is, they do abide by the rules of
mainstream photography. Therefore, another essential contradiction is
unveiled here: that between Breton’s critical discourse and his literary
work. It is true, indeed, that one notices a certain "strangeness" that
inhabits several of these portraits (particularly that of Eluard). But
their aesthetic identity remains nevertheless quite predictable,
although Man Ray himself made some of these portraits. By
Reasonable Madness 85
extension, one could say that the dominant aesthetics of the book’s
iconography is that of realism. The problem is that Breton primarily
praised photography for its illustrative value, as we saw through his
essay in Le Surréalisme et la Peinture. By definition, an illustration
constitutes a direct or indirect visual reference to a particular text. But
Breton decided from the start to use photography in order to eliminate
most description from the narrative. Therefore, pictures were defined
not only by their illustrative function but also by their descriptive
function. This emphasis on the descriptive power of the image
apparently implies the supremacy of its mimetic dimension.
In this regard, Breton’s use of photography was destined to
represent the surrounding reality before being able to recreate it, this
reality being that of places, faces and objects. The need for description
beyond literary language meant that photography was not a domain of
pure imagination or fantasy. It produced a definite distance between
the formal nature of these pictures and that of both poetic and pictorial
modernism. If these pictures were not, in fact, surrealist in their
essence due to a definite concern for realism, they were even less
connected to the modern spirit of abstraction. Their ongoing
inscription within the world of everyday life and mundane
preoccupations marked a clear departure, for instance, from the
aesthetics of a Mondrian or a Kandinsky or even a Miro. Does a work
by Kandinsky, for instance, describe social reality? In many ways,
these works were still rooted in the artistic tradition of photography
(but also of painting) in the nineteenth century: a rather prudent and
almost academic one, indeed.
As such, the use of photography by Breton was particularly
important in works like Nadja and lAmour Fou, both of which dealt
with issues of excess and passion either from a fictional or critical
perspective. In LAmour Fou, Breton celebrated the eternal power of
desire and sexual attraction between men and women, expressing a
radical freedom that could not be voiced without the help of numerous
pictures. But this self-proclaimed apology representing unbridled
feelings did not lead to a truly irrational and transgressive model of
representation. What should strike the reader, instead, is the often-
measured character of the images that construct the visual aspect of
the work. Whether they are images of the Parisian urban landscape at
night, or reproductions of artworks by an artist such as Giacometti,
their dominant feature remains that of a profound sense of balance and
86 The Paradox of Photography
symmetry. In other words, the iconography generally escapes any sort
of madness or chaos in its overall careful approach. A great distance is
maintained from the pictorial hallucinations of Salvador Dali or the
uncontrolled visions of André Masson.
In this context, photography still asserts the utmost meaning of
reason for both art and literature. It is largely deprived of the violence
or the exuberance usually associated with the world of passion. In his
article "L’Art des fous, la clé des champs", written in 1948 and
included in Le Surréalisme et la Peinture, Breton paid particular
attention to artworks created by so-called mad people locked up in
asylums and special institutions in order to highlight their spiritual and
moral depth. Referring to Jean Dubuffet, he emphasized the
uniqueness of "Art Brut". What was at stake, in these works, was the
return to the aesthetics of primitivism within a Western culture that
had in many ways stifled it over the centuries. Primitivism radically
questioned the artistic legitimacy of rationalism, and thus Surrealism
had to embrace it. Breton, in his essay entitled "L’Art des fous, la clé
des Champs", asserted his strong and unambiguous opposition to the
establishment of art criticism, in that it was guilty of conformism and
essentially unable to welcome artworks that did not respect the social
norms of artistic creation. But this link between madness and
primitive aesthetics is too often missing in the pictures of both Nadja
and LAmour Fou, apart from a couple of references to "wild objects"
and fetishes. What prevails is the presence of a tamed representation
that does not really allow for the expression of the repressed. In this
sense, photography still suggests the power of the Law, regardless of
the unconventional behavior that the author is supposed to enlighten
and glorify. It remains a language of so-called civilized and educated
forms, through which the wildest and darkest side of man can rarely
Photography exists here beyond or rather beneath the primitive. It
constitutes a world of orderly things, seized through a detached and
distant eye. In LAmour Fou in particular, several pictures reflect the
poetic significance of nature, from coral to sunflowers and clusters of
crystal. The insistence on the mineral and vegetal world leads to the
identification of photography as a sort of modern still life that comes
after painting and its long tradition of the subject. This tradition
largely stemmed from the belief in the fundamental order of pictorial
representation, in which the artist demonstrated his own intense rigor
Reasonable Madness 87
and the historical mastery of art and culture over nature. This was still
the case even in the most modernist and original interpretation of the
genre, from Cézanne to Morandi and Braque. The tension between the
objective reflection of the universe and the raw expression of the
subject in painting was thus overcome through a patient and careful
process of reproduction that revealed, above all, the intellectual
knowledge of the artist and his pre-determination of the work of art.
The logic of the still life necessarily implies the supremacy of
immobility over movement. It is a form which requires the aesthetic
power of contemplation. The timelessness of the form is enhanced by
the choice of the subject matter, which is the natural world. While
men are mortal, nature is immortal, and this is one of the main
characteristics that separate the time of the still life from the time of
the portrait. The identification of photography with the genre therefore
calls for a sense of eternity within the visual domain. This allows us to
highlight, once again, the contradictions of Breton’s critical discourse,
and more precisely of his discourse on beauty in both art and life.
Toward this end, the last pages of Nadja provided a new and highly
personal definition of beauty which, according to Breton’s own words,
was neither static nor dynamic. The main metaphor for this argument
was that of a train in the Gare de Lyon that would actually never
leave. "Beauty was to be convulsive or would not be", and this notion
was also developed in the first part of LAmour Fou, where Breton
looked for literary examples of this definition in the poetic work of
Lautréamont and others. As he said: "Le mot ‘convulsive’, que j’ai
employé pour qualifier la beauté qui seule, selon moi, doive être
servie, perdrait à mes yeux tout sens s’il était conçu dans le
mouvement et non à l’expiration exacte de ce mouvement même".

(Amour 13). According to these words, Breton’s aesthetic sensitivity
entailed a delicate balance between motion and its negation. He had to
assert the reciprocal relationship that tied the object both in its motion
and its stillness. In the same passage, Breton actually expressed his
regret for not having provided, as an illustration to his text, a picture
of a high-speed locomotive that had been abandoned during all those
years to the folly of the wild forest. This was undoubtedly the kind of
image that he would have loved to see. Moreover, he stressed the
magical character of such a vision ("L’aspect sûrement magique de ce
monument à la victoire et au désastre, mieux que tout autre, eût été de
nature à fixer les idées" (Amour 13). The same vision of a train that
88 The Paradox of Photography
would not leave was therefore repeated in order to suggest the
fundamental illusion of both speed and immobility.
But his questioning of essential mechanical phenomena
associated with modernity distinguished his discourse from that of
other modernist artistic movements, and particularly from Futurism.
The cry for a convulsive aesthetics did not mean a complete surrender
to the purely dynamic representation of the modern world (a form of
representation that was paramount for the pictorial project of
Futurism, but also for Léger’s Cubism and Delaunay’s Simultaneism).
The self-proclaimed spontaneity of expression that was put forth in
this discourse did not actually contradict the need for a contemplative
interaction with reality. (I want to emphasize here the paradoxical
dimension of this formula: "contemplative interaction", beyond its
apparent passivity, was still marked by the desire to act upon the
outside world).
In LAmour Fou, Breton praised the crystal as the ultimate
symbol of the formal identity of artwork, and also of life. Crystal was
a sort of natural ready-made, something that existed as in its solidity
and regularity, and could neither be improved nor perfected as such.
Artistic spontaneity was part of the message included in this
metaphor, but it also implied the quest for an inanimate reality within
the natural world. Breton simultaneously celebrated, in this regard,
flora ("les alcyonaires et les madrépores") and the coral located in the
depths of the ocean. Both the vegetal and the mineral world reflected
the poetic power of eternal forms that could not be altered. In this
sense, human imagination could be agitated and animated by them by
virtue of a magnetic force that stemmed from their permanent and
fixed presence. ("L’inanimé touche ici de si près l’animé que
l’imagination est libre de se jouer à l’infini sur ces formes d’apparence
toute minérale" (Amour 15)).
The missing picture of LAmour Fou, that of the locomotive,
said it all. The machine, as the ultimate objective expression of
modernity and the law of technical progress, had to be framed and
seized in its vegetal possibility. It had to reveal the sense of a fast time
that could still be stopped, such that one could, through the image,
move from a social to a poetic definition of time. Photography
constituted the most appropriate medium for the representation of
stillness within perpetual motion: it could always capture and control
an accelerative process to assert the artist’s unique ability to see and
Reasonable Madness 89
visualize the eternal through the experience of the ephemeral and the
In LAmour Fou, the identification of beauty with light is
almost inevitable. The celebration of the crystal was evidently that of
an object whose transparent surface let light go through. It echoed the
dream of the glass house that was already included in Nadja. The
legend that accompanies the picture of these stones is of particular
significance: "La maison que j’habite, ma vie, ce que j’écris"

18), which is actually only the first part of a sentence that ends: "Je
rêve que cela apparaisse de loin comme apparaissent de près ces cubes
de sel gemme"

(Amour 14). This identification continues, and is
maybe even more significant, in the notion of "revelation" that Breton
develops further in the text. His radical critique of rationalism stems
from an esoteric sense of the mystery of things around us. The main
task of the poet, and the artist, is to point at this mystery and unveil it
with words and pictures. The utopia of total transparency is based
upon the belief that art can literally go through things and penetrate
what he calls "the deep night of human existence". In order to do so,
the artist must first give up the demands of traditional logic. Breton
strives for the birth of an unprecedented contact between man and the
material world that would be dazzling ("éblouissant"). According to
his own discourse, the word "revelation" is not to be taken as
metaphysical, but rather concrete. Indeed, to reveal is to demonstrate
in a poetic manner the mental closeness of the material reality that
surrounds us. But this term also implies, by nature, a specific move
from darkness to light in a very physical way.
As such, revelation entails the irresistible passage of things and
beings to light, beyond the perception of a reality that cannot be
neither known nor understood. From this perspective, transparency
constitutes the privileged aesthetic model of an almighty light that can
reach, touch, and illuminate every single object and subject in the
universe. It expresses both its ubiquitous nature and its specific power
to signify meaning as an original and unique language. The metaphors
used by Breton in these two literary works thus often refer indirectly
to the issue of photography. For what is photography, if not a medium
that shed light on objects, places, and people to make the world more
visible through a process of sheer "revelation"? For Breton, the
identity of Surrealist poetry and art had to be defined through the
ongoing creation of inner images and visions. But it also required the
90 The Paradox of Photography
active support of a primarily physical phenomenon as an origin and
foundation, the utmost importance of which was demonstrated by the
very technique of photography.
The tension between motion and stillness that characterized
Breton’s aesthetic discourse was especially embodied in the
philosophy of idleness (or désoeuvrement) that the narrator formulated
in Nadja. Many pictures in the book evoked this philosophy through
their emphasis on the emptiness of the urban space. It entailed an
unequivocal rejection of the merely social definition of work in
capitalist society, which inevitably led to the servitude of those who
accepted it. In order to achieve some sort of personal emancipation (or
"désenchaînement", to use the narrator's term), the narrator praised the
ethical and existential value of wandering, and more precisely of
man’s footsteps ("Pour moi, je l’avoue, ces pas sont tout"

(Nadja 79)).
In this sense, the celebration of Les pas articulated a desire to
move beyond the strictly active conception of life that prevailed in
modern Western culture. Idleness, by contrast, opened upon the
discovery of contemplation and its power to reveal. In other words, it
was necessary to stop feverishly working and acting to see through the
surface of the world. The character of Nadja, in her own complete
disconnection from social reality (and thus from the reality of labor),
expressed the promise of an individual freedom based upon the
everyday supremacy of the gaze. The idle being could therefore
overcome the general process of alienation common to all people by
continuously staring at (and through) the things around them.
This peculiar quality of the gaze did not imply, though, that the
subject remained locked and paralyzed in inaction. This form of
contemplation was not purely passive or even ecstatic, as in the
religious or mystical experience. For Breton, instead, it enabled a
profound transformation in the nature of the communication, not only
between men and women, but also between man and the material
world. Les Pas, in this sense, echoed the will for a radical cultural and
existential change, not some longing for absolute withdrawal or
renouncement. Contemplation had to be associated with an agitated
attitude of revolt and rebellion: it determined, in its own way, a
dynamic process of involvement and engagement that could neither
reduce nor confine man to silence, neutrality, and powerlessness.
In Nadja, the urban imagination of the poet is translated into
images that mostly appear in daylight. Streets, squares, buildings, and
Reasonable Madness 91
parks are represented in a state of "daydreaming", precisely because
the day constitutes a time when most people are at work and therefore
unable to dream. The overwhelming imperatives of the social order
are embodied in the rigid organization of daytime: to challenge this
particular order, the poet must assert the presence of both art and the
unconscious within a realm that denies them. This is evidently what
separates the pictures of Nadja from the works of Brassaï, in which
urban views of Paris are dominated by a nocturnal sensitivity. They
are closer to the earlier works of a pioneer like Atget, especially in the
particular attention that Breton pays to the emptiness of the urban
space. The Paris of Nadja is mostly deserted by its inhabitants. Its
photography focuses instead on the fantasy of a large city that has
been abandoned by its people (which evokes the pictorial aesthetics of
Giorgio de Chirico, an artist that Breton praised in his earlier writings
before excommunicating him later on). This city is deprived of any
crowd of passers-by. It becomes a sort of metaphysical vacuum that
the narrator and his female companion fill with their own words and
In many ways, Paris is an abstract landscape here: it does not
resemble a true modern city, with its constant movement and its dense
gatherings of human beings. The narrator and Nadja are almost alone
within this setting, as if this loneliness was the pre-condition for a
sense of true belonging. The city is now theirs, precisely because the
urban space is not being shared with anyone else. Photography
suggests the uncanny presence of a deserted world, a world that only
exists in the mind of the poet and the artist. But this is also how the
Paris of Nadja allows for the confusion of daytime and nighttime, as it
is solely in the middle of the night that the streets and the squares of
the big city are, in fact, deserted, when the vast majority of people are
asleep and most restaurants, shops and theaters are already closed.
In this perspective, photography strives for an impossible
encounter between two opposite realities: it defines a Utopian space in
which the image of man becomes more obscure and aloof. In the last
pages of the book, the narrator insists upon the abstract character of
the big city and its ongoing metamorphosis in front of his eyes. The
modern city has no definite form. It is an ever-changing entity that
seems to flee while expressing its fundamental otherness. This
sensibility is close to that of Baudelaire, if one thinks in particular of a
poem like Le Cygne, but with a less melancholic tone. ("Sans aucun
92 The Paradox of Photography
regret, à cette heure, je la vois devenir autre et même fuir. Elle glisse,
elle brûle, elle sombre dans le frisson d’herbes folles de ses
barricades, dans le rêve des rideaux de ses chambres où un homme et
une femme continueront indifféremment à s’aimer."

(Nadja 182)).
According to Breton’s own words, the city is indeed a "mental
landscape" and a profoundly enigmatic one at that. It must be the
result of a particular intellectual construction that defies the purely
material aspects of the urban space. The narrator of Nadja, therefore,
conceives of the city in his own mind while simultaneously living it in
the everyday experience. In this perspective, photography fosters the
conceptual project of an urban poetics that is always unfinished and
open to change. In her own essay, Rosalind Krauss refers in this
regard to Walter Benjamin’s interest in Breton’s urban poetics, as it
appears in his essay "Le Surréalisme", which is included in his
Oeuvres I, Mythe et Violence. She quotes some of his statements,
saying that "photography wonderfully captures some spaces and
objects belonging to the city, from streets to doors. These century-old
architectures are thus detached from their banal evidence in order to
be related, with an utmost intensity, to the very event that photography
presents". (Krauss 108).
One can never underestimate the political dimension of
Breton’s writings, which shapes even those texts that are not strictly
manifestos. LAmour Fou, for instance, defines a politics of love and
desire, of its eternal nature against all odds. In this regard, the
narrative of Nadja does not constitute an exception; it might actually
be one of Breton's most politically charged works. The assault on the
medical establishment (discussed previously) is combined with a fiery
rhetoric about the need for radical freedom and non-conformity. One
could define Breton’s general attitude and mindset as primarily
existential. But this original perspective is rarely conveyed by
photography itself. Distance is maintained from the spirit of John
Heartfield’s photographic collages and montages, whose purpose was
directly political. It was this utmost ideological dimension that
attracted someone like Aragon in his enthusiastic critical discourse on
Heartfield's work. If Breton avoids the trap of propaganda here, he is
also reluctant to embrace the idea of photography as art engagé, a
position which is more problematic.
After all, from its very foundation, the Magnum Group
inscribed photography within the domain of history. Many of Robert
Reasonable Madness 93
Capa’s most famous images actually focused on war and its tragic
implications for mankind, from the Spanish civil war of 1937 to
World War II and the colonial conflicts of the late forties and early
fifties. This tragic, or even epic, nature of photography is almost
absent in Breton’s writings. It is as if the photographer could not be
the witness of his own era, a notion that was so crucial for many
renowned artists working with this medium in the twentieth century.
The only reference to history in Breton’s writings is located in Cartier-
Bresson’s striking picture of Spanish children walking through the
rubble during the civil war, a picture that appears at the end of
LAmour Fou. By deliberately focusing his attention on the realm of
everyday life, the Surrealist poet ended up ignoring some of the most
important aspects of modern photography. These aspects had indeed
transformed photography into a major art form by underlining its
political urgency and its identification with life and death issues
concerning the whole of humanity. This universality might be missing
in both Nadja and LAmour Fou, as if the emphasis on personal
feelings and subjectivity had overshadowed the representation of the
community, of its struggle and of its suffering, simultaneously
historical and eternal.
Breton’s use of photography does, however, imply the
integration of this medium within the domain of popular culture. The
Surrealists generally expressed a strong interest in the so-called "low
culture" of genre movies, popular songs, detective stories and cabaret
shows. The text of Nadja is filled with references to such forms of
entertainment. The narrator is not ashamed of the fact that he greatly
enjoys the performances staged at the Théâtre Moderne, in spite of the
poor acting and the ugliness of the décor. He finds pleasure in
listening to a refrain sung by a young woman, a quite banal love song
with melodramatic undertones. "Descendre vraiment dans les bas-
fonds de l’esprit, là où il n’est plus question que la nuit tombe et se

(Nadja 45), such is his main goal when he attends shows of
dubious quality in some of the worse areas of the city. He describes an
evening spent at the "Théâtre des Deux-Masques", a popular theater
specializing in Grand-Guignol, watching a play that had been trashed
by the critics.
It is well-known that Breton was not a big fan of the theater,
which is probably the reason why theatre occupies only a marginal
position in the hierarchy of Surrealist practices. The narrator confesses
94 The Paradox of Photography
here his lack of taste for "les planches". Nonetheless, he expresses his
enthusiasm for a play called Les Détraquées, which he considers to be
the only stage work that he wants to remember. He pays particular
attention to the character of Solange, a young girl who attends
boarding school and dies at the end of the performance. He is above
all fascinated by the actress who plays her role, Blanche Derval, a
woman that he defines emphatically as the most admirable and maybe
the only actress of her time. A photograph of her appears in the middle
of his account, her portrait revealing the importance of popular
mythologies (in the sense given to the term by Barthes) for Breton and
his followers. Blanche Derval becomes an iconic figure for the
narrator. She is seen by him as a star and an idol, despite her relative
lack of fame and artistic status.
Her picture enables him to keep a strong memory of her:. It
underlines the presence of an imaginary relationship, which exists
only in the mind of the narrator (of the fan that he actually is). The
objective (and quite mediocre) reality of the context in which this
mental bind takes place is no longer significant: the picture of the
young actress unveils here the fictional power of photography and its
capacity to turn the other into an object of pure fantasy. Popular
culture, by this logic, allows for the assertion of intimate desires and
feelings within the most banal forms of human experience. It
engenders a thorough process of transfiguration in which the
imagination of the subject becomes paramount. Truth is no longer the
issue: "les bas-fonds de l’esprit" instead defines a system of
representation in which the underground and hidden dimensions of
life play the main part.
Popular culture and Surrealism share a belief in the sheer
equality of all forms of cultural expression. For the Surrealist artist,
collages, found objects and photographs were as essential to his
projects as painting or drawing. Surrealism (and also Dada) implied in
many ways a profound questioning of the hierarchy among the arts,
although (as demonstrated earlier) Breton himself still maintained a
sense of hierarchy in his writings. Nevertheless, the distinction
between "high art" and "low art" became more and more blurry after
Duchamp and Man Ray. To the extent that Surrealism and the avant-
garde belonged to and reflected the twentieth-century, they had to
confront the aesthetic and cultural relativism that constituted one of its
main features.
Reasonable Madness 95
What prevented Surrealism and the avant-garde from becoming
truly "popular", though, was their foundation in a theoretical discourse
that was alien to the world of commercial films and magazines.
Moreover, the vast majority of the artists and poets who participated
in their history firmly believed in the possibility of radical social and
political changes through art, a notion that the producers of true
popular culture did not share. In this sense, Surrealism had to assume
its own philosophical contradictions. Its relativism could not be
absolute, for absolute relativism constitutes the most profound
negation of art, of its meaning and its purpose. Popular culture itself
would end up trivializing the very word "Surrealism" by superficially
imitating its aesthetics in advertising and film. But this artificial and
contrived synthesis could not mask the fundamental differences
between the two. In the First Manifesto, Breton clearly stated the deep
conflict between the avant-garde poet or artist and the materialism of
capitalist society by unambiguously tying the politics of his movement
to Marxist ideology.

(I have studied Breton’s complex ties to Marxist
ideology, and more particularly to the personality and the political
legacy of Trotsky, in my "Breton and Trotsky: The revolutionary
memory of Surrealism", which is included in the special issue
Surrealism and Its Others of Yale French Studies, Volume 109, 52-
By contrast, popular culture lacked such a political project. It
was primarily destined to entertain the masses, and therefore
legitimated the oppression of the capitalist order by providing people
with a temporary sense of joy or bliss. Escapism was its real identity,
whereas Surrealism attempted instead to raise serious issues about the
revolutionary role of modern art and its mission as a liberating force
for the community.
In this sense, Surrealism never became truly "popular" because
it belonged to the domain of the avant-garde and took on its rather
esoteric nature. The problem with photography was that, in the course
of its history, it started first as a standardized means of expression for
the masses, and then became an increasingly creative artistic
discipline for the educated few. These two contradictory dimensions
of the medium still co-exist today. This might well be the reason why
it remains so difficult to assert an essentialist definition of
photography. Breton’s discourse reflects these unresolved tensions.
He constantly hesitates between the pictorial aspect of photography
96 The Paradox of Photography
and its strictly anecdotic dimension, that is, between photography as
mere illustration of both narrative and reality, and photography as an
independent and mature art form. Pictures can be insignificant and
outdated objects found by chance in a flea market, the rather mundane
stuff that postcards are made of. But they can also stir the unconscious
of the narrator and open up to the infinite world of dreams and visions
by revealing the numerous coincidences of everyday life (such as in
the picture of Les Bois-Charbons).
As such, pictures are always to be constructed and developed by
both the narrator and the reader. In Breton’s perspective, they do not
exist as closed entities, but instead as a sort of "open door or window",
as if these objects needed external help in order to assert their own
meaning. They are essentially flawed or imperfect, and these aesthetic
limitations enable us to interpret them freely with our own model of
thought. After all, the Surrealist project of Nadja constantly tracks the
possibility of the event within the uneventful. Banality becomes a
precondition for the expression of the extraordinary. These pictures all
seem so close to us, in their apparent simplicity, but this perception is
somewhat misleading. Photography provides us with a mere illusion
of transparency and obviousness. It never reaches the utmost
sophistication of Breton’s prose, its profound intricacies, but it leads
us nonetheless to a sense of the symbolic complexity of everyday life.
In this regard, one could compare photography to a set of questions.
These questions give us the opportunity to read and decipher the
world of objects and signs around us without providing us definitive
answers to our own interrogations and anxieties. Photography is there
to open our eyes, and to suggest the ongoing presence of a gaze that
does not only belong to the central character of the narrative, but to us
all. In Breton’s perspective, this gaze is never self-sufficient: it will
always need the power of the poetic language. But it can at least
fashion and stir our awareness of the invisible world existing behind
the visible one, in its eternal beauty and infinite richness.


The Image, One Image, Images

Any discussion of modern critical discourse on photography
requires an examination of Roland Barthes’s famous essay, La
Chambre Claire (Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 1980). More than twenty-
five years after its publication, this book continues to influence
definitions of the true nature of the medium. Barthes’ undertaking,
after all, is not about seeing photography, or even looking at it, but
rather about reading it as a type of subliminal text. The very process of
reading has always been central to the author’s general reflection on
literature and literary criticism, from S/Z to Le Plaisir du Texte. It is
no surprise, therefore, that his main work on photography focuses
essentially on this issue of reading images. The first pages of his essay
immediately enlighten this particular search for the possibility of
interpretation, beyond the material presence of visual representation.
In order to read a given object, one has first to define it in broad terms:
the definition, in this sense, cannot provide us with the true meaning
of the object, but it does give us conceptual tools that will enable us to
find its meaning afterwards.
The first major rhetorical move by Barthes consists in opposing
photography and cinema. ("Je décrétai que j’aimais la photo contre le
cinéma, dont je n’arrivais pas pourtant à la séparer" (Barthes 13)). The
word "against" is being put into italics, as if the author was insisting
upon this radical opposition. We have already seen this attempt to
98 The Paradox of Photography
confront photography with other art forms: Baudelaire’s critique, in
this regard, determined from the start the antagonistic relationship
between painting and photography. The differences between cinema
and photography are obvious: the former produces moving images
most often accompanied with sound while the latter is based on still
and silent ones. But an ambiguity remains in Barthes’ statement, since
he confesses his inability to separate the two. From a strictly technical
point of view, it is clear that cinema could not have been conceived
without the invention of photography. One must notice in this regard
that the Lumière brothers themselves engaged in in-depth scientific
research on photography, and ended up developing in particular a new
process of reproduction of color pictures called lautochrome. Beyond
the purely technical aspect of this relationship, though, one can easily
argue that cinema, from the start, asserted itself as a narrative means
of expression whereas photography was more dominated by
descriptive or documentary concerns. In this sense, cinema rapidly
became a powerful vehicle for fiction and story-telling, while
photography was more confined (at least at the beginning) to the
reproduction of reality.
This statement is significant, to the extent that Barthes, the
moviegoer, never really attempted to write a book-length essay on
cinema, as opposed to Deleuze, for instance (I want to refer here to
Deleuze’s landmark theoretical writings, such as LImage-Mouvement
and LImage-Temps). As a literary critic, (which was, after all, the
main intellectual identity of the author), he decided instead to focus
his attention on photography. By doing so, he unconsciously
suggested that photography could be integrated into his own theory of
writing, and beyond that, into the theory of writing in general. After
all, the very word "photography" denotes the act of writing, while
cinema does not. This demonstrates that, for Barthes, issues of writing
and reading largely exceeded those of fiction and narrative. His
famous distinction between lecrivain and lecrivant, implied the idea
that the true writer was primarily interested in critical issues and the
concept of writing instead of being a mere producer of stories and
imaginary characters. From this perspective, the choice of
photography over cinema meant that photography could encourage
critical reflection precisely because its main purpose was not the
creation of fiction. For him, fiction was in many ways what resisted
the very possibility of an ontological discourse. Photography, by
The Image, One Image, Images 99
deliberately distancing itself from such viewpoint, could therefore
open up to the assertion of an "en soi" and the expression of an
"ontological" desire.
From the beginning, Barthes casts a doubt on the identity of
photography. It must be said that when he undertook this project in the
late seventies, critical discourse on the medium was still relatively
rare, at least in French culture. The only notable example was
Bourdieu’s Un Art Moyen, which was much more of a sociological
study than a true essay on aesthetics. In this sense, Barthes was a type
of precursor. In many ways he had to start from scratch. The absence
of a significant corpus on the subject, aside from the traditional
catalogues raisonnés and archival documents, enabled him to
construct his own theory of photography without having to answer to
anyone. His singularity therefore constituted the source of his
intellectual independence. There was no established authority which
could assess the validity of his statements or reject them on the basis
of a preexisting model of thought.
This is still what strikes the reader of La Chambre Claire: it is
the absolute freedom of tone that characterizes the words of the
author. The essay in the "I" form reflects the ultimate power of a
writer who speaks without having to take into account a series of text
that would shape a certain history of the topic. Barthes does not even
mention Baudelaire in his work, as if photography was springing
almost out of nowhere, from the background of a philosophical
vacuum: "Qui pouvait me guider?" (Barthes 14). This question is
particularly significant, because it stresses an absence of other voices
that might have enabled Barthes to develop his own discourse. The
bold orientation that Barthes defined in his Nouvelle Critique
evidently targeted a traditional and rigid conception of literary
criticism that had been determined by French academia for decades.
His polemical response to Raymond Picard did not have to assert itself
against a particular institutional framework. But it is also for the same
reason that the voice of the writer is somewhat lonelier. Barthes must
explore photography like a franc-tireur detached from any school and
from any community. It is clear that such a situation can generate
numerous anxieties. The writer here is literally by himself. He does
not hear any echo and has to proceed without any external help. This
could explain Barthes’s search for the classification and order of
pictures. ("Il faut bien classer, échantillonner, si l’on veut constituer
100 The Paradox of Photography
un corpus" (Barthes 14)). It is almost as if the writer had to construct
for himself the very object that he was trying to study. Photography, in
other words, does not seem to exist yet. Pictures must be put together
in order to constitute a corpus: they still have to reveal their own
tangible reality.
This particular reality is that of contingency. This means that
pictures are always integrated into a series: they do not exist in their
unique nature. This kind of discourse has become a common place of
the modern critique since Benjamin and his "Work of art in the age of
mechanical reproduction". However, Barthes is not really interested in
the purely technical aspect of this situation, nor does he elaborate on it
from a post-Marxist perspective. For him, the issue is more that of the
singularity of the event that photography attempts to capture.
Therefore, the event from which photography stems is always an
occasion or an opportunity: it belongs to the infinite world of
encounters. The fundamental contradiction of this process is that
pictures never cease to repeat contingency, since they are essentially
tied to their referent. This is obviously very different from the kind of
repetition that one finds, for example, in Blanchot’s theory of writing,
or in Beckett’s experimental novels, in the sense that repetition is here
defined by an external model, and not by the inner model of the
narrative voice and its language. Repetition relies upon the categorical
imperative of representation, the law of a clear and distinct form
associated with the visible world and with reality. The ressassement of
literature isolates writing from the domain of forms and opens up the
possibility of the formless, which is essentially the potential neutrality
of representation.
It is in relation to this that Barthes evokes the fatality of
photography ("Pas de photo sans Quelque chose ou Quelquun"
(Barthes 18)). Photography always rests upon something, as opposed
to literature, which, we all know by now, can rest upon nothing. It is
destined to the determination of reality and to the simultaneous
assertion that any true void is impossible. In other words, to represent
is always to fill out a certain space, to get rid of blanks and to
superimpose a form upon (and from) reality. In this perspective,
photography becomes the ultimate contradiction of Mallarmé’s poetic
project. Its very nature, as stated by Barthes, separates it thus from
some of the most important aspects of literary modernism. From
Mallarmé to Beckett (but also Dada poetry), indeed, literature has
The Image, One Image, Images 101
accustomed us to words such as "Nobody" or "Nothing" and to their
profound significance, both from an aesthetic and an existential
standpoint. The author uses this idea to conclude that photography is
doomed to "the immense disorder of things". He believes that it is
almost impossible to choose one picture (or one object) instead of
another. The so-called invisibility of the medium stems from the fact
that the object represented in photography is always more obvious
than the form that allows it to be represented.
But this problem is not specific to photography. It is
fundamentally associated with the very notion of figuration, and more
precisely with realist figuration in art. This problem is almost as old as
Western culture. During the seventeenth century, when Louis XIV
asked his official painter to make a supposedly realist portrait of
himself, he wanted the French people to see him through the painting,
as it were, and not painting itself. The evident reference included in
the artwork enabled the king to make his own power more visible
through a particular system of pictorial representation. The portrait
was very well the image of someone, and it is this someone,
ultimately, that the masses would see and remember. The masses did
not truly conceive of this artwork as a painting (as an aesthetic process
defined by a certain style): the king, instead, wanted them to admire a
mere mirror of his own body and of his own face. This "invisibility"
of painting was also key to the cultural and symbolic power of
religious art in the middle ages, for instance, to the extent that the
scene of the crucifixion, for instance, imposed the sacrificial figure of
Jesus Christ to all the Christians before asserting the presence of the
artwork itself.
Barthes also laments the lack of substantial studies on
photography: for too long, the discourse on the medium had been
dominated by either technical or sociological concerns. We have
already seen that Baudelaire, the ultimate poet, could not himself
avoid the dangers of sociological generalizations. Before gaining the
status of an art form, any technical innovation is shaped through
various analytical approaches that tend to define it from a loosely
cultural point of view. This was also true of cinema at the beginning
of the twentieth century. The masses would first marvel at the original
spectacle of images moving through time on the big screen, and later,
at the combination of sound and images in the same arena. Early
comments on cinema also focused on the entertainment value of this
102 The Paradox of Photography
new medium and on its capacity to gather large groups of people on a
given night, like circus or sporting events would do. The difference is
that the perception of cinema rapidly changed, and that its
identification with a major artistic discipline became a fait accompli
after less than four decades of existence, with the development of
post-revolutionary Russian cinema and the American burlesque in
particular. This evolution did not appear as quickly with photography:
it was only in the twentieth-century, indeed, and more precisely in the
nineteen twenties and thirties, with both the rise of the Dada and
Surrealist avant-garde, on the one hand, and the publication of major
critical writings such as Walter Benjamin’s Petite Histoire de la
Photographie, on the other hand, that photography started to be
recognized as a major art form.
It took almost a century for this process to be completed. The
problem with photography is that it had been systematically put
together and then compared with painting: it definitely belonged to the
field of the visual arts, or at least, to that of visual practices. In that
sense, it would always be seen as the younger brother of painting and
this particular perspective would be largely detrimental to its artistic
growth. By contrast, cinema did not have to endure such family
disputes. Movies competed at its birth with the theater as a place of
social gathering and entertainment for the middle class. Nevertheless,
they were rarely seen as a mere imitation of stage productions by the
critics and the spectators alike. In other words, photography
constituted the bad copy of painting and therefore had to live
constantly under its shadow, while cinema had no real model to worry
about. The history of painting and of Western art in general, which
also includes drawing and sculpture, was by all means overwhelming:
it defined for many years the relative marginalization of photography
within scholarly discourse and artistic institutions. The paradoxical
nature of this situation was that photography, although associated with
modernity from a purely technical and sociological standpoint, was
still drawn back towards the pre-modern era through its confusion
with painting. So to speak, it was not radically modern, as opposed to
cinema, since it still belonged to a system of representation that had
dominated Western culture way before the advent of modernity.
Both sociological and technical approaches to photography
prevented it from being defined in purely aesthetic terms. Again, the
ongoing comparison with painting only superficially expressed strictly
The Image, One Image, Images 103
formal concerns, to the extent that the apparently aesthetic discourse
on the medium was actually borrowed from a more established
discipline and had therefore little to do with its own characteristics:
the pictorial model, in this perspective, imposed its specific forms on
any core definition of photographic representation. Writing in the
void, such was thus Barthes’ fate. It is clear that for a refined esthete
like him, purely technical or sociological viewpoints could not be
satisfactory, or even relevant. His critique of the Marxist school of
thought, as stated in Le Degre Zero ae lEcriture, revealed not only a
deep suspicion towards the relationship between political ideology and
critical theory, but also and maybe more decisively towards the
relationship between sociology and literary criticism. In other words,
Barthes was not only opposing Sartre or Althusser in this context, but
also the new intellectual fashion of cultural macro-analysis that was
growing in popularity in France in the fifties and the sixties.
Moreover, the obsessive emphasis on technique and its role in
the definition of art in modern society was itself stemming primarily
from a post-Marxist perspective, as the work of Benjamin (but also of
Adorno) demonstrated it. By contrast, Barthes was searching for a sort
of subjective aesthetics, an original discourse on forms that would be
able to integrate the vast realm of his own emotions and inner
feelings. By essence, sociology ignored the power of the "I", but so
did technique. Photography, therefore, had to engender for him the
new "fragments of a love discourse", to the extent that any picture
referred essentially to an "object of desire" or "a cherished body"
(Barthes 19). The "I" asserted itself beyond the community and its
rhetorical norms, beyond culture and the technical apparatus that it
created inevitably within modernity. In this sense, photography did
not pertain to the realm of knowledge: it had to remain the absolute
unknown, an original field of human experience without any
epistemological or hermeneutic tradition. Photography was literally a-
social, if not anti-social: it was destined to stress both the fundamental
distance separating the writer from the conventional rules of the
external world and its own ultimate primitivism.
In this regard, Barthes refers to Nietzsche and to his "ancient
sovereignty of the I". The subject asserts his supremacy to the extent
that he is capable of selecting a relatively small amount of pictures
according to the meaning that they hold for him and for him only. ("Je
résolus donc de prendre pour départ de ma recherche à peine quelques
104 The Paradox of Photography
photos, celles dont j’étais sûr qu’elles existaient pour moi. Rien à voir
avec un corpus : seulement quelques corps." (Barthes 21)). One of the
main characteristics of photography is precisely its infinite
proliferation within modern society, through advertising, magazines,
catalogues and newspapers. The recent development of both the
Internet and digital photography has enhanced this phenomenon even
more: an increasing number of pictures are made available nowadays
through numerous websites and blogs worldwide, while digital
technology vastly increases the speed with which pictures can be seen
and spread.
In this sense, contemporary technology has pushed Benjamin’s
concept of mechanical reproduction to its limit: the very idea of a
selection process among all pictures has become almost irrelevant.
The irony of this situation is that there have never been as many
possibilities of choice for the consumer as there are today: the
overwhelming presence of pictures around us reflects the cultural,
social and economic power of sheer numbers. Indeed, the notion of
choice implies a restricted number of objects from which to choose:
one can make a sensible and meaningful choice only if one is able to
assess and to compare, at least in general terms, the main features of
all the objects that are available. This kind of knowledge cannot exist
in the face of an excessive number of objects: the ongoing and frantic
reproduction of pictures, therefore, destabilizes our very system of
values, and our personal relationship to objects, by erasing the image
of their uniqueness or rarity.
Barthes wrote his essay a long time before the birth of these
new technologies. Nonetheless, he already understood the problems
created by an excess of pictures. He speaks in this regard about "les
photos innombrables du monde" (Barthes 20). The subjective
discourse relies upon a certain freedom of choice: the "I" cannot yield
to the idea that more is necessarily better. In this perspective, to talk
about photography is not to talk about all of them but only about a few
("à peine quelques photos"). What can no longer be numbered is also
what can no longer be integrated into a particular order of things. The
law of sheer number precipitates the entropy of objects, their chaotic
dissemination throughout modern society. Pleasure itself, in this case
the aesthetic or psychological satisfaction that one could feel in front
of a particular picture, is the result of a mindset which, by definition,
imposes quality over quantity. This was already true for Barthes’
The Image, One Image, Images 105
relationship to literary texts, as demonstrated by Le Plaisir du Texte.
So to speak, the happy reader only picked a few pages or passages
here and there in a book: he was wandering from page to page and
was going back ultimately to the same body of works. Barthes’ critical
philosophy is not fundamentally different, obviously, in La Chambre
Claire. The sophisticated and lucid critic, indeed, is the one who
always returns to a few pictures that truly matter to him and stir his
In this sense, Barthes’ method is anything but historical. The
history of art, by nature, implies the scientific need for the exhaustive
classification of artists, styles, schools and movements throughout
centuries. The historian, therefore, firmly believes in the possible
wholeness of art, and beyond, of history itself. But for Barthes,
photography is not to be exhausted or encompassed in a single
intellectual endeavor. Meaningful pictures always resist the very
possibility of this holistic approach. The inner truth of the subject
determines the presence of an I that exists outside of traditional
history, within a timeframe that belongs to him exclusively. In this
regard, the academic establishment of literary criticism that Barthes
opposed was also tied unilaterally to a strict historical perspective on
literature. This does not mean, though, that the modern or ‘new’ critic
is indifferent to the past or to any form of tradition. To the contrary,
Barthes’ critical writings were deeply influenced by the works of the
great classics of French literature, from Racine to Balzac. We also
know that he paid a particular attention to the work of an historian like
Michelet. But it means instead that history only exists as a small set
of unrelated fragments and not as an infinite collection of objects or
In other words, what Barthes resists in the very idea of history
is the possibility of totality, whether this totality is Hegelian or not.
After all, photography merely pretends to seize a few moments in the
endless chain of time: it does not determine as such the sense of its
unity. Barthes is more interested thus in specific examples (or
"samples") than in the constitution of a series of images. Pictures are
therefore defined by their singularity, instead of being treated as
elements of a vast collection. This particular approach evidently
distinguishes the author of La Chambre Claire from Walter Benjamin,
who, in his Petite Histoire de la Photographie, attempted to grasp and
put together a large body of works that lacked apparent similarities
106 The Paradox of Photography
through their common participation in a so-called history of the
medium. In this perspective, Benjamin clearly searched for an origin
of photography and for a golden age which, in many ways, was
associated with this origin (imaginary or real). A thinker like
Benjamin, whose intellectual ties to Marxist thought are undisputable,
could never have abandoned this historical framework since it enabled
him to assert the ongoing technical development of the medium
through different eras as well as its aesthetic diversity.
Moreover, Benjamin had to conceive of pictures as objects in a
collection. The serial dimension of pictures provided a decisive
argument for his broader concept of "mechanical reproduction". After
all, he was himself a collector, and this very situation proved the
intimate nature of the relationship that he had with photography.
Subjectivity (the subjectivity of critical discourse), in his case,
stemmed precisely from the fact that these cherished objects were
brought together under the sheer label of photography, regardless of
their specific subject matter or material identity. The emphasis on the
historical definition of photography also prevented Benjamin from
being overly emotional in his work: although undoubtedly influenced
by his own personal experience of the medium, La Petite Histoire de
la Photographie remained a rather detached analytical essay that did
not appeal directly to the feelings of the reader.
In other words, history could never have been carried away by
the power of the "I". In essence, it asserted the sovereignty of
collective entities over individual needs or demands. Benjamin’s essay
stressed both the possibility of a scientific discourse on photography
and also the profound social meaning of the medium throughout
modernity. Historical perspective, in this sense, was still abiding by
the law of practical reason. Benjamin always insisted upon the
possible use of the medium by and for the community, beyond any
aesthetic concern. This practical imperative implied a definite
emphasis on the technical dimension of photography, a dimension that
Barthes almost completely ignores in his own essay. This is obviously
what gives Benjamin’s argument its quality of accuracy, but it is also
what prevents his text from being truly tied to the most fundamental
issues of the human condition. It lacks the existential urgency which
one might expect from a thinker who otherwise celebrated the tragic
sensitivity of both Baudelaire and Kafka in his writings on literature,
as demonstrated by his celebrated collection of essays, Illuminations.
The Image, One Image, Images 107
His tone here is primarily didactic: La Petite Histoire de la
Photographie, thus, is essentially a general and mostly objective
lesson on some of the most important developments of the medium
over a period of about one hundred years.
The lack of an historical argument in Barthes’ essay also
underlines the reluctance of the writer to embrace a sort of
encyclopedic view of photography. By encyclopedic view, I mean a
deliberate attempt to express and define an in-depth and broad
knowledge of the subject from a quasi-scientific perspective. In other
words, Barthes never states that he actually knows what he is talking
about. Knowledge is not truly the issue, here, to the extent that
photography is being seen as an object that precisely and by nature
resists any objective and even rational thinking. As we know, the very
notion of encyclopedic knowledge in Western civilization stemmed
from the rapid progress of both science and philosophy in the
eighteenth century. It was mainly conceived by the thinkers of the
Enlightenment, who firmly believed that all the new forms of study of
both the physical and the social world that appeared almost
simultaneously at the time could be somewhat synthesized and put
together in a common intellectual project. This notion, therefore,
relied upon two essential and almost Utopian principles: the absolute
faith in both the ongoing progress of mankind and the legitimacy of a
collective scientific endeavor that could exist beyond the power of any
individual mind. In this sense, the Encyclopedia defined a positive
historical consciousness that was geared towards an ever brighter
future, but it also asserted the moral supremacy of the community over
the isolated subject: progress was only made possible because a group
of outstanding scholars had decided to join their efforts and their
intellectual abilities in order to produce this monument of knowledge.
By contrast, in Barthes’ view photography escapes this ethical
imperative of progress. The writer is not interested in stressing its
technical achievements, nor is he willing to define the relationship
between photography and the community. For him, photography only
represents a past reality (a "ça a été"). It is always bound to what has
been, and as such it cannot be part of a philosophy that emphasizes the
paramount value of the future: not from an epistemological standpoint,
and certainly not from a social or political one. One might even argue
that, for Barthes, photography holds no future at all. It is either a
"being-there", an existential presence for the isolated subject here and
108 The Paradox of Photography
now, or a form that is irresistibly drawn towards events and
occurrences that are buried in the personal history of this subject.
In other words, the representation of reality that photography
constructs opposes many of the most fundamental philosophical
premises of modernity. Its essential paradox is that, from a strictly
technical point of view, it clearly belongs to the modern world, while
it also asserts the aesthetic and emotional sovereignty of the past in its
own mode of representation. In the end, what is being put forward by
pictures is our own irrational and highly subjective ties to time, (the
time in which we lived yesterday and the time in which we still live
today), in spite of the almighty and apparently objective forces of
technology and scientific knowledge that precipitate us faster and
faster towards a so-called better world to come.
It is for this very reason that one of the least satisfactory
dimensions of Barthes’ essay lies, in my opinion, in its almost
superfluous attempt to propose a sort of clinical dissection of
photography, through the pseudo-scientific notions of both studium
and punctum. These two notions are somehow arbitrarily projected
onto a vast array of pictures that have very little in common. If the
studium constitutes the general context of photography, its cultural
background or framework, it suggests a kind of distant or
uncommitted attitude towards the medium. Barthes evokes here, in a
true oxymoron, a "nonchalant desire" (as if desire could be
nonchalant!) and an "inconsequential taste" for images. In fact, this
notion could be applied to any cultural expression in modernity. It
does not belong specifically to photography, and the irony is that
Barthes himself acknowledges this situation ("Le studium est de
l’ordre du to like, et non du to love: il mobilise un demi-désir, un
demi-vouloir; c’est la même attitude qu’on a pour des gens, des
spectacles, des vêtements, des livres qu’on trouve ‘bien'" (Barthes
Therefore, Barthes integrates photography here into the
undefined domain of cultural manifestation: in other words, the
apparent process of definition implied in the very notion of studium
ends up canceling any possibility for a true identification of its object.
Thus photography can resemble any other everyday practice of the
community: it gets lost amidst the various human activities that are all,
somehow, culturally determined. Barthes obviously intends here to
question the consumerist contract between the photographer and the
The Image, One Image, Images 109
viewer. Photography belongs in this regard to the field of
mythological productions, a field that the author described at large and
analyzed in his Mythologies. But this questioning remains in many
ways cautious and overly general: we can read, for instance, that
photography is provided with specific social functions (to inform, to
represent, to surprise, to signify, to stimulate desire, among others),
but these same functions are only named and never truly examined in
their political meaning.
In order to reach this political and quite essential truth of
mythologies, the author would have to stress the negative counterpart
of these same functions, that is to misinform, to misrepresent, to
conform, to silence meaning, to repress desire, and so on. The mostly
descriptive discourse of Mythologies itself remained trapped as a sort
of anecdotal comment on various forms of popular culture. It never
dealt seriously with the ideological (and also economic) implications
of such forms. We all know by now, and more precisely since the
events of 9/11, that photography can be used as a very powerful tool
by the mainstream media in order to impose a biased representation of
reality. This thorough process of misrepresentation, (through the
obsessive reproduction and re-enactment of the collapse of the Twin
Towers, in this particular case) holds profound implications for the
community: these implications largely exceed the rather vague and
ultimately shallow domain of cultural analysis.
The contextual dimension of photography in Barthes’ essay
remains therefore underestimated and understudied. Although the
author is obviously suspicious of a strictly sociological approach of
photography, he nonetheless engages in a cultural discourse that
provides the reader with very few clues about the actual manipulative
power of photography in modern society. Terms like "taste" or
"inclination", those weak affects that seem to characterize the
Studium, cannot account for the radical process that makes man
mentally dependent upon the ubiquitous power of images in today’s
world. To put it differently, it is not enough to say that man can be
superficially attracted or seduced by a particular subject matter
included in the image: one must also explain the social and political
reasons for such complicity and consequently analyze the various
strategies through which these ties are enhanced by a given symbolic
110 The Paradox of Photography
The Punctum is supposed to counteract the influence of the
Studium. It reinstates the law of particulars, of specific details or
formal elements that would stir the emotions of the subject. ("Le
Punctum d’une photo, c’est ce hasard qui, en elle, me point (mais
aussi me meurtrit, me poigne" (Barthes 49)). Barthes defines these two
notions as themes, in the musical sense, since the pictures he likes are
constructed like a classical sonata. In this regard, the use of the Latin
language already reflects the rhetoric of a classicist. Photography
abides by fixed laws of composition: the formal organization that it
entails is always dominated by a strong sense of order and harmony.
The problem with the Punctum is that it highlights a sheer dot within
the picture, a tiny fragment that would somehow determine the
subjective nature of the relationship between the viewer and the
image. The metaphor of punctuation inevitably ties photography to
language itself, to the domain of words and writing. Punctuation,
indeed, implies the possibility of a break between sentences, of a
pause that enables language to find its own rhythm. It suggests
therefore the integration of silence within the text. As such, it signifies
an end or a conclusion, and if not, a suspension of the flow of words.
But the Punctum also implies the presence of a mark, of a
wound that would hurt the viewer: in other words, it acts as a sort of
symbolic weapon that would go deep inside his body and his mind.
Moreover, Barthes clearly associates this notion with that of chance,
of a randomly process ("Car Punctum, c’est aussi: piqûre, petit trou,
petite tache, petite coupure- et aussi coup de dés" (Barthes 49)).
Therefore, the Punctum exists beyond the intention of the
photographer. It is not strictly the result of his own artistic project: it is
there nonetheless as a sort of hidden quality and constitutes the main
feature of the picture for the viewer. For it is obvious that Barthes
grants more value to the Punctum than to the Studium, since the
former possesses an emotional power that the latter does not have.
One can immediately see that the author never relinquishes the
references to literature, even when he speaks about a visual language
such as photography. In his perspective, pictures contain a definite
syntax, but only a few of its pieces are truly meaningful. Again, one
can go back to Le Plaisir du Texte, and to a notion such as La Tmèse,
which implies precisely the sense of punctuation within the act of
reading itself: the thoughtful reader, in this sense, is the one who is
capable of feeling and understanding this essential interruption. In
The Image, One Image, Images 111
other words, one reads a text to the extent that one stops reading a
text, at least for a moment. To break this process actually means
prolonging it. This specific discourse of fragmentation is repeated in
La Chambre Claire. Photography thus calls for its own Tmèse. The
gaze of the viewer does not follow a linear or holistic logic: it only
seizes upon small number of visual signs (even one is enough) within
the whole image. The main difference, though, is that the punctuation
of photography, as opposed to that of the literary text, evokes more a
sense of pain or sorrow than a sense of pleasure or bliss. It is an arrow
or a knife, not a caress or a balm.
Nevertheless, what Barthes suggests here even unconsciously is
the fact that a photograph can be read like a piece of literature,
although the jargon that he uses to describe this process is obviously
original. Moreover, the emphasis on chance (he talks about the
"adventure" of photography) includes the idea of an indetermination
of photography itself in its aesthetic identity. In this regard, one single
element in a picture can stir a whole range of emotions and sensations
for the viewer, but this element is then taken out of its context and
therefore threatens the unity of the work. This is precisely what
fundamentally separates the visual arts from both literature and music.
In painting, but also in drawing, sculpture and of course photography,
the meaning of the form comes primarily from the fact that it can
never be truncated or cut into pieces. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how
one could exhibit an artwork in a museum or a gallery by showing
only half of it and having the other half covered by a curtain. By
contrast, one can always marvel at the beauty and the rhythmic quality
of a particular sonnet by focusing only on a few verses. One can also
listen solely to the introduction of a piece of music and still capture
the style and the original qualities of its composition.
In other words, the process of fragmentation that the Punctum
entails goes against some of the most irreducible principles of both
visual perception and aesthetics. What can be the meaning of an image
when this image is dissected like the dead body of an animal in an
anatomy class? An artwork is always more than the sum of its parts;
otherwise it is not an artwork. The very concept of representation is
precisely based on this assumption. Representation is the creative
process which enables to define the essential unity of the artwork
beyond the apparent heterogeneity of its forms. The rise of the avant-
garde in the course of the twentieth-century allowed the viewers, in
112 The Paradox of Photography
this regard, to focus more than ever on this unity. Does anyone really
worry about the number of bottles than can be kept inside the bottle
rack that Marcel Duchamp used as one his most famous ready-mades?
And does one really care about the content of the newspaper articles
that Kurt Schwitters included in some of his most accomplished
collages or about the actual size of Hans Arp’s reliefs? In most cases,
the answer is no, because what is truly at stake in the modernist
project is either a radical gesture of negation and confrontation or the
creation of a compositional structure that always searches for a hidden
order and homogeneity which stems essentially from utmost chaos or
fragmentation. The parts, in this perspective, never really define the
inner logic of the artwork.
This was the main philosophical principle behind the aesthetics
of collage shared by Dada, Surrealist, and Cubist artists alike (but also
in music and the performing arts by members of Fluxus and their
followers). Above all, the collage constituted an attempt to define the
meaning of the artwork regardless of the apparent insignificance of its
parts. Original elements did not truly matter anymore: what made
collage an artistic achievement was precisely the fact that the power of
unity prevailed within a form that paradoxically expressed its
contradiction. In other words, collage was not the sum of its parts: it
stressed instead the aesthetic sovereignty of the whole within a society
that was either imposing a contrived image of this whole or simply
repressing it.
Even if we assume that the Punctum constitutes the source of
the personal encounter between the artwork (the photograph, in this
case) and the viewer, we have to point out that this notion does not
belong exclusively to the field of photography. The Mona Lisa, in this
regard, might very well be the most famous painting in the history of
Western art. What is the reason for this ongoing fascination that this
work has exercised on millions of viewers throughout the centuries?
Many commentators, whether they are scholars or mere admirers of
this artwork, have underlined the enigmatic quality of the portrait. In
doing so, they have focused their attention on a particular detail,
which is, as we all know by now, the smile of the young woman. We
can therefore legitimately state that the Mona Lisa possesses her own
Punctum, which is obviously her smile. Some others have been
mesmerized or simply intrigued by her eyes, just to show that this
Punctum is always a subjective and somehow fluctuating notion. For
The Image, One Image, Images 113
Barthes, in many ways, "God is in the details", while for many of us,
according to the well-known formula, it is the devil instead who is in
the details. It is precisely this volatile subjectivity of the Punctum that
makes it a weak concept.
The emphasis on details is largely dependent upon the alleged
realism of photographic representation, what Barthes calls in his own
terms the "sheer contingency" of the medium. Once we state that a
work of art is no longer destined to reproduce or simply imitate
reality, we also often distance ourselves from the pure meaning of
details. Is the notion of pictorial fragment, or punctuation, indeed, still
valid when we have to analyze an abstract canvas by a Barnett
Newman or a Mark Rothko? The key aesthetic issues raised by these
particular works become issues of space and light, beyond any
presence of definite figures or clear forms. The science of detail was
definitely rooted in the spirit of the Renaissance and of the kind of
painting it produced.
It still made sense for the study of Impressionism, but the
development of abstract art in the twentieth-century implied a
profound questioning of its philosophical significance. Moreover, the
original project of Marcel Duchamp, in its radical negation of the
sovereignty of manual skills in the artistic creation, pushed this new
perspective even further. The power of ideas prevailed therefore upon
the so-called perfection or accomplishment of the aesthetic form,
which undoubtedly implied a contradiction of this rather academic and
classical taste for pictorial punctuation. The strictly speculative
process that was associated with the public presentation of found
objects reflected instead the complexity of the artist’s thought before
stressing the visual need for sophisticated details.
One could also say that this preference for the Punctum entails
a certain attraction for the purely decorative nature of photography.
For instance, when one assesses the value of a particular piece of
furniture, one tends most of the time to focus upon one or two striking
features of the object, in order to authenticate its worth. In this regard,
the object is not conceived as a whole, but rather fragmented
according to the importance of a few technical or decorative elements
that determine its identity. The Punctum evidently asserts the power of
personal feelings and emotions in our relationship with the work of
art, but it also expresses the presence of excessive mannerisms and
formal concerns. Again, this constitutes a fundamental dimension of
114 The Paradox of Photography
Barthes’ approach, not only of photography, but also of literature. The
critical formalism of the author towards texts was obviously modern,
in its spirit and its intentions, but it still reflected a definite nostalgia
for the philosophical sovereignty of style over content. In the case of
photography, of course, this stylistic analysis is more difficult to
undertake, and in this sense riskier, to the extent that there is no real
history or established canon that could validate this analysis.
The very word: "style" can rarely be applied, indeed, to
artworks that are truly modern and radical. Once the artist has decided
that art is not primarily concerned with the creation of polished and
finished objects, but rather with the construction of various theoretical
hypotheses or the development of empirical endeavors, the notion of
style itself becomes somewhat problematic. So to speak, art exists
then beyond the issue of style and this is in many ways the case for
contemporary art and more specifically for its own creative use of
In Barthes’s original perspective, the formalist and the realist
definitions of photography are thus interrelated. The contingency of
the medium asserts the essentially descriptive nature of the medium.
In literature, the notion of style applies first and foremost to the art of
description as it has been demonstrated in many classical works, from
Balzac to Proust. The need to describe things and people with great
accuracy reflects the belief in art as a vehicle for objective knowledge.
In other words, art and literature teach us something to the extent that
they are both capable of pointing out specific features that would
otherwise escape our gaze or our mind. This is what Barthes calls
himself "the ethnological knowledge of photography". The term
"ethnological" must be underlined, here, since ethnology constitutes
precisely a discipline of social sciences that deals with cultures that
are quite remote from our own Western world. In this sense,
ethnology is the science of the absolute unknown, as opposed to
sociology, for instance. Pictures indicate therefore the visual presence
of what we do not know or rather could not have known on our own.
Above all, this contingency determines the documentary nature
of photography. Pictures are tied to the representation of actual facts
through this quasi-scientific definition: what is absent here, therefore,
is the possibility of fiction and of distancing oneself from reality. In
his own essay Petite Histoire de la Photographie (in Études
Photographiques, Paris: Société Française de Photographie, 1, 1996)
The Image, One Image, Images 115
Walter Benjamin also emphasized and praised this documentary
quality of the medium, while studying the work of August Sander.
According to Benjamin, because Sander’s numerous portraits covered
the whole spectrum of the society in which he lived, they can teach us
a great deal about the various social classes and professional activities.
This quality stems from the direct observation of people, an
observation that the author describes as "without prejudice, bold but
also tender" (Benjamin 24). In this case, photography becomes an
essential tool for social and human knowledge. It possesses an almost
anatomic precision, and thus acquires status of a true theory by always
remaining close to its own subject.
But its acute sensitivity to specific detail also identifies
photography as a sort of modern craftsmanship. In Benjamin’s text,
this kind of identification is particularly striking when he refers to the
origin of the medium and its golden age. These first steps (more
precisely, the first decade of photography) are seen by the author as
pre-industrial. They correspond to a set of obscure experimental
practices which were initiated by the pioneers of the medium. During
this original period, therefore, photography was still struggling with
its own technical possibilities. It was not yet obsessed with the social
and economic imperatives of mechanical reproduction. But these
pioneers could not imagine that their daring endeavors would pave the
way for a new art form, although the production of these pictures
required specific skills from the start. In this sense, photographs were
to be crafted with utmost attention and care: they reflected the
meticulous rigor of their creators, as well as their profound humility.
It was in these earlier works that Benjamin noticed the presence of the
aura in its highest intensity, which is the unique apparition of a
distance, no matter how close it is. This presence unveiled the
particular beauty of photography. The modern world imposed instead,
according to the author, an ongoing sense of proximity, as if all things
had to be seized by the gaze and brought closer. His definition of the
aura also stressed the aesthetic value of both uniqueness and
permanence, while capitalism was much more interested in producing
series of ephemeral objects for mainly economic purposes.
This theory of the aura revealed the utmost importance of
individual and collective perception in the definition of images.
Photography itself was integrated into a specific time and space that
the viewer had to comprehend in order to reach the inner truth of the
116 The Paradox of Photography
work. It is clear that such a concept entailed the sense of an irrational
nature of photographic representation. The aura, indeed, led to the
possibility of a magical or supernatural expression within pictures. In
his famous essay "The Work of art in the age of mechanical
reproduction", Benjamin clearly related the aura of an object or work
of art to its cult-value (as opposed to its mere exhibition-value). The
kind of implied knowledge or sensitivity was therefore linked to a
sense of the sacred, or at least to the feeling of an uncanny or
mysterious presence. In other words, the aura challenged the
transparency of images and their immediate meaning.
By contrast, Barthes’ Punctum does not reflect the perception
of such fundamental distance within physical closeness. This notion
expresses instead the existence of a visual fragment that irresistibly
gets closer to the eye and the mind of the viewer. In many ways,
therefore, the Punctum asserts the impossibility of a distance. It is a
weapon that strikes, so to speak, at close range. Barthes saw an
essential intimacy in the image, a belief that Benjamin did not
necessarily share. The Punctum means that the image is here and
insists on being here; it is located right next to the viewer, and it
cannot be put aside. Therein lies its unique emotional power, in its
capacity to literally tie the viewer psychologically to the object that he
is contemplating. On the other hand, the Aura includes the sense of the
"unapproachable", a term that Benjamin himself uses at the very end
of his essay on the history of photography, as if this word could
somehow summarize and at the same time achieve his whole
philosophy of the medium. His final words are the following: "C’est à
la lueur de ces étincelles, sortant de l’ombre du quotidien de nos
grands-pères, que se montrent les premières photographies, si belles et
inapprochables." (Benjamin 29).
This emphasis on the supernatural dimension of pictures (and
of the original relationship that the viewer has with them), was
undoubtedly determined by the culture to which the author belonged.
The German spirit has always allowed, indeed, for the powerful
expression of the most irrational forces of human nature within
literature and art. We can trace this back to the middle ages (to
Beowulf, for instance) and then move to the era of German idealism
and romanticism. We can even speak of a cultural tendency towards
mysticism and the sacred, a feature that is far less evident or
widespread in French culture, especially since the Enlightenment and
The Image, One Image, Images 117
the Revolution of 1789. One can say, therefore, that Barthes’
perspective on photography still echoes a certain form of rationalism
that constitutes a key element of the culture to which he belongs. In
this regard, one could define the kind of subjectivity that Barthes
advocates through his own explanation of the Punctum as "rational
subjectivity". In comparison, one could very well evoke the "irrational
objectivity" of Benjamin’s critical discourse on photography and
beyond, on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.
The whole text of La Chambre Claire can be seen as an attempt
to search for an ontological determination of photography while
acknowledging the irrelevance of such notion for the medium. How
could one, indeed, reconcile the essential contingency of photography
with its supposedly irreducible identity? By irreducible, I mean the
fact that photography would exist by itself, as an absolute language
characterized by its radical difference with other art forms, regardless
of any external object that it represents. It is these kinds of
contradictions that underline both the complexity of Barthes’
argument and its ultimate impossibility, or lack of resolution. Again,
the perils of the ontological quest exist not only for photography, but
for any form of visual art, including painting.
Could we reasonably suggest an ontology of painting, indeed,
while its whole history in the Western world shows us that it always
relied upon an original model to which it constantly referred through
the essential process of figuration? Contingency, in this sense, is not
the sole property of photography. The presence of an external model,
which serves as the main visual reference of the artwork, has
dominated painting itself for many centuries. This ongoing situation
exceeds by far the issue of realism in art, since one can find this
external model even in artistic movements that did not build their own
aesthetics upon the mere reproduction of reality. In this regard, one
can still argue about the presence of contingency in Futurism,
Surrealism and Cubism. (Let us think, for instance, of Braque’s still
lives). "C’est toujours quelque chose qui est représenté" (Barthes 52),
as Barthes states it while referring to this particular notion in
photography. One could easily compare this sentence to Picasso’s
own: "Il n’y a pas d’art abstrait. L’art part toujours de quelque chose".
The issue of contingency, in this sense, implies a definite
questioning of the purely abstract nature of art, and in particular, of
modern art. This actually means that some sort of figuration (if not an
118 The Paradox of Photography
entirely figurative process) is always being achieved in the artwork.
After all, many of Picasso’s tormented portraits of women were
inspired by autobiographical experiences and did reflect the existence
of a real and original model for the painter (as it was obviously the
case with his portraits of Dora Maar). An ontological definition of art
(of photography or painting) would therefore underline the Utopia of a
pure and total abstraction: this improbable definition would end up
dematerializing art to the point that art would indeed cease to exist as
a sum of tangible and visible objects. As soon as we look at things,
thus, we relate to the concrete world, regardless of the specific formal
nature of the things that we look at.
Contingency, therefore, can be defined as the universal and
eternal law of art and visual representation, a law that even the most
entrenched modernist and contemporary artists could not (and still
cannot) fully transgress. In other words, there is always an "outside"
reality into which we, as viewers, project our own gaze, and into
which the artwork itself is being integrated. This reality might save the
appearance of neutrality ("Quelque chose est représenté"), but this
unidentified "something" nonetheless constitutes an essential part of
our own personal relationship to the artwork.
This is in all likelihood the reason why Barthes, by focusing on
the essential contingency of photography, cannot avoid the
comparison with painting. ("La photographie a été, est encore
tourmentée par le fantôme de la peinture" (Barthes 55)). He even goes
further by bluntly asserting that photography was born from painting
("Comme si elle était née du tableau" (Barthes 55)), which constitutes
thus its "absolute fatherly reference". In this sense, nothing can
separate photography from painting, since pictorialism is only an
exaggeration of what photography thinks about itself. In order to truly
define photography as a distinct art form and visual language, Barthes
would have had to do away with his personal rhetoric of contingency.
By contrast, in his Petite Histoire de la Photographie,
Benjamin demonstrated his ability to draw the line between
photography and painting, at least to the extent that he was more
interested in stressing the mainly technical developments of the
medium. For technique, as such, still constitutes the most obvious way
through which one can distinguish the two. In this regard, no one will
dare to say that the techniques used by photographers are the same as
those used by painters This is even truer today than ever before, with
The Image, One Image, Images 119
the increasing dependence of contemporary photography upon digital
technologies. The objective process of picture-taking, with its
insistence upon issues of focus, zoom, light and framing, will never be
the same, indeed, as that of painting. Brushstrokes and canvases, on
the other hand, will never be needed by the photographer. In his own
essay, Benjamin attempted to underline the specificity of photography
in regard to any other art form. This does not mean that he could
entirely escape the reference to painting. In this context, he alluded to
the use of photography as a complementary tool and technical device
for the painter’s creative process. He briefly referred in this regard to
the work of Utrillo, who used to paint his fascinating views of houses
located in the suburbs of Paris from various postcards which served
thus as his main model (Benjamin 9). These specific examples,
though, remained marginal for Benjamin. They never overshadowed
his search for the historical identity of photography. His critical
perspective definitely emphasized the technical aspects of the medium
and their evolution through time. By doing so, he succeeded in
highlighting its specificity, if not its uniqueness.
By comparison, the aesthetic perspective is more confused, or
even misleading. By definition, it tries to bring together artistic
methods and approaches that often have very little in common. In
many ways, Barthes builds his argument upon the highly questionable
hypothesis of a single aesthetic identity of photography. It is as if all
photographers throughout history have shared a similar philosophy of
the medium, and have subscribed to the same formal principles and
values. But we all know by now that the relationship that photography
has developed with contingency has had many different turns and
twists. The numerous avant-garde artists (from Dada to the present)
who have been dedicated to the aesthetic exploration of the medium
have often expressed, indeed, their profound discontent with its so-
called realism.
One could say that is has now become almost impossible to
define a global and general aesthetics of photography, for the simple
reason that its practice is now largely disseminated throughout the
world. In other words, photography no longer has a center. It is now
being spread constantly within cultures that do not share the same
history, social structures or political institutions. To the extent that the
nature of pictures is being shaped and defined by the cultural
120 The Paradox of Photography
sensitivity of the photographer, photography always asserts aesthetic
differences (a particular law of aesthetic distinction).
To talk about la photographie might have been possible at the
time when the medium was born, or even several decades later, and
this was obviously the case for both Baudelaire and Benjamin. But
this very notion has become obsolete in the new millennium. In the
same way, it was possible to talk about la physique at the time of the
Greeks (of Democritus or Archimedes) or even at the time of Isaac
Newton. But the speed and pace of scientific innovations has rendered
such language (or labeling) almost inadequate for a contemporary
The use of a definite article to qualify the forms of an artistic
discipline or scientific knowledge, therefore, is only relevant if one
exclusively considers the early stages of their respective development.
Otherwise, it fails to recognize the essential philosophical diversity
that this art or science will inevitably encompass. When, for example,
Baudelaire analyzed photography for the first time in French culture,
he could talk about it from a general point of view, to the extent that
the Daguerreotype could be seen as the perfect and unifying symbol
of this new form of expression in the mid-nineteenth century. Such
possibility no longer existed more than a hundred years later, at the
time when La Chambre Claire was written and published.
The tendency to relate photography to painting is quite
natural, and ubiquitous in modern criticism. It emerges from the
ongoing preoccupation with the issue of representation in art. As soon
as art is defined as representing a part of the external world, it must
also take into account the role of photography in this process. Some
statements by French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, a well-
known commentator of both Marcel Duchamp and contemporary art
as well as one of the main theorists of post-modernism, are instructive
in this regard. In the essay "Représentation, presentation,
imprésentable", included in his book LInhumain (Paris: Galilée,
1988), he underlined the so-called crisis of representation that
photography brought to the world of the visual arts. According to his
perspective, photography was not only the technical byproduct of
industrial and post-industrial capitalism, but also (and more
importantly) a medium on which capitalism heavily relied to impose
its own social and political agenda. In many ways, photography was
able to suddenly eclipse the cultural predominance of painting in
The Image, One Image, Images 121
Western civilization through its instant availability and affordability
for the average user:

D’un seul déclic, le plus modeste citoyen, en qualité d’amateur et de touriste,
fait son tableau, organise son espace d’identification, enrichit sa mémoire
culturelle, fait partager ses prospections. Le perfectionnement des appareils
contemporains le libère des soucis du temps de pose, de la mise au point, de
l’ouverture du diaphragme, du développement. Les tâches dont l’acquisition par
l’apprentissage à l’atelier et à l’école exige toute une expérience (détruire les
mauvaises habitudes, instruire l’œil, la main, le corps, l’esprit, les élever au
nouvel ordre) sont programmées dans l’appareil photographique grâce à ses fines
capacités optiques, chimiques, mécaniques, électroniques. Il reste à l’amateur le
choix du réglage et du sujet.

(Lyotard 132)

The key words, in this passage, are the following: "Le plus
modeste citoyen fait son tableau". It is as if photography constituted a
sort of second-rate painting whose practice did not require any
particular training or skills. The most humble citizen, meaning the
man without any profound knowledge of art, would now be able to
express himself and pose as an artist without truly being one: he is
thus a non-professional and therefore an illegitimate painter. It is
obvious here that the philosopher bases his argument on a strict
hierarchy of art forms that establishes the aesthetic supremacy of
painting. Moreover, he emphasizes the so-called predictability of the
medium through its technical identity. Such predictability, of course,
did not characterize painting (whether classical or modern) because
painting was never as dependent as photography upon a purely
technical process of production. Lyotard identifies photography with
"an industrial ready-made", emphasizing the reproductive nature and
immediacy of such pictures. As he puts it: "Elle (la photographie) a
l’infaillibilité de ce qui est parfaitement programmé, sa beauté est
celle de Voyager II" (Lyotard 134). The overwhelming power of
technique precipitates, therefore, the absolute determination of the
work of art in capitalist society.
We must consider two very different concepts of beauty. The
aesthetic definition provided by painting highlighted the role of
chance and individual freedom for artistic creation, while at the same
time asserting the necessary sensitivity of the viewer. In contrast,
photography entails a form of beauty that derives directly from the
mechanical perfection of its means. ("La photographie industrielle
n’en appelle pas au beau de sentiment, mais au beau d’entendement et
122 The Paradox of Photography
de connotation"

(Lyotard 134)). It is thus too beautiful, to the extent
that it merely reflects the essential accomplishment of technology
within the realm of representation. This specific beauty is a hard one,
because it is tied to the infinite scientific and economic rationality of
capitalism. In this sense, photography does not express the
philosophical sovereignty of the subject in the manner of painting;
rather, it submits subjectivity to the law of the nameless within the
structures of the social order.
In other words, photography cannot truly be subjective
because it is too common. It needs to be ratified by the common
sensibility in order to exist as a cultural language (and by "cultural", I
mean something that exceeds the frontiers of art). In his essay,
Lyotard questions the genuine identity and true originality of
photography. And he does so precisely because he stubbornly
confuses the issue of pictorial representation with that of photographic
representation. His main aesthetic model or system of references is
constituted here by the various avant-gardes, particularly that of
abstract painters from Mondrian to Barnett Newman. As he says: "Les
avant-gardes accomplissent un travail secret d’interrogation des
présupposés ‘techniques’ de la peinture, qui les conduit à négliger
complètement la fonction ‘culturelle’ de stabilisation du goût et
d’identification d’une communauté au moyen de symboles visibles.
Un peintre d’avant-garde se sent d’abord responsable devant la
demande émanant de son activité même, qui est : qu’est-ce que la
peinture ? Et son travail a pour enjeu essentiel de faire voir ce qu’il y a
d’invisible dans le visuel. La tâche de cultiver le public vient après."

(Lyotard 137-38)
While Baudelaire asserted the aesthetic superiority of classical
painting over photography, Lyotard asserts both the aesthetic and the
philosophical superiority of abstract painting over photography. Over
time, the main issue of art remains pictorialism, regardless of the new
techniques that appear in modernity. Barthes himself could not avoid
this paramount idea. Put differently, photography always comes after
painting, and this time sequence determines the critical orientation,
and ultimately the relevance, of any analytical discourse on this
medium. Moreover, we can see that in the case of both Barthes and
Lyotard, the cultural dimension of photography is particularly
emphasized (which was already true of Baudelaire). Before being
considered fully as an art form, then, photography is inevitably seen as
The Image, One Image, Images 123
a cultural phenomenon. More precisely, photography literally belongs
to everybody, while painting belongs only to a few. The former
involves the whole community, while the latter needs only the support
of a small group of artists and intellectuals. The ongoing insistence
upon the essential contingency of photography in Barthes’ essay
necessarily implies its aesthetic identification with realism, a style that
had been developed throughout centuries by academic painting (and
by the novel, particularly in nineteenth century literature). In this
regard, the specific iconography of La Chambre Claire leaves no
doubt that: the vast majority of the pictures chosen by the author to
illustrate his text can be labeled as realist.
The paradox of this critical viewpoint is that although
photography comes chronologically after painting, it is in many ways
less modern than painting, certainly less radically modern. Barthes’
perspective emphasizes a certain nostalgic quality of the medium, in
an almost Proustian sense, while Lyotard states that photography fails
to grasp the aesthetic issue of the Kantian Sublime (as opposed to
avant-garde painting). Therefore, photography is neither truly modern,
which is Barthes’s assertion. nor truly post-modern, which is
Lyotard’s assertion. In other words, pictorialism highlights the
fundamentally contradictory nature of the medium: its purely technical
identity is located at the heart of modernity, whereas many of its
formal attributes refer to art's past.
In many ways, man’s relationship to photography is dominated
by general cultural affects that fall under the category of "taste". This
is what Barthes’s notion of Studium implies. Lyotard, for his part,
emphasizes the cultural role of photography in the creation of visible
symbols with which the whole community can identify. In this sense,
it allows for the sharing of predetermined attitudes that define and
reflect the common taste of the public. But the aesthetic and political
issue of art in modernity exceeds that of taste. The twentieth-century
avant-garde, starting with Duchamp and Dada, stated clearly that the
artist had to do away with all traditional notions of good or bad taste.
It could only exist and assert its own novelty inasmuch as art was able
to exceed the rather narrow domain of taste. To put it quite bluntly,
taste still belongs to the realm of culture (and more precisely to the
bourgeois culture of the nineteenth century), while the most radical
forms of art will tend to initiate its negation.
124 The Paradox of Photography
Another important issue raised by Lyotard’s text is the self-
reflexivity of art. The pictorialism of the avant-garde stirs a certain
number of philosophical questions, the main question being: "What is
painting?" The abstract painter asks this during the creative process.
This capacity of the artist to reflect upon the identity of his own
medium is crucial to the development of a true art form able to evoke
the presence of the absolute. For Lyotard, the predominance of
cultural affects and general feelings prevent photography from raising
such a question. And indeed, in many ways, it is the critic and not the
artist who formulates it. It is certainly the case for Barthes, who, at the
beginning of his essay, clearly searched for an ontological definition
of the medium. When the education of the viewer is no longer the
primary concern of the artist, art can then reach this state of self-
reflexivity. We have already seen, though, that this didactic dimension
of photography constituted a significant feature of Barthes’ reflexion
on the topic. The ongoing presence of the Studium in pictures
underlined the perception of an infra-savoir, a rather general
knowledge that photography could carry and then transmit to the
For this very reason, the issue of self-reflexivity is completely
absent from Barthes’ discourse. The author never actually refers to
what the photographer could think about his own practice, much less
about his own art. The creator of pictures is there to teach him
something, as in the case of William Klein’s picture taken in Moscow
on May 1. The ethnographic or documentary question of photography
contradicts the pictorial possibility of self-consciousness that Lyotard
defines in regard to abstract painting, and also to the conceptual
approach of many contemporary artists (notably Daniel Buren).
The contingency of photography thus reflects its fundamental
relativism. Any picture always goes back to objective elements within
reality, regardless of the aesthetic perspective of the photographer. It
is tied to the material world, and more precisely, to what is simply
visible within this world. As such, the famous statement by Paul Klee,
which said that the main purpose of art (i.e., painting and drawing)
was to render visible the invisible, cannot be applied to photography.
The discourse of both Barthes and Lyotard expresses, by contrast, the
utmost dependence of the medium upon the evidence of things seen.
Barthes later describes the essential mantra of photography as the "it
has been" (the "ça a été"), or alternatively, its "certificate of presence"
The Image, One Image, Images 125
("son certificat de presence"). Photography still presents reality, to the
extent that presentation implies an emphasis on the mere context of
art. (What is the Studium, in this regard, if not a concept that
highlights the meaning of the general background of pictures?). The
sense of the invisible within the visible is also echoed by Lyotard in
his own essay: he defines it as the main quality of the avant-garde
painter in his quest for the Sublime. By contrast, the absolute is not
presentable; it is therefore the "Unpresentable".
This aesthetic and philosophical relativism does not only oppose
the absolute in art. It constitutes also, and maybe primarily, an assault
on romanticism, that is, on the romantic dimension of artistic
modernity. This highlights one the main elements of Lyotard’s
reflection: the pictorial avant-garde, for him, will have accomplished
romanticism while at the same time depriving it of its sense of loss or
nostalgia. The word "Sublime", in itself, detains a rather romantic
connotation, as one can find it in both Apollinaire’s and Barnett
Newman’s writings on art. In many ways, Barthes’ book can also be
seen as an attempt to assert this romanticism against all odds, within a
form which excludes it by nature. In this regard, it celebrates the
aesthetic power of radical subjectivity while acknowledging the
evasive character of its presence within photography. If the technical
determination of the medium is both overwhelming and obvious, then
the main task of the writer and critic is to question the objective and
rational nature of this determination, and to draw the shadow of a "I"
driven by his emotions and his sensations (the "I" of the Punctum, in
his case).
Both Barthes’ and Lyotard’s texts were published in the
nineteen eighties. The two thinkers certainly followed very different
intellectual paths in their respective careers, but they nonetheless
shared this perception that the issue of pictorialism was instrumental
in the analytical interpretation of photography and its critique. In both
cases, though, the discourse on photography failed to understand the
historical importance of the medium for the experience of the avant-
garde. By historical importance, I mean the fact that modernist
movements such as Dada and Surrealism, as early as the nineteen
twenties, embraced photography in their own creative practice and
turned it into a true art form. In Barthes’s essay, there is no mention of
their achievements in the field whatsoever. The author sticks to a
rather classical perspective that largely ignores the aesthetic
126 The Paradox of Photography
innovations of the first part of the twentieth century. At least one can
say that Walter Benjamin’s Petite Histoire de la Photographie
referred laconically to the work of both Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray,
by integrating in particular a reproduction of a Rayograph entitled
"Salle à manger". Benjamin himself translated in 1924 Tristan Tzara’s
preface to the album Les Champs délicieux, a collection of
photographic experiments by Man Ray in 1924. By comparison, both
Barthes and Lyotard express in their own way the profound distance
that supposedly separate photography from the history of the avant-
garde. Barthes does it by avoiding any comment on this history
altogether, while Lyotard systematically opposes the Sublime of
avant-garde painting (and therefore its perception of the Absolute in
modern art) to the rather trivial and mundane activities of the average
Therefore, one can say that both authors decisively question
the artistic identity of photography, to the extent that art essentially
implies the possibility of radical novelty and aesthetic difference. By
contrast, Benjamin did emphasize the adventurous dimension of
photography and its sheer originality. He praised the precursors of a
new and unique visual language by quoting the Dada poet Tristan
Tzara’s reflection on the avant-garde artists’ experiments with
photography. These artistic pioneers might have come, at first, from
the more traditional disciplines of fine arts (namely painting); they
nevertheless ventured rapidly into unknown territories. Their ultimate
goal was to demonstrate that photography could escape its "decorative
tendencies", according to Benjamin’s own words. In this regard, I am
not sure whether Barthes and Lyotard succeeded in moving beyond
this strictly decorative identity of the medium, although their writings
on the topic appeared half a century after those of Benjamin.
The reference to painting also possesses, in the case of Barthes
at least, an important autobiographical significance. Note the fact that
the author of La Chambre Claire started to experiment himself with
graphic and visual arts in 1971, and kept producing hundreds of works
until 1978. In his essay, Barthes confesses his lack of concrete
knowledge of photography because he was not a real practitioner of
the medium, as opposed to other French theorists and writers from
Claude Simon to Jean Baudrillard (For an in-depth presentation of
Claude Simon’s creative work as a photographer, see in particular the
book Claude Simon: Photographies, 1937-1970, with an introduction
The Image, One Image, Images 127
by Denis Roche, Paris: Maeght, 1990. As far as Jean Baudrillard’s
work on photography is concerned, see in particular his "Objects in
this mirror", in Le Crime parfait, Paris: Galilée, 1995, pp. 125-129).
Such was not the case, however, for drawing and painting.
What was first a mere pass-time quickly became an important part of
Barthes’ life and work. These pictorial activities, although rather
secretive, ended up influencing his critical writings on art and also on
literature. It is rather interesting to notice, then, that Barthes started to
write his essay on photography right at the end of a decade which had
been marked by the personal practice of fine arts. This practice was
somewhat interrupted by the death of his mother, an event which
confronted him with the existential (rather than solely critical)
urgency of photography. In other words, photography (or at least the
discourse on photography) came for him right after painting, from a
purely autobiographical viewpoint. Therefore, we should not be
surprised by the fact that photography also came for him right after
painting from a purely critical viewpoint. This becomes even more
startling when we consider that for Barthes, in La Chambre Claire as
well as in many other essays, the critical discourse is most often
charged with a profound autobiographical resonance.
It is interesting to notice, in this regard, that Barthes also wrote
during the same period a critical text on the painter Cy Twombly
entitled: "Sagesse de l’Art". This text was part of a catalogue of
Twombly’s paintings and drawings from 1954 to 1977, which was
published in conjunction with a major retrospective of his work at the
Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1979. One can
indeed find many elements of similarity between the aesthetics of
Barthes’ graphic works and that of Twombly.
Photography thus constitutes, for Barthes, an object that he
could not produce on his own. In this sense, pictures are always the
sign of a definite otherness, of something and someone representing
the other. This might explain why he tends to consider photographs as
"found objects", as finite items that can be drawn instantly from an old
family album or a catalogue. (Lyotard, in his own words, talked about
"the industrial ready-mades" produced by photography). What is
missing here is the sense of photography as an unfinished and ever
open creative process, with all its flaws but also all its strengths. The
perception of these found objects leads to the definition of pictures as
inanimate bodies. According to this way of thinking, photography
128 The Paradox of Photography
becomes the mirror of otherness, but this otherness is considered then
in its stillness and its closed perfection. The essential metaphor
becomes that of a theater of death in which forms and figures reach a
sort of ecstatic beauty. ("La photo est comme un théâtre primitif,
comme un Tableau Vivant, la figuration de la face immobile et fardée
sous laquelle nous voyons les morts"

(Barthes 56)). In spite of all the
efforts, photography cannot really belong to the world of the living.
The essential otherness of the medium is that of death, of what
remains the radical unknown for mankind.
This particular perspective undoubtedly stems from the
emphasis on the aesthetics of the portrait. La Chambre Claire is
indeed richly illustrated by various representations of human faces.
The metaphor of the theater (where this theater is also largely of a
pictorial nature) reflects the ongoing presence of masks, as if
photography had to conceal truth in order to express its own meaning.
("Le masque, c’est le sens, en tant qu’il est absolument pur, comme il
était dans le théâtre antique"

(Barthes 61)). But what is a mask if not
the product of a fundamental pictorialism, that of the human face? Put
simply, the mask is nothing but a painted face, as demonstrated by its
ongoing presence in numerous tribal rituals in African and Far Eastern
The theatrical metaphor refers to the particular drama
contained in the image. In his essay The Barthes Effect: The Essay as
Reflective Text (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1987),
Reda Bensmaïa has stressed in this regard the ability of the
photographic image in La Chambre Claire, namely that of the mother
in the winter garden, to actually dramatize things. It is precisely
through this drama that one can project the point-object and ‘reach the
point’ (the Punctum), an expression that Reda Bensmaïa borrows from
the reading of Georges Bataille’s LExperience Interieure:

Camera Lucida will fix the photographic image of the "winter garden", it will
seek to reach the point (Punctum)-in proffering at least once that which in me
does not partake of any ‘Image’-by dramatizing things: by projecting the point-
object (the absent mother) through drama. Barthes will try to track down ("once
and for all") that in himself which belongs only to him and which dooms him to
death. Forgetfulness, which as we know, was not long before what enabled me to
read (S/Z 18), forgetfulness as the "force of all living life", is no longer
acceptable once the mother is dead, "the science of the unique being" (CL 71)
becomes "impossible" (to defer). (88)

The Image, One Image, Images 129
In this sense, the memory of the dead mother is also what
enables Barthes to attain the phantasm or vision of his own death,
beyond the power of pure reason. He has to die since the main object
of his love has already died and, more importantly, since this object is
now fixed in photography. The picture of the winter garden acts thus
as a double mirror: it constitutes the tangible visual sign of the
absence or loss of the other, but at the same time this absence or loss
belongs to him and to no one else. As Reda Bensmaïa states: "Dying
of not dying, Barthes dreams of forcing the doors of a "mystical"
realm where he might consume himself, drown himself in love. Now,
it is only at this cost-at the cost of his lucidity-that he thinks he can
accede to the extreme". (89)
For Barthes, the shadow of death seems to be everywhere in
photography. Notice that this ongoing presence can be witnessed even
in the first stages of the medium’s historical development. One of the
main social functions of the Daguerreotype, indeed, was to preserve
the image of the dead for the community as a whole, particularly those
of the closest members of the family. Barthes talks in this regard about
the strong impulse of photography to imitate life through the feeling
of its absence ("Cette rage à faire vivant ne peut être que la dénégation
mythique d’un malaise de mort" (Barthes 56)). In the middle of the
nineteenth century, the bourgeois order stemming from the rise of
capitalism sought to repress the representation of raw death within
society. It had to turn death into a beautiful and still object that
everyone could contemplate without being frightened or unsettled in
any way. The Daguerreotype became the modern equivalent of
mummies in ancient Egypt. The dead could assert their social role
among the living; the community enhanced, through photography, its
own unity and its own defiance of time. The faces and portraits of the
deceased would always appear as if they were still alive. Photography
could thus be identified once and for all with a systematic process of
illusion and make-believe. Through this process, society was
essentially concealing reality (that is, the existential reality of
mortality for mankind) as the images of the dead became an endless
series of masks.
In his own essay on photography, Benjamin highlights the
work of D.O. Hill as illustrative of this dynamic, particularly the
numerous portraits taken in the cemetery of the Franciscan brothers in
Edinburgh. These pictures all refer to the original era of the medium,
130 The Paradox of Photography
and one of these works is actually included in the essay as a visual
document. According to Benjamin, the cemetery itself resembles an
indoor space, a closed and isolated room where the funeral
monuments rise from the ground. The main background of
photography inevitably evokes death, in this case. Benjamin adds that
this peculiar location speaks in many ways to the spirit of the time,
observing that the models seem to feel at home in this environment.
The first portraits of photography thus revealed the fundamental
silence of the human face. It is through this silence that any true gaze
could actually be shaped. If one considers portraits to be the most
important subject matter of early photographs, one must emphasize
the nature and the meaning of the pose that these portraits require.
In most poses, the subject is asked to stand still while looking
at the camera. He becomes a fixed figure that is deprived of any
motion. This particular rule imposes the image of a physical
appearance much like that of the dead. The body is denied its essential
freedom of movement: it is somehow petrified by the power of the
medium. When one looks at nineteenth-century plates, one is often
struck by the fact that the human face lacks any inner animation or
agitation. In this sense, the very process of the pose constructs an ideal
model of human representation for which life itself becomes almost
alien. In its core social definition, the Daguerreotype was meant to
literally stop the passage of time and give the impression of its
suspension to all members of society. This constituted its main appeal
but also its deceitful nature. The pose entailed the utterance of a
paradoxical order given to the subject: he or she was asked to stand
like the dead in order to assert the sovereignty of life for the middle
class family. This assertion of sovereignty was most certainly
In this regard, La Petite Histoire de la Photographie includes a
striking picture of the young Kafka that actually belongs to
Benjamin’s personal collection. The philosopher emphasizes here the
almost grotesque dimension of the pose, and the whole staging of the
six-year-old physical appearance. The child is literally overwhelmed
by pieces of clothing that do not fit him, such as a tight suit and a
Spanish Sombrero, as well as by a winter garden background
dominated by palm-trees. Benjamin notices here the profound
humiliation to which the little boy is being submitted. This particular
pose highlights the utter loneliness of the subject, his "infinite
The Image, One Image, Images 131
desolation" (his own words) within photography (Benjamin 18). The
pose, in this specific case, reflects above all the strict norms of the
social order and the alienation of the subject through a form of visual
representation on which he has no control whatsoever. The eyes of
the little Kafka express here an "unfathomable sadness", undoubtedly
the result of an image imposed from outside (where "outside" is also
an "above"). In this sense, the so-called sovereignty of life asserted by
the pose cannot hide the ongoing presence of death and negation
produced by society and its main institutions (primarily embodied, in
the case of the little Kafka’s portrait, by the family).
This constant relationship between photography and death is
only made possible if one considers the portrait to be the main form of
photographic expression. It is definitely the case for Barthes. Portraits
retain an allegorical significance that is also existential. Hence Barthes
strives to assert in his essay the aesthetic but also ethical value of the
human face for photography. The second part of La Chambre Claire is
evidently haunted by the shadow of the dead mother, the famous
picture of the winter garden. This is not just any face, but the face of
the loved one, which naturally escapes any form of anonymity or
oblivion. In the first pages of this second part, Barthes refers quite
significantly to the possible "resurrection" of the loved face through
photography. This notion, in the Western tradition, holds a profound
religious meaning because it expresses the absolute event of a return
to life after death. But in the particular case of Barthes’ essay,
"resurrection" also implies an ongoing ghostly presence within the
image, which constitutes the new apparition of a subject who had
previously disappeared. The subject therefore goes back to the world
of the living as an almost dematerialized and intangible figure. In
other words, he is there, but not actually there. His radical absence can
only be overcome through the power of representation.
In this perspective, the portrait clearly defines a spectral
identity of the image. This spectral identity implies a profound
confusion between truth and illusion or fantasy, or more precisely, the
inability of the gaze to distinguish between appearance and reality. In
essence, the ghost projects his own light onto the visible world. He
becomes the source of all light, and for this reason, Barthes speaks in
his essay about the particular luminosity of his mother’s face.
("Pourtant, il y avait toujours dans ces photographies de ma mère une
place réservée, préservée, la clarté de ses yeux. Ce n’était pour le
132 The Paradox of Photography
moment qu’une luminosité toute physique, la trace photographique
d’une couleur, le bleu-vert de ses prunelles. Mais cette lumière était
déjà une sorte de médiation qui me conduisait vers une identité
essentielle, le génie du visage aimé" (Barthes 104-105).
In his collection of essays entitled Phasmes (Paris: Minuit,
1998), Georges Didi-Huberman has analyzed the utmost importance
of numerous choses apparaissantes for our own critical knowledge of
the visible world. The word comes from the Greek phasma, which
suggests form, apparition, vision, ghost, and premonition, among
other things. These multiple apparitions can be embodied in various
objects, from sculptures to insects to mystical texts. But they can also
be found in photographs. In this regard, one of Didi-Huberman’s
essays entitled "Celui qui inventa le verbe photographier", deals
specifically with the invention of the verb "to photograph". The man
who actually used this term for the first time was Philothée, a wise
man who lived in a state of reclusion near the Mount Sinaï, most
likely between the ninth and the twelfth century. He has left us a few
texts collected under the title Philokalia, or "the love of beauty".
Didi-Huberman analyzes in his own essay this man’s ongoing
quest for transcendental light in order to become a pure image. Living
according to an ascetic rule, he dreamt of leaving his own body while
keeping his eyes perpetually open. Truth, for him, was to be found in
the sunlight, and he interpreted his whole existence as a fight against
shadows. In this context, photography constituted the symbol of a
unique experience that enabled him to see light in front of him by
being transformed into a figure filled with light. ("C’était l’appel
d’une ascèse de la vision où pourraient enfin fleurir l’équivalence
paradoxale du voir et de l’être vu, la dissolution de l’être voyant dans
le temps du regard, l’incorporation réciproque de l’œil dans la lumière
et de la lumière dans l’œil" (Didi-Huberman 54)). It did not entail the
creation of finite and visible objects. To the contrary, Philothée was
highly suspicious of the power of images. He intended to chase them
instead. Paradoxically, this negation (or disappearance) of images was
only made possible through the presence of pure light internally and
externally. The experience of light ultimately defined the profound
and almost overwhelming sensation of a "pure tactile intensity":

Nous ne savons plus aujourd’hui où était l’escarpement du Sinaï contre lequel
Philothée de Baros ouvrit grand ses yeux au soleil et imagina le verbe
"photographier". Nous ne savons pas le nom incompréhensible qui scandait sa
The Image, One Image, Images 133
vision et sa respiration avides. Nous savons seulement que le verbe
"photographier" était venu là, sous sa langue, comme l’exigence non pas d’un
plaisir des images et des formes de la réalité, mais comme celle d’une jouissance
infinie de limage sans forme : cette pure intensité tactile qu’est la lumière en
flots sur notre visage offert-notre visage vu par elle comme par une mère qui
nous enfante (Didi-Huberman 55-56).

In his conclusion, Didi-Huberman refers to the light being
projected on a human face. Light reads us in its motherly attention,
just as we are reading light. It does not take on a clear form, but rather
a set of waves or a stream. One can now easily go back to Barthes,
and in particular to his emphasis on the clarity of his own mother’s
face while looking to a photograph of her as a five year-old child.
("J’observai la petite fille et je retrouvai enfin ma mère. La clarté de
son visage, la pose naïve de ses mains, la place qu’elle avait occupé
docilement sans se montrer ni se cacher, son expression enfin, qui la
distinguait, comme le Bien et le Mal, de la petite fille hystérique, de la
poupée minaudante qui joue aux adultes, tout cela formait la figure
d’une innocence souveraine" (Barthes 107)). This so-called innocence
of the face that the author seeks is tied, in his own words, to an
assertion of kindness. He stresses the etymology of the word
"innocence", which evokes an inability to harm or to hurt. Notably,
Philothée linked photography to the experience of purity as the result
of an ascetic rule.
The innocence that Barthes reads on his mother’s face reflects
a similar sensitivity, which is that of an intense presence. "The
impossible science of the unique being", to quote Barthes, might well
be the absolute knowledge of an inner light that belongs only to the
loved one. The main issue (as in Philothée) is not so much to identify
the nature of a visible object in front of us but to feel, as deeply as
possible, the proximity of a human shining that irradiates our world.
To put it differently, the act of seeing (the gaze) does not strictly entail
apprehending and comprehending outside forms and images through
the power of our eyes alone. It implies, instead, a personal encounter
with a face that is itself the image, in that it contains the source or
origin of light. It is through this very encounter that the other appears
to us as a unique being and becomes an apparition, as Didi-Huberman
uses the word (i.e., in a sense that largely exceeds the domain of
134 The Paradox of Photography
This is the main challenge of photography: how to turn what
appears into what is, into a true being. In Barthes’ perspective, this
process of transfiguration is not fully accomplished: the apparition
leads instead to the expression of an "it has been" ("ça a été"). The
presence of the other is thus located in a time that is neither a present
nor a buried past. This past is still a vivid reality because photography
actualizes it in its own physical identity. ("Ce que je vois, ce n’est pas
un souvenir, une imagination, une reconstitution, un morceau de la
Maya, comme l’art en prodigue, mais le réel à l’état passé : à la fois le
passé et le réel" (Barthes 130)). The apparition of the mother’s face
offers "a certificate of presence", such that time (that is, the time of
representation) now escapes any doubt or suspicion: it is a sure and
tangible reality. ("Peut-être avons-nous une résistance invincible à
croire au passé, à l’Histoire, sinon sous forme de mythe. La
Photographie, pour la première fois, fait cesser cette résistance : le
passé est désormais aussi sûr que le présent, ce qu’on voit sur le papier
est aussi sûr que ce qu’on touche" (Barthes 136)). Philothée’s vision
of an absolute light also included the project of bringing together past
and present, beyond the obvious distance created by the passage of
time. ("L’oeil pur, l’"oeil perpétuellement ouvert", l’abstinence et le
"silence avisé des lèvres"- tout cela équivalait pour lui à un grand acte
de Mnèmè, la mémoire, ce fil tendu entre l’eau de sa naissance (où ses
paupières submergées s’étaient un instant refermées) et la lumière de
sa mort dont il tentait précisément d’acquérir une sorte de mémoire (et
où jamais plus il ne clignerait des yeux devant le soleil ardent)" (Didi-
Huberman 52)). In this regard, Didi-Huberman stresses Philothée’s
merciless war against oblivion, which he always cursed. ("Philothée le
Sinaïte a maudit l’oubli comme on maudit le diable, il pensait
d’ailleurs que l’oubli est une machinerie satanique." (Didi-Huberman
Although Barthes questions the notion that photography
reenacts what is done and gone in order to create a mere memory (or
remembrance, in the Proustian sense) of things past, he nonetheless
emphasizes, in his own way, the ability of the medium to resurrect this
past. By definition, this resurrection entails a new and radical move
towards existence, as well as an expression of the triumph of life over
death. The "certificate of presence", in this sense, does not only mean
that something has been but that this something still is since it can be
prolonged (and literally re-lived) through photography. One does not
The Image, One Image, Images 135
just have to deplore the inevitability of loss. To the contrary, the
power of authentication of the medium stresses the possibility of
gained presence. Pictures thus confront us with the somehow
reassuring apparition of ghosts: the dead can come back to us and
signify the work of life within images and the visible world in general.
The problem inherent to Barthes’ reflection is that this capacity
to authenticate or certify reality largely overshadows photography’s
power of representation. Photography, according to this discourse, is
actually destined to present instead of re-present. As the author puts it,
"D’un point de vue phénoménologique, dans la Photographie, le
pouvoir d’authentification prime le pouvoir de représentation"
(Barthes 139). The medium reiterates the world prior to reinventing or
even imagining it. This is what Barthes also terms "la force constative
de la photographie". In this regard, the author never ceases to
emphasize what is supposedly missing in photography. He engages in
a negative rhetoric that tends to highlight the aesthetic limitations of
the medium. Photography is without a future, as opposed to cinema;
photography is without a culture, without a dialectics, without a
catharsis, etc, etc.
The ontological quest thus leads to a profound denial of
identity. Barthes confesses that he cannot read a picture since it is too
full and complete to allow for any additional interpretation. He clearly
opposes photography to painting and sculpture on this issue:
photography cannot transform his own gaze into something deeper
than a mere physical relationship to the visible world. The medium
seems to be trapped in its own finitude and does not entail the promise
of a transcendence that would free the viewer from his inner turmoil.
("Je ne puis transformer mon chagrin, je ne puis laisser dériver mon
regard- aucune culture ne vient m’aider à parler cette souffrance que je
vis entièrement à même la finitude de l’image" (Barthes 141)). The
impossibility of reading is a major concern for Barthes, since his own
original epistemology of literary criticism always implied the quasi-
ethical necessity of such a process. The true modern critic is the one
who can actually decipher the hidden codes of the text and its
language, according to the rules and principles of semiology. There
rests, in his view, the fundamental violence of photography. It is
violent precisely because it does not allow him to see anything beyond
the concrete space of the picture. ("La Photographie est violente : non
pas parce qu’elle montre des violences, mais parce qu’à chaque fois
136 The Paradox of Photography
elle emplit de force la vue, et qu’en elle rien ne peut se refuser, ni se
transformer" (Barthes 143)).
By contrast, the reader of the literary text (who, in Barthes’
perspective, is always an active and even more a creative one) is
capable of transforming the object of his analysis into a coherent and
radically original form. The text itself is open to changes, and even to
a process of profound metamorphosis, inasmuch as it is an open and
fluid structure that the act of reading is destined to shape. The text
contains blanks and empty spaces: it is never an absolute and fully
accomplished entity. Thus criticism operates as a "supplement", in the
Derridian sense of the term. It adds or superimposes its own language
and thought upon the preexisting language and thought of the text.
This addition is made possible because the subject of analysis is, in
itself, incomplete and perhaps even undetermined.
Photography, as a closed object, refuses to be read in many
respects, or at least, resists Barthes’ attempts to read it. This essential
conflict prevents the author from identifying photography with a true
art form, which appears more and more obvious in the last part of his
essay. For Barthes, art (and not just literature) relies largely upon this
promise and freedom of personal interpretation. But photographs
cannot be modified by the gaze of the viewer; they can only be turned
into pieces of trash, destined to be thrown into the garbage. This
insistence upon the ephemeral, and even fragile, nature of the object
prevents photography from being instituted as art. The era of
photography is also that of impatience: modern man is no longer able
to sense, either emotionally or symbolically, the duration within
things. The gaze of the viewer is a gaze without real depth. The author
recognizes that he cannot go through the surface of the image. By
contrast, the very nature of reading contains the idea of seeing through
and reaching an object's inner truth that is not immediately apparent.
Pictures are, for him, obvious items defined and limited by their own
certainty (their own visible evidence), as opposed to texts that do not
reveal everything and maintain their own secret beyond reading itself.
("Dans l’image, l’objet se livre en bloc et la vue en est certaine- au
contraire du texte ou d’autres perceptions qui me donnent l’objet
d’une façon floue, discutable, et m’incitent de la sorte à me méfier de
ce que je crois voir" (Barthes 163)).
By admitting to this absence of reading, Barthes also
underlines the failure of a real aesthetic discourse on photography.
The Image, One Image, Images 137
Since the medium is not primarily defined as a system of
representation, it cannot be understood as an original set of objective
visual forms, either. What is left is the sheer power of an individual
subjectivity that draws a strictly existential truth from the image. The
portrait, in this sense, exists beyond art as the living proof of an
intimate relationship binding the viewer and the subject of
photography. The main issue of the portrait is not only that of
resemblance, that is, the identification between reality and its
reproduction within the image. It suggests instead the presence of
something that cannot be said ("l’indicible") and, in so doing,
highlights the spiritual essence of the human face.
In his essay Le Regard du Portrait (Paris: Galilée, 2000), Jean-
Luc Nancy has questioned the sovereignty of resemblance as
constitutive of the portrait in painting. If resemblance seems to be the
main focus of the painter’s art, it nonetheless establishes a strong tie
between the artwork and an original model that is, in many ways,
secondary. For Nancy, this model can even be absent in the portrait
itself, in that the viewer rarely sees or knows the originals of the vast
majority of portraits that he contemplates. In the history of Western
art, the most striking example of this phenomenon is the Mona Lisa,
as Nancy points out. While this painting is universally considered to
be one of the most beautiful portraits ever made, it still remains a
highly enigmatic work precisely because we, as viewers, do not truly
know the identity of the subject behind the portrait. In this sense, the
original model is somewhat absent in the Mona Lisa. We can only
speculate endlessly upon its true name and face. ("Et ce n’est pas un
hasard si l’identité de Mona Lisa, archétype des portraits, reste
incertaine jusqu’à son sexe et autant que le sens ou l’inflexion de son
sourire (c’est précisément cette incertitude qui lui a conféré sa place
légendaire). Il se peut même que nous admirions des portraits qui en
leur temps furent jugés insatisfaisants du point de vue de la
reconnaissance" (Nancy 40)).
In this regard, what Barthes calls "l’air" is the ultimate
expression of the moral dimension of the subject beyond resemblance,
beyond the sheer reality of the mother as an original model. ("Enfin la
photographie du Jardin d’Hiver, où je fais bien plus que la reconnaître
(mot trop gros), où je la retrouve: éveil brusque, hors de la
"ressemblance", satori où les mots défaillent, évidence rare, peut-être
unique du "Ainsi, oui, ainsi, et rien de plus" (Barthes 167-68)). It
138 The Paradox of Photography
reveals a soul, not just a physical appearance that could be either
faithful or unfaithful to the subject. ("Toutes les photos de ma mère
que je passais en revue étaient un peu comme des masques ; à la
dernière, brusquement, le masque disparaissait : il restait une âme,
sans âge mais non hors du temps, puisque cet air, c’était celui que je
voyais, consubstantiel à son visage, chaque jour de sa longue vie.
Peut-être l’air est-il en définitive quelque chose de moral, amenant
mystérieusement au visage le reflet d’une valeur de vie ?" (Barthes
169)). It is "an expression of truth", as Barthes says. This air thus
constitutes a luminous shadow that goes along with the body. The face
contains an inner light that the portrait unveils. In the absence of
aesthetics, the moral and spiritual discourse enables Barthes to
somehow redeem photography, while carefully avoiding a thorough
reflection upon its specific visual language. In front of the portrait, the
"I" asserts his own supremacy once and for all, and the writing of light
inevitably becomes the writing of one’s own light. ("Puisque ni Nadar
ni Avedon n’ont photographié ma mère, la survie de cette image a
tenu au hasard d’une vue prise par un photographe de campagne, qui,
médiateur indifférent, mort lui-même depuis, ne savait pas que ce
qu’il fixait-c’était la vérité-la vérité pour moi" (Barthes 170-71)).
In other words, the truth of photography is a very particular
truth. This is what often distinguishes the portrait in painting from the
portrait in photography. In the first case, the classical portrait that I see
in a museum is more likely to be of a figure that belongs to history or
religion (a public figure, a king, a queen, or a saint). Even if this
portrait, belongs to the aesthetics of modern art, it is likely still the
representation of someone I do not know personally. (Matisse’s
portrait of his wife is one example). But in the case of photography,
the portrait, the image of a relative, a spouse, a child, or a friend, is
more likely to be a part of my own life story. It is an object that I can
put into a family album, or frame and hang in my own home. The
portrait of photography thus more frequently retains a private and
even intimate dimension than the portrait of painting, which is linked
in the Western tradition to an artistic legacy of religious, political, and
official representation. It can speak directly about my own life as well
as those of the people who have been and remain close to me, whether
they are alive or not.
In this perspective, the portrait that Barthes analyzes implies
the profound belief in a secret that cannot be truly or fully shared with
The Image, One Image, Images 139
others. The image is the keeper of this secret, and "l’air", therefore,
can only underscore the presence of this impossible communication.
Hence Barthes uses in this context terms like "l’indicible" or
"l’improbable". By contrast, the painted portrait most often implies the
inclusion of the image within the community to which the portrait is
shown. It is defined by its public power prior to any linkage with the
personal life of the viewer. "L’air" thus expresses a process of
spiritual revelation within the image, while at the same time denying
the possibility of such revelation through words (that is, through the
body and the substance of words themselves). A truth for me is indeed
a secret; it is what ultimately separates me from the outside world and
asserts my definitive isolation or loneliness.
In this sense, La Chambre Claire is an essay about one image
(that of the mother in the winter garden) and not about the image,
meaning photography in general, if there is any such thing. But it is
also not an essay about images, meaning the flow of visual stimuli that
contemporary society imposes on us daily through magazines,
advertising, or the Internet. Barthes’ critical standpoint implies a
radical distance from this flow. The author wants to focus his attention
on a few examples only, and so his gaze resists the cultural law of the
infinite reproduction of signs. This is where his perspective becomes
truly driven by ethical concerns. His gaze is not just selective, but also
contemplative. A photograph is not, for him, an object of instant
consumption or aesthetic gratification; it is something to be reflected
upon carefully and slowly, in spite of a social order that constantly
precipitates pictures into a system of frantic simulation (in the
Baudrillardian sense). In today’s world, and this was already true at
the time when Barthes was writing his book, it has become
increasingly difficult to simply choose one image among many others,
or to explain the reasons (whether personal or philosophical) for such
a choice. The law of the instant and ongoing reproduction of images
relies upon a highly sophisticated network of technological tools and
devices over which the average man (that is, the average viewer) has
less and less control.
As such, theory and criticism unveil the almost Utopian
possibility of a break within this order. They express the existence of a
subjective gaze that challenges the pace of the image and its reception
within society. Here, writing allows for a slowdown in the mere
accumulation of these images on ubiquitous screens and in countless
140 The Paradox of Photography
publications. La Chambre Claire defines an intimate time of
photography, a notion which goes against the widespread exploitation
of the medium for primarily economic and commercial purposes in the
contemporary media. This intimate time further corresponds to an
intimate space. The truth for me, therefore, questions the actual
meaning of the purely social truth of the image. This social truth
denies, in its very nature, the possibility of a secret. It is instead
dominated by an obsession with transparency and public exhibition. In
the last pages of his essay, Barthes evokes the trivialization of
photography which, according to his own words, crushes all the other
images under its own tyranny ("Plus de gravures, plus de peinture
figurative, sinon désormais par soumission fascinée (et fascinante) au
modèle photographique" (Barthes 181)). Paradoxically, then, La
Chambre Claire reasserts the need for a certain obscurity within the
image, a resistance to its instant reading and comprehension. The
Camera is thus still Obscura, since it enables the subject to retreat
voluntarily from the overwhelming power of actual events, and from
his own objective social identity. In this sense, the contingency of
photography defines a privileged relationship of the medium to reality
to the extent that this reality is foremost a reality for me, not for every
man lost in the crowd. This reality remains partly hidden and its veil
must never be lifted.
Barthes’ project, therefore, insists upon the profound need for
belonging within images. In other words, to choose one single image
among many others is to stop an image that would otherwise pass by
without notice. This choice requires constant attention, the exact
opposite of the distracted attitude defined by Benjamin in "The Work
of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" as one of the main
characteristics of modern man in his relation to art and culture. The
ethical nature of such a choice is obvious. The subject asks for a return
to a sense of a difference within photography. My most meaningful
image is not the other’s most meaningful image, for the very reason
that my life is never exactly the same as theirs. The main illusion or
deceit created by contemporary culture is that of a universal (i.e.,
global) and ongoing sharing of images, as if they could signal the
existence of a so-called democratic order in which differences
(economic, social, cultural or psychological) would no longer apply.
The truly realistic approach thus puts forward the presence of a
singularity within pictures, without having to reveal all the reasons for
The Image, One Image, Images 141
such a viewpoint. We now comprehend why La Chambre Claire
establishes such a strong link between photography and death
(through the image of the dead mother). For death is, in essence, that
which cannot be fully disclosed or shared. I can indeed share my
language, my body, and even my possessions with others, but not my
death. It will always remain my own death through which I assert my
existential difference and my irreducible being. It will never be purely
transparent, nor will it be fully understandable to the other. As Marcel
Duchamp aptly stated: "it is always the others who die" ("Ce sont
toujours les autres qui meurent"). This sentence implies the ultimate
specificity of one’s death. In other words, the death of the other is not
and never will be mine. It keeps its own secret inasmuch as I exist and
the other too.
This constant hesitation between revelation and concealment is
the means by which photography defines its own existential power
beyond the mere issue of art (that is, of photography as a true art
form). The "certificate of presence" paradoxically suggests absence.
("Or, dans la photographie, ce que je pose n’est pas seulement
l’absence de l’objet : c’est aussi, d’un même mouvement, à égalité,
que cet objet a bien existé, et qu’il a été là où je le vois" (Barthes
177)). Therein lies what Barthes calls the madness of photography:
this contradictory motion between what has been and what is not (or
no longer) there. ("La photographie devient alors pour moi un medium
bizarre, une nouvelle forme d’hallucination: fausse au niveau de la
perception, vraie au niveau du temps : une hallucination tempérée, en
quelque sorte, modeste, partagée (d’un côté "ce n’est pas là", de
l’autre "mais cela a bien été") : image folle, frottée de réel" (Barthes
It is significant that Barthes uses the word "medium" to
describe photography. This word reflects the negation of photography
as a true art. Moreover, it conjures up the image of an "in-between",
an object located between presence and absence. But "medium" also
refers, in English and French, to a magical apprehension of the world.
(After all, the medium is a person who, because of his or her own
extra-sensorial or supernatural powers, is able to see through reality.)
The conclusion of Barthes’ essay therefore identifies photography
with a sort of modern magic. This particular identification leaves
room for the fundamental mystery of the image. It is the enigma of
being, of his inner feelings, his desires and emotions.
142 The Paradox of Photography
We might argue, then, that La Chambre Claire does not
constitute an essay of art criticism, but rather an essay on his own
personal experience of photography (or on photography as
experience). The image is a particular object that the author
encounters or faces, and so, his language must articulate the
sovereignty of this single event for his own existence. ("Telle photo
maavient, telle autre non" (Barthes 38)). The form, as such, only
marginally concerns Barthes: it is essentially a pretext for the inner
exploration of this event. His original perspective defines, at the same
time, the richness and the shortcomings of his work. The powerful
content of La Chambre Claire is not easily forgotten, but we must
remain sensitive to its melancholic tone and underlying pathos.
Beyond that, one must also wonder whether the object of his
discourse is what it is supposed to be. The title of the book refers to a
room where one seeks privacy, far away from the public eye. By
nature, this room is a closed space where only a few can penetrate.
The light shed on this particular space (this "clear" room) is thus never
a full one. It emerges from the mind of a viewer who definitively
searches for one intriguing image, a unique testimony to his own
mortality and lasting presence (though this mortality and lasting
presence are also, obviously, that of the (m)other). Indeed, La
Chambre Claire was Barthes’ last major work before his unexpected
death. Therefore, through this remarkable anticipation of the most
subjective and human of all events within the image, his project will
always dwell in our conscience as the mirror of our own existential


The Fascinated Eye

Paul Valéry’s main lecture on photography, "Le Discours du
centenaire de la photographie" (in Études Photographiques, 10, Paris:
Société Française de Photographie, November 2001), was given in the
context of the national celebration of its one hundredth anniversary in
France. It can be read today as a passionate apology of a medium that
still needed to convince many skeptics after so many years of
existence. His text must be understood as a general and public defense
of photography, as if it had been put on trial by a large number of
artists and scholars of his time. Its tone is undoubtedly ceremonious, if
not a bit pompous, for the very reason that this lecture took place at
the Sorbonne, the most prestigious French university of both the past
and the present, under the auspices of the French Academy. These
very official circumstances did not seem to be the ideal setting for a
talk on such a topic. After all, the French Academy has been and still
is concerned with the cultural preservation of the French language in
its purest forms. It is not an institution that entails the study of the
visual arts among its intellectual priorities.
It is this very contradiction between the content of Valéry’s
speech and the identity of the Academy that makes this text intriguing.
The members of this pillar of French cultural tradition pretended to
celebrate the outstanding achievements of the great Frenchmen who
contributed to the birth and the development of photography. They
wanted to pay tribute to the technical creativity of pioneers such as
Niepce and Daguerre. In other words, photography was seen by them
as a national invention, a direct product of French genius and unique
Thus the poet participated here in an enterprise that was
obviously driven by national pride, and not just by aesthetic or
144 The Paradox of Photography

philosophical interests. In his introduction, he refers to photography as
one of the most admirable inventions of the nineteenth-century. The
tone is set from the start: Valéry will definitely be the anti-Baudelaire:
he will delight in the beauty and the originality of the medium, rather
than trashing it or denying its artistic qualities. According to Valéry,
these great Frenchmen have been able "to fix the resemblance of
visible things through the action of the light that emanates from them".
These few words almost serve as a complete definition of photography
and of its specific attributes: photography constitutes first of all a
means of immobilizing reality on a silver plate or a piece of paper.
Secondly, it is dominated by the search for a resemblance between
pictures and the visible world. Third, it reflects the utmost power of
light in the expression of this world.
The main purpose of his speech is to demonstrate the possible
relationship between literature and photography. At the time of this
presentation in 1939, this relationship does not seem particularly
obvious in French culture. If photography has already acquired a
certain artistic status through the work of masters such as Nadar and
Atget, it still remains a marginal and obscure field for most French
writers, with the notable exception of Proust. (In this regard, the main
study on Proust’s intensely personal relationship to photography is
that of photographer Georges Brassaï, in his book Marcel Proust sous
lEmprise ae la Photographie, published by Gallimard in 1997).
Photography remains generally confined to its own narrow territory: it
has yet to engage in an extensive dialogue with poetry, novels, or
essays, a dialogue which will of course be pursued after World War II
by writers or critics such as Barthes or Claude Simon. In this
perspective, it is quite significant that Valéry keeps using the term
"invention" when referring to photography, as if he were trying to
emphasize its youth as opposed to the venerable age of literature.
Pictures seem to be fresh and childlike: they are actually more than
one hundred years old at the time when Valéry speaks, but it sounds as
if they had been created the day before.
After all, the members of the French Academy who are
responsible for this event gained fame and prestige through their
literary achievements, and not through their personal connections to
the visual arts. Valéry, therefore, must adapt his own discourse to their
language and mindset. The issue here is not so much whether
photography constitutes an art form or not, which was the case
The Fascinated Eye 145

previously for Baudelaire, but rather the specific meaning of the
medium for the poet and the novelist. In this particular sense,
photography still constitutes a novelty for the writer, even though it
has already been diffused on a large scale within popular French
In other words, it is not yet an academic concept. As such,
Valéry refers to the "beautiful invention" of photography, in order to
show that its cultural reality is primarily defined by the action of
science and technique. Yet if writers generally lack a true
understanding of its possibilities, the artists themselves have already
grasped its usefulness for their own creative endeavors. ("Nous savons
bien que le dessin, la peinture et tous les arts d’imitation ont su tirer
profit de la capture immédiate des formes par la plaque sensible"
(Discours 89)).
Photography has already been integrated into the vast domain of
the visual arts because of its essential accuracy. Valéry insists here
upon its ability to fix motion, whether human or animal, in reference
to the now classical experiments of both Marey and Muybridge that
took place as early as the last part of the nineteenth century. This
ability prevents the artists from making mistakes in their own
representation of animal motion, that of horses and birds in particular.
What was before a largely imaginary and subjective interpretation of
nature seized in its dynamic identity can now be turned into a true and
faithful process of reproduction that is characterized by a much greater
objectivity. In other words, photography teaches the artist how to look
closely at things. Instead of gazing beyond or beside reality, the artist
is now facing it directly, and this confrontation enables him to adjust
his own gaze to the paramount laws of the visible world. This
situation should not come as a surprise, since photography asserted
itself from its birth as a means of capturing reality in all its exactitude.
Whether it was defined as an authentic artistic discipline or as a mere
technical device, its main quality was that of a mimetic form that
could even surpass the figurative power of painting and drawing.
Valéry admits here that the acceptance of photography by the art
community has not been imitated by the literary community. After all,
the writer did not need the help of photography in order to create his
own poetic universe. He could always rely on an inner gaze that
provided him with potent metaphors and visions. ("Mais au contraire,
la possession de ce moyen de reproduire les apparences de la nature et
146 The Paradox of Photography

de la vie par un simple relais d’énergie physique ne paraît point d’une
conséquence certaine et d’un avantage marqué pour les Lettres"
(Discours 89)).
In Valéry’s discourse, the word "nature" occupies a central
position. Nature must be comprehended as a sum of appearances, of
visual phenomena that the artist has to examine carefully and in all
detail. It is clear that this emphasis on nature as the main subject
matter of human creativity is more predominant either in science or
the visual arts than in literature. The scientist, whether he is a chemist,
a botanist or a biologist, is destined to the study of living organisms
and cells. The painter himself, at least in the academic tradition of his
art, tends to imitate the natural forms of the human body or of flowers
and trees, in classical exercises such as the nude, the landscape or still
life. This was true even at the time of Valéry, when the Cubist or the
Surrealist avant-garde had not yet fully established its own supremacy
in the art world. The problem therefore is that the sovereignty of
nature is much more questionable for the writer than it is for either the
scientist or the artist. The history of the Western novel, from Dante to
Cervantes and from Goethe to Dickens and Dostoyevsky, confronts us
with the sheer artistic power of fiction. Even if the power of this
fiction stems from a strict observation of social reality, such as in
Dickens’ work, the main subject matter of the novel is never truly
nature, not even in the case of so-called "naturalism" immortalized by
Zola or Maupassant.
In other words, the invention of the world is always more
important for the writer than its mere reproduction. Otherwise, there
could be no such thing as fiction. By invention, I mean here the
capacity to interpret the world in an original manner through the eyes
of imaginary characters, and through the description of their inner
psyche. This does not mean that the objective presence of nature
cannot be felt in some of these works. But this presence never
overshadows the structure of story-telling, whose fundamental identity
is always fanciful. In addition, if one considers modern poetry in
France alone, one can easily see that much of it is dominated by a
profound suspicion towards the power of nature on human existence
in general. This is nowhere more obvious than in the work of
Baudelaire, as we saw it already through the reading of some of his
aesthetic writings. In this regard, the very title of his main work of
poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal, implied a negative definition of nature:
The Fascinated Eye 147

flowers themselves belonged to the dark side of life. Moreover, the
symbolist project of Mallarmé, who Valéry considered as his spiritual
father, entailed in many ways a clear distance between the voice of the
poet and the idealized image of nature.
Valéry stressed here instead the possible rivalry between
photography and literature, as if the former could somehow diminish
the artistic importance of the latter. For him, even the best descriptive
writer could never match the essential precision of the new medium.
The accuracy of language, by comparison, seemed almost illusory.
Language could only make people see certain aspects of reality, while
photography opened up a revelation of the whole visible world.
("Comment dépeindre un site ou un visage, si habiles que nous soyons
dans notre métier d’écrivain, de manière que ce que nous aurons écrit
ne suggère autant de visions différentes que nous aurons de lecteurs ?"
(Discours 90)). The kind of vision that language could produce was
limited not only in its scope but also in its sheer number. Valéry’s
passionate embrace of photography and of its unique energy entailed a
critique of literature, or at least of the narrative language that
supported it. Even the science of the poetic language, what Mallarmé
himself had defined as "the essential language", was often flawed in
its attention to details and its own visual ambitions. More generally,
the descriptive project of literature, which had been key to the
development of great narratives in the West since the Greeks, was
suddenly being shaken by the rise of photography.
The author of Monsieur Teste was known for saying that he
would always refuse to write a sentence such as "la marquise sortit à
cinq heures." This apparently ironic statement actually signified a
profound questioning of the aesthetic value of narration itself. For
Valéry, literature had to be located in an entirely original space that
could not be located in the classical novel. If one looks closely at the
forms on which his own work is largely based, one will notice an
undisputable preference not only for poetry, but also for criticism and
fragments or aphorisms (such as in his Cahiers, for instance). Those
forms are mostly defined outside of the realm of both narration and
description. They always imply for him the possibility of intellectual
speculation, but also the presence of a hypothetical language whose
logic and identity cannot be made compatible with that of description.
In other words, there is no such thing as a hypothetical description.
148 The Paradox of Photography

When one attempts to describe a particular object, one
inevitably stresses the certainty of this object and of its main
characteristics. One sticks literally to its objective reality, and asserts a
concrete existence that is being enhanced through language.
Description reflects the narrator's lack of doubt about the proximity of
the object. It is not surprising then that Valéry praises photography
precisely because it frees literature from the formal constraints of
description. ("Ainsi l’existence de la Photographie nous engagerait
plutôt à cesser de vouloir décrire ce qui peut, de soi-même, sinscrire"
(Discours 90)). A genuine description must indeed allow people see
the object as if they were themselves physically in front of it. It asks
the reader to see through language, through the screen of words in
order to reach the visual identity of the object. As opposed to a
description, which is often lengthy, an inscription constitutes a brief
message. Moreover, it relates language to the material world, since
words that are inscribed are quite often written on a stone or a solid
surface. The general technical evolution of the modern world
witnessed by Valéry entails an irresistible move towards a language
that is becoming more and more instantaneous as well as physical. In
particular, according to Valéry the development of photography
results in the progressive eviction of speech by images.
Yet this situation is not contemplated with pleasure. Instead
the poet manifests a real anxiety towards a world in which images
have already established their overwhelming cultural presence. It is
interesting to note that this negative feeling is being expressed at a
time when the power of the media was far from being as crushing as it
is today. The world in which Valéry lives has not yet been "invaded"
by television, video games, the Internet and virtual reality. If cinema
already appears to be a dominant form of art and mass entertainment
at the end of the nineteen thirties, it still leaves room for poetry, the
novel and theater within everyday French culture. The images that the
poet refers to are mostly to be found in newspapers and magazines,
and not on big or small screens. They belong therefore to the world of
the press and journalism. This obviously constituted the most
important cultural use of photography before World War II. Valéry
notices in this regard the "vices" of images when they try to compete
with language by asserting their own superiority. These images are too
often cheap, (he talks about their "facilité"); moreover, they do not
necessarily tell the truth about reality. ("Oserais-je ajouter qu’il n’est
The Fascinated Eye 149

pas jusqu’au mensonge, grande et toujours florissante spécialité de la
parole, que la photographie ne s’enhardisse à pratiquer" (Discours
In the second volume of his Cahiers (Paris : Gallimard, La
Pléiade, 1974), the poet also denounced the excessive cultural
influence of the press, and the way it diffuses a colloquial language
which escapes any true rigor ("L’évolution de la littérature moderne
n’est que l’évolution de la lecture qui tend à devenir une sorte de
divination d’effets au moyen de quelques mots vus presque
simultanément et au détriment des phrases. C’est le télégraphisme et
l’impressionnisme grossier dû aux affiches et aux journaux. L’homme
voit et ne lit plus" (Cahiers 1183)). The age of mechanical
reproduction therefore turns any reader into a potential viewer.
Language itself becomes a visual reality before being a purely literary
or rhetorical one. It is now confused with images, through the ongoing
action of the mass media.
In this new era, the presence of visible things is somehow self-
sufficient: it no longer needs the support of words. Images speak, and
they even speak for language itself. This implies a transformation of
the symbolic order associated with modern culture. The symbolic
order now relies primarily upon a network of information that imposes
a particular concept of language, beyond reading. In many ways,
photography participates actively in this new order by being
constantly linked to the myth of an instantaneous meaning. In other
words, pictures can be seen and understood in a moment: they stir an
original time of human perception, whose main principle is that of a
constant acceleration of visual stimuli. Nevertheless, Valéry does not
succumb to a merely nostalgic discourse that would reject this
irreversible evolution altogether. To the contrary, he attempts to stress
its positive consequences for the community. He talks about the
proliferation of photographs in the modern world, but the undisputable
presence of this law of quantity does not prevent him from searching
for a new definition of quality, a quality that is always for him of an
aesthetic nature. Its main focus remains not just literature, but what he
calls (maybe a bit ironically) "Les Belles-Lettres", or rather "the truly
beautiful letters" ("Les Lettres véritablement belles" (Discours 90)).
Photography has pursued throughout its short history the
conquest of both motion and color. Originally though, its tone was
essentially black and white, like the black ink on a white sheet of
150 The Paradox of Photography

paper. Indeed, in the word "photography" itself one can find the
presence of writing, of a trace or an inscription that also includes the
sense of a memory. After all, Niepce began his career as a man of the
theater, and Nadar often chose writers and poets as subjects of his
portraits. According to Valéry, this relatively new medium underlines
the very limits of language: it forces the writer to redefine the goals of
his or her own practice. Modern technique is now capable of assuming
extended functions which include the objective representation of
reality. Its realistic nature enables literature to break this so-called
inevitable link with the domain of facts and sheer events. Since
photography is responsible for a new form of visual story-telling,
writing can now reach a new and unprecedented level of abstraction
and philosophical analysis.
In other words, the remarkable impurity of photography and of
the technical means of expression in general, can enhance the "purity"
of literature, even within a world that does not seem to pay much
attention to its existence. Now the sentence "literature for the sake of
literature" acquires its most profound meaning. The writer no longer
has to turn his gaze towards the external world, since a considerable
number of pictures and images have actually become its authentic
mirror. ("Une littérature se ferait pure, qui délaissant tous les autres
emplois que d’autres modes d’expression ou de production
remplissent bien plus efficacement qu’elle ne peut le faire, se
consacrerait à ce qu’elle seule peut obtenir" (Discours 90)). Technique
has taken over the sphere of economic production: it abides by strict
rules of efficiency and practical reason. Therefore, literature, by
deliberately asserting its own identity outside of this sphere and these
rules, can find a new freedom and a total independence of spirit.
Valéry’s argument therefore implies the tireless quest for a new
literary absolute. He clearly sets the priorities of such project: first,
literature must strive for the perfection of a discourse that exposes
abstract thinking. It definitely belongs to the world of concepts, of
ideas, of the mind, as we already know from Monsieur Teste. But
these intellectual constructions need a particular framework: they are
expressed through a language that resists the unsophisticated forms of
everyday speech. One can add here that Valéry’s attention to the
utmost accuracy and formal complexity of language stems from the
French rhetorical tradition of the seventeenth-century. Les "Belles-
Lettres" reflect the unique power of a "Beau parler" or "Beau
The Fascinated Eye 151

langage". Modernity, by contrast, asserts the economic, social and
cultural sovereignty of technical means of communication, from
cinema to photography. These new means do not necessarily distort
the meaning (the actual content) of language for mankind, but they
certainly diminish the value and the importance of its classical forms.
The utopia of a perfect discourse, which was key to the social order of
the seventeenth and even eighteenth century, is now replaced by the
myth of an instant and easily accessible discourse.
Moreover, the abstraction of the new world dominated by
technique does not stem from the overwhelming influence of
speculative thought within society and its main institutions, but rather
from the social determination (and even control) of man and his
personal expression by increasingly complex mechanical devices and
systems of production. The poet’s demand for abstraction echoes in
this sense a whole aesthetic movement that characterizes the early
twentieth-century modernism, both in the visual arts and in music.
One can find it in the Vienna School and the serial (or atonal) music
of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, as well as in the
geometrical paintings of Kandinsky or Mondrian. In other words, in
order to be truly modern, the poet or the artist has to search for a
radical abstraction that enables him to constantly relate the creative
process of art to the analytical approach of philosophy or science,
beyond the obvious differences between these domains.
The second goal that Valéry sets for literature more strictly
concerns the domain of poetry. In this regard, he claims the need for a
multiplicity of poetic combinations and resonances. Poetry must
become a fertile ground for formalist experiments: its author must
above all be concerned with the almost musical harmony of words,
and their endless imaginary relations through the poetic language.
Again, this overall vision of literature questions its descriptive
functions. In many ways Valéry rejects a certain aesthetic legacy of
nineteenth-century romanticism. He refers in this perspective to the
excessive preoccupation with the background and the external aspects
of life in many books of fiction written between 1820 and 1840. The
descriptive dimension of such works leads to the depiction of mere
fantasies, whether these fantasies are projected upon the Orient or the
middle ages. This dimension implies the definite emphasis upon the
mostly decorative quality of art and literature. The nineteenth-century
asserted the power of a social and cultural order obsessed with the
152 The Paradox of Photography

proliferation and the abundance of furniture, pictures and luxury
objects in everyday life. However, a new vision appears with the birth
of photography. For Valéry, this event is no less than revolutionary. It
entails a complete transformation of our values and visual knowledge.
In other words, our gaze will never be the same. The imprint of
photography is to be felt primarily in the realm of everyday life. The
medium provokes new needs and habits; it has become an essential
record of major life events such as birth or marriage.
This documentary dimension of photography is now reflected
in the aesthetic evolution of nineteenth-century French literature. For
Valéry, realism has turned into an almighty system of representation:
the era of photography is also that of the novel, a genre which, like in
Balzac’s work, pretends to encompass the whole of social reality. The
main goal of literature has become therefore the pursuit of truth,
instead of the search for poetic beauty. The poet does not suggest that
the project of writers such as Zola or Maupassant stems directly from
the advent of photography. Nonetheless, he stresses a coincidence that
has to be seriously taken into consideration. It is clear that Valéry
cannot be fully satisfied with the dominance of realism. In his speech,
he attempts in to widen the domain of literature, beyond the obvious
changes of perspective introduced by the classical novel or narrative
of the nineteenth-century. He insists upon the possibility of a dialogue
between writers and history, philosophy or the hard sciences. He talks
thus about "these uncertain regions of knowledge" in which
photography asserts its own significance.
In order to understand Valéry’s contradictory attitude towards
the modern world and its impact on art and poetry, one has to go back
to his main essays on art, as they appear in his book Pièces sur lArt
(Paris: Gallimard, 1934). In the essay entitled "Propos sur le progrès",
he refers in particular to the general suspicion of the nineteenth-
century artist towards such notion. This was nowhere more obvious
than at the time of Romanticism, when the writers who belonged to
this movement manifested their unambiguous hostility towards the
rationalism of modernity and ignored in this process the
accomplishments of modern science. In many ways, Romanticism
expressed its own nostalgia for pre-modern forms of knowledge such
as magic. But it is only with the early twentieth-century avant-garde
that this conflict between the poet or the artist and the scientist or the
engineer will be somehow overcome: movements such as Futurism
The Fascinated Eye 153

and Dada will emphasize instead the aesthetic power of machines and
their imaginary identity. (For a study of the relationship between the
early twentieth-century avant-garde and the aesthetic power of
technique and machines, I will refer in particular to my book
Surmodernités: Entre Rêve et Technique, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003,
and in particular the chapters on Léger, Jarry and Duchamp).
Approaching the issue of progress, Valéry is careful to avoid
both a strictly negative and a purely apologetic response. For him,
both attitudes are equivalent to common places. By contrast, he tries
to highlight a possible synthesis between the realm of positivity and
that of the supernatural ("Il arrive que le merveilleux et le positif ont
contracté une étonnante alliance, et que ces deux anciens ennemis se
sont conjurés pour engager nos existences dans une carrière de
transformations et de surprises indéfinie." (Pièces 217)). In other
words, rigor and method can also engender dreams, which could very
well have been the mantra of Leonardo, an artist that Valéry
particularly admired and on which he wrote a well-known essay. In
this sense, the sheer legacy of the Enlightenment too often fails to take
into account the poetic imagination in its philosophical project. But
the radical subjectivity invoked by Romanticism also fails to
comprehend the important role of ideas and concepts in the creation of
the work of art. The main problem of the modern world is that it is no
longer dominated by the mind and the visions of the artist, as in the
utopia of Leonardo. Even if such synthesis is accomplished in society,
it is happening because of the overwhelming power of trade and

Enfin, presque tous les songes qu’avait faits l’humanité, et qui figurent dans
nos fables de divers ordres, sont à présent sortis de l’impossible et de l’esprit.
Le fabuleux est dans le commerce. La fabrication de machines à merveilles
fait vivre des milliers d’individus. Mais l’artiste n’a pris nulle part à cette
production de prodiges. Elle procède de la science et des capitaux. Le
bourgeois a placé ses fonds dans les phantasmes et spécule sur la ruine du
sens commun. (Pièces 219)

This is the main reason why it is quite difficult to go back to the
model of the Renaissance, even though the poet is profoundly attached
to the spirit of this era. One of the most striking aspects of the changes
stirred by modernity is their irreversible character. Mechanical power
is being increased dramatically as well as the precision that man can
154 The Paradox of Photography

demonstrate in his work and his social activities. This irreversibility
produces a new sense of time, for which the past becomes less and
less relevant. ("Bientôt l’ère toute nouvelle enfantera des hommes qui
ne tiendront plus au passé par aucune habitude de l’esprit. L’histoire
leur offrira des récits étranges, presque incompréhensibles, car rien
dans leur époque n’aura eu d’exemple dans le passé, ni rien du passé
ne survivra dans leur présent." (Pièces 221)).
It is this loss of the past, of its very apprehension by man, that
Valéry fears the most, since this actually means that art and literature
themselves are destined to disappear. What would be poetry, for
instance, without the recollection of the Greeks and of their great
lyrical tradition? Art and literature exist in the present, but they
simultaneously stem from a whole cultural heritage that constantly
exerts its influence on the poet and the artist. It is in this context that
the sense of history, of a continuum between past and present,
constitutes an essential value for the educated man and his creativity.
("Tout ce qui n’est pas purement physiologique dans l’homme aura
changé, puisque nos ambitions, notre politique, nos guerres, nos
moeurs, nos arts sont à présents soumis à un régime de substitutions
très rapides : ils dépendent de plus en plus étroitement des sciences
positives et donc de moins en moins de ce qui fut" (Pièces 222)).
Tradition and historical realities are being threatened by a
concept of progress that emphasizes the urgency of constant technical
and practical changes. It is this very mindset that was in many ways at
the source of the first world conflict. In 1914, European nationalism
relied heavily upon military technology and advances in the domain of
armaments in order to assert its own ideology throughout the
continent. ("Peut-être qu’un observateur assez lointain, considérant
notre état de civilisation, songerait-il que la grande guerre ne fut
qu’une conséquence très funeste, mais directe et inévitable, du
développement de nos moyens" (Pièces 224)). Valéry, in this
perspective, stresses the extension and intensity of a war that was the
consequence of the sheer excess of our power. The new and
disproportionate material resources that were available at the time
demanded such excess and such large-scale destruction. The troubled
and ambiguous image of progress therefore appeared in the
development of modern warfare and in the possibility of collective
annihilation. No historical event had until then utilized progress in
such a contradictory fashion, by pretending to serve the political ideals
The Fascinated Eye 155

of European populations while actually leading them to the path of
mutual obliteration.
However, in the same text Valéry goes beyond his relative
anxiety towards an unbridled expression of progress for purely
political reasons, and demonstrates instead his own enthusiasm for the
physical qualities of light. ("Parmi tant de progrès accomplis, il n’en
est pas de plus étonnant que celui qu’a fait la lumière. Elle n’était, il y
a peu d’années, qu’un événement pour les yeux. Elle pouvait être ou
ne pas être. Elle s’étendait dans l’espace où elle rencontrait une
matière qui la modifiait plus ou moins, mais qui lui demeurait
étrangère. La voici devenue la première énigme du monde" (Pièces
226)). It is clear that Valéry refers here to the landmark scientific
discoveries of Einstein as they are exemplified by his theory of
relativity. The speed of light, from this point and time in the modern
history of science, is capable of defining the very notion of energy and
therefore, the mechanical identity of matter. In this sense, light
becomes a symbol of ultimate power and strength. Moreover, it can no
longer be seen as a mere visual phenomenon: it must now be grasped
in its sheer speed and motion. Modern physics has therefore
determined an entirely new philosophy of light. Photography itself, as
a writing of light, will thus be influenced by such findings. It also
entails the enigma of a world in which everything is now interrelated
and interdependent.
In this context, photography cannot just be seen as the
language of still images. Even the most contemplative representation
of nature possesses a dynamic dimension and a form of inner motion.
It is a medium that is also destined to be constantly modified through
the evolution of techniques and modes of perception. The age of
mechanical reproduction, in other words, does not imply the
predominance of repetition over novelty. To the contrary, it enhances
the cultural presence of ever changing signs and visual stimuli. The
main problem for man is now the preservation of its own memory
within such a process. Can the rule of positive sciences leave room
indeed for a personal link between the subject and his own past? This
is where the role of photography becomes essential and undeniable.
To the extent that photography is able to save an image of the past and
make it available to the community, it constitutes a true bridge
between tradition and progress, between history and the present. It is
in this particular sense that its radical modernity is being revealed:
156 The Paradox of Photography

photography is not modern because it is the result of technical
accomplishments, no matter how sophisticated these accomplishments
might be; it is modern first and foremost because it allows for a
specific bind between the origins of mankind and its very future. What
was supposed to remain buried is now being exposed in front of
everyone’s eyes.
Valéry provides us here with his own original definition of
History: it is a narrative to which we give what will distinguish it from
a tale. We lend it our current energy as well as our resources of images
that are necessarily extracted from the present. The ultimate truth of
History lies in the fact that we can discover within the past something
that belongs to the future. Photography constitutes in this regard an
important means of representation, since it allows for the visual
interpretation of the past, beyond the mere account of events and facts.
History is now an open book filled with vivid illustrations.
("L’Histoire ne pouvant connaître que des choses sensibles, puisque le
témoignage verbal est sa base, tout ce qui constitue son affirmation
positive doit pouvoir se décomposer en choses vues, en moments de
‘prise directe’, correspondant chacun à l’acte d’un opérateur sensible,
d’un démon reporter photographe" (Discours 93)).
The Christian tradition of the West had already established the
need for a pictorial identity of religious and Biblical history: in this
regard, the passion of Christ had been embodied and transmitted from
generation to generation through its ongoing depiction in classical
painting. History was therefore about representing and seeing as much
as it was about hearing or reading. The masses had always been
sensitive to this visual expression of History. With modernity, though,
history could now be systematically and directly recorded or reported.
Such is indeed the unique power of photography. Tout le reste est
littérature. Photography reveals indeed the truly material dimension of
history, while the domain of narrative implies its intellectual
construction. One can imagine and reflect upon history through its
literary account, but as Valéry points out, the products of such mental
operations are "bodiless things" ("des choses sans corps"). By
contrast, pictures assert the presence of the human eye and of its
sensorial intensity within events.
It is clear that until then, and even in modernity, history had
mostly been presented and discussed through texts and philosophical
arguments, as we know from the reading of Hegel, in particular. The
The Fascinated Eye 157

historian, by academic tradition, was (and maybe still is) above all a
man of words and written data. Whether we consider a materialist
interpretation of history or not, the strictly visual dimension of history
remained largely ignored by thinkers and scholars in early-twentieth
century French culture. It is this definite abstraction of history and of
its critical discourse that Valéry questions here. With photography,
thus, the past is no longer just fossilized through cold monuments and
stones or through arid and dry textbooks filled with dates, names and
numerical information: it becomes instead an active process that is
open to ongoing technical innovations in the domain of visual
In other words, photography asserts the cultural sovereignty of
a physical and energetic notion of time. History is now fundamentally
tied to the rule of speed and instant expression. But this does not mean
that the sense of tradition and collective heritage is doomed to
disappear. Photography, in its own way and with its own means, has
to be seen as the possibility of an eternal trace of the past. Moreover,
this rise of pictures in modernity does not imply the end of literature
and of its specific meaning for the community, only that the texts must
now take into account not only the documentary quality, but also and
maybe more importantly the truth-value of visual representation, its
ethical integrity. The textual expression of history had somehow
stressed its fictional and almost imaginary nature: photography
enhances instead its human and therefore concrete experience.
One can easily see that Valéry does not yield here to a
nostalgic discourse on the loss of aura of art in modernity, as opposed
to Walter Benjamin, in particular, whose famous text on the work of
art in the age of mechanical reproduction also came out in the nineteen
thirties. There is no presence here of a "disenchantment", that is, of a
clear qualitative distinction between the sacred identity of the artwork
(what Benjamin called its "cult-value") that was supposedly part of its
historical definition and its profane or even mundane apprehension in
the modern world (what corresponds to its "exhibition-value", in
Benjamin’s terms). This is quite surprising, especially when it is
understood that the main critical texts on art written by the poet, and
collected in the book Pièces sur lArt, reflect a classical sensitivity
towards painting and the visual arts in general. This self-proclaimed
classicism, indeed, should logically resist the quick integration of new
techniques and modes of representation within the domain of art. But
158 The Paradox of Photography

paradoxically, such is not the case here. Valéry does not see any real
contradiction between the growing cultural power of photography and
the respect for the more canonical forms of visual expression. He
never speaks in this regard about the possible threat that photography
could pose for the future developments of painting. In this sense,
tradition and modernity seem to be perfectly compatible.
One can better understand his position by going back to Valéry’s
comments on the work of Corot, as they appear in his essay "Autour
de Corot", also included in his Pièces sur lArt. He begins his text by
apologizing for speaking about painting. But he immediately adds that
any true work asks for its own response. After all, the artist wants to
be talked about. Valéry even attempts to define art criticism as a
"literary genre" ("La "critique d’art" est le genre littéraire qui
condense ou amplifie, ou essaye d’harmoniser tous ces propos qui
viennent à l’esprit devant les phénomènes artistiques. Son domaine va
de la métaphysique aux invectives". (Pièces 156)). This is not as easy
as it seems, given the natural resistance of many painters towards
critics and writers (he gives in this regard the example of Degas, who
was profoundly hostile to any interpretation of his work by people
who were not artists themselves). For Valéry, though, there is no
doubt that painting contains a sort of unconscious or hidden literature
("Ils se tiennent en vérité devant leur mirage de toile, des discours
infinis, mêlés de lyrisme et de crudité, toute une littérature réfractée,
refoulée, parfois recuite qui, vers le soir, fait explosion en "mots"
remarquablement justes-dont les plus justes ne sont pas du tout les
moins injustes" (Pièces 157)). In this sense, the true painter is the one
who writes ("Ils écrivent alors"), which was concretely the case for
outstanding figures such as Leonardo or Delacroix. Corot himself used
to write down his thoughts and ideas, even the simplest or apparently
most banal ones, in his notebook. He was thus able to communicate
the meaning of his everyday work to outsiders, without necessarily
going into complex theoretical musings.
In his essay, Valéry stresses the constant relationship between
Corot’s art and Nature with a capital N. He also highlights the work
ethics of the artist. His main point here is to determine the aesthetic
identity of Corot’s classicism. It is above all based upon what he calls
his "spirit of simplicity". This simplicity is indeed "a goal, an ideal
limit that paradoxically presupposes the complexity of things and the
multiplicity of potential perspectives". It is not to be confused with
The Fascinated Eye 159

any kind of laziness or idleness. To the contrary, Corot is a painter
who knows the pain of hard labor. Nature, for him, constitutes a
model. By that, Valéry means that the artist is not just interested in the
exact copy of nature, as opposed to many academic painters. His art
does not value as much objective exactitude and pure resemblance as
the expression of his own sensitivity. In other words, Corot’s vision of
nature is a highly personal one. His art combines thus a sort of "optical
truth" with "the real presence of feelings". By painting Nature, Corot,
in this sense, also paints himself. Valéry praises here his gift for the
observation of the earth, of rocks, sand and plants. He shows in
particular that trees, through his eyes, become sheer human figures
and possess their own history ("Il est, chez Corot, quelqu’un" (Pièces
This allows him to define the specific and even unique beauty
of Corot’s work. This beauty is evidently of a poetic essence. Valéry,
though, prefers to focus his discourse on a set of musical metaphors.
There are certain forms and aspects of the visible world that sing,
indeed. Some rare individuals are capable of perceiving this song, and
Corot is obviously one of them. The painter does not just obey
Nature : he solicitates her like a virtuoso musician would do with his
own instrument in order to stir more exquisite vibrations from his soul
("Ainsi voit-on Corot tirer de l’Étendue transparente, de la Terre
ondulée et doucement successive ou nettement accidentée, de l’Arbre,
du Bosquet, des Fabriques et de toutes les heures de la Lumière, des
"charmes" de plus en plus comparables à ceux de la musique" (Pièces
This quest for simplicity in the representation of Nature was
actually very similar to the project of nineteenth-century (and even
early twentieth-century) photographers. Photography, after all, shared
many formal characteristics with classical painting. Its two main
subject matters, for decades, remained the human face on the one hand
and natural objects or landscapes on the other hand. The purpose of
such pictures was always to emphasize the essential harmony of the
natural world and to convey the feeling of an eternal beauty. They
were intentionally deprived of any violence: photography reflected
instead a paramount order of things beyond the chaos of social reality.
Like Corot, the photographer was primarily interested in the
expression of an optical truth that demanded a keen observation of
plants, trees, flowers and the earth in general. Emotions and sensations
160 The Paradox of Photography

were all stemming from this acute gaze that could fix his attention on
any particular objects for hours. The labor of the photographer was
also, in most cases, a humble one: he considered his own work to be
more that of a craftsman than of a true artist. Moreover, his modesty
came from the realization that fame would most likely elude him. In
other words, photography took its aesthetic inspiration from the
tradition of classical painting. If it definitely belonged to modernity
from a purely technical point of view, it was still rooted in the past
from a purely artistic one. In its own way, it revealed therefore a
profound contradiction and even conflict between the realm of
technique and that of art. This is the reason why Valéry could at the
same time embrace the work of Corot and photography. Both linked
for a large part the issue of representation to that of the imitation of
nature. Both also referred constantly to a classical interpretation of art
within modernity.
In his essay, Valéry insists in particular on Corot’s taste for
obscurity and dark colors. He explains in this regard that the two
fundamental tones of his art are the black and the white. In this sense,
Corot did not really need color in order to express his own inner soul
on the canvas:

Mais comment le blanc et le noir vont parfois plus avant dans l’âme que la
peinture, et comment, ne prenant au jour que ses différences de clarté, un
ouvrage réduit à la lumière et aux ombres nous touche, nous rend pensifs, plus
profondément que ne fait tout le registre de couleurs, je ne sais trop me
Circonstance remarquable: parmi les peintres qui ont le mieux aimé, le
mieux joué le jeu de se passer de la couleur, ce sont les plus "coloristes" qui
l’emportent,- Rembrandt, Claude, Goya, Corot.
Mais encore, tous ces peintres-là sont essentiellement poètes. (Pièces

Photography itself asserted its undisputable presence within
modern culture without resorting to color for a long period of time. It
constituted a black and white medium: pictures did not require the use
of multiple tones in order to catch the eye of the viewer. The most
important aspect of its aesthetics was indeed light: this light could be
represented through the radical visual contrast between darkness and
clarity. The ability to represent the visible world through this essential
contrast constituted for Valéry one of the main qualities of the artist.
But this particular talent was not the sole property of Corot (or Goya
The Fascinated Eye 161

and Rembrandt). It was also demonstrated time after time through the
work of numerous photographers. In both cases, the subtle variations
on black and white allowed for the poetic definition of art. After all,
poetry is also a two-color genre. The poet starts indeed to work from a
blank page (Mallarmé’s famous white space) and writes words on it
with black ink. In this sense, both Corot and the photographers
underlined their personal relationship with the most subjective form of
writing. Color, for both of them, was only a supplement, a sort of
luxury that existed beyond the absolute necessities of art. As Valéry
states it in his essay, the black and the white are closer to the spirit and
the acts of writing, whereas color painting is closer to the perception
of reality: painting, in this sense, is always tempted to deceive the eye.
At the core of these two texts is the poetic power of art forms
that are neither purely classical nor truly modern. In many ways,
poetry does resist this kind of aesthetic classification. In "Autour de
Corot", Valéry defines it as "a state of invention through emotion", a
notion which is timeless and escapes the historical determination of art
and literature. Poetry produces what he calls "a harmonic and
reciprocal link between our impressions, ideas, impulsions and means
of expression". This reminds us of Baudelaire’s Correspondances,
since it implies a specific and ongoing relationship between all our
senses and thoughts. The word: "correspondence" is used by Valéry
himself, when he talks about "the mysteriously exact correspondence
between the sensible causes that constitute the form, and the
intelligible effects that are the content."
Such a definition widens the scope of poetic discourse. It
extends it to languages that are not just literary but also visual, and in
particular, to the domain of painting and photography. In this regard,
Valéry insists upon the precocious nature of Corot’s poetic sensitivity.
Poetry, though, should not be confused with the world of dreams. It is
clear that he opposes here the new and radical concept of the poetic
language introduced by Breton in his Surrealist Manifestoes. The act
of drawing that is essential to the development of Corot’s artistic
project demands in this regard a state of absolute concentration: it
excludes therefore the possibility of a wandering mind. ("Est-il rien de
plus exclusif de l’état de rêve que l’acte de dessiner? Je ne puis devant
un tableau ne pas imaginer obscurément cet acte, qui exige la fixité et
la constance d’un certain point de vue, l’enchaînement de
mouvements, la coordination de la main, du regard, des images (l’une
162 The Paradox of Photography

donnée ou voulue, l’autre naissante), et la volonté." (Pièces 180)).
This state of concentration was also shared by the pioneers of
photography and their followers. The process of the pose, an often
tedious and lengthy one, forced the photographer to focus strictly on
his subject without caring for his environment. In other words, the
accomplishments of modern technique did not liberate the artist from
the laws of hard labor. Confronted with the complexity of the
machine, and the tricky details of the pictures’ development inside the
dark chamber, the photographer was often absorbed by the sheer
practical realities of his medium.
The poetic dimension of the visual arts leads to the expression
of a mystical sensitivity which brings together the soul, hand, and eye
of the artist. The man who sees, as Valéry says in his essay, suddenly
becomes the soul that sings. A definite will for possession leads the
artist to recreate the object he loves. This possession is also a type of
knowledge which, in the creation of a form, exhausts the furor to act
that the form itself engenders. This search for a lyrical interpretation
of Nature, beyond any objective description, also constituted an
important element of photography’s relationship to reality. With these
new pictures, man could ultimately assert his own subjectivity within
the objective world, within the apparent domain of mere reproduction.
The eye could easily be turned into a I, to the extent that the human
gaze was always capable of imagining what he was actually
Moreover, photography allowed for openness to the whole
world: it made other cultures finally visible, even those that seem
quite remote from the West where the medium was invented. The
inner landscape of both the artist and the viewer would thus widen to
the point that it could now integrate objects and figures that belonged
to a distant reality. This reality would definitely retain its imaginary
quality in this process: in this sense, pictures would invite both of
them to explore the surface of the world not only physically but also
mentally. This was made possible precisely because the places and
situations that photography captured were now mostly alien to their
concrete everyday experience. The subject matter of photography,
therefore, often constituted an outside or foreign domain that could
always be transformed and made more personal or even intimate by
the human mind.
The Fascinated Eye 163

When speaking about Corot, Valéry notices the hostility that
his work stirred in the middle of the nineteenth century. These
negative feelings are echoed particularly in Baudelaire’s writings on
art. For Valéry, this misreading of the painter’s work comes from the
excessive power of fads and cultural changes in the French society of
the time. A new (and more romantic) perception of art implies indeed
a clear distinction between the realm of emotions or impulses and that
of the artist’s technical and academic skills. Therefore, the sheer
expression of the subject must prevail upon the mere know-how of the
painter. Romanticism imposes now a new vision of art for which the
wish to wonder and to shock become an essential dimension of the
artist’s project. Nevertheless, Corot was able to overcome these
obstacles, and was recognized ultimately as a unique landscape artist.
For Valéry, this is due to the fact that the main subject of his paintings
was suddenly granted a value equal to that of the portrait or the
historical subject. The public and the critics would now appreciate the
aesthetic significance of the landscape as much as that of the human
face. This shift in the taste and general perception of the public would
also reverberate in photography: the new medium would largely
exploit the endless visual possibilities of natural sceneries in order to
create a more accurate and even scientific representation of the natural
In other words, photography turned landscapes into truly
modern forms (into truly modern objects of aesthetic discourse).
Valéry’s argument also included the idea that landscapes could be part
of a modern artwork (since Corot was more than a strictly academic
artist), beyond their classical appearance. This idea would be even
more relevant a few decades later, at the time when the Impressionists
strived to develop entirely new brushstrokes and pictorial techniques
while using nature as their main source of inspiration. For painters like
Monet or Van Gogh, indeed, the sea or countryside landscape did not
contradict the spirit of modernity: it constituted instead the heart of its
aesthetic identity.
The art of the landscape is an art of composition, as opposed to
a simply mimetic enterprise. The main issue, for the artist, is not to
express the so-called truth of nature, but rather to make its profound
beauty visible. The Baudelairian dialectics of truth and beauty is
somewhat repeated by Valéry in his own essay. But contrary to his
predecessor, Valéry does not attempt to idealize the past, nor does he
164 The Paradox of Photography

trivialize the present. In this regard, he will also praise, alongside Zola
and Mallarmé, the work of Manet and his eminently modern aesthetic
audacity in his essay "Triomphe de Manet", published in Pièces sur
lArt. Truth cannot be the primary purpose of the artwork: the painter
(or the photographer) must challenge constantly the notion that a
perfect imitation or reality constitutes the very end of art.
This ongoing quest for the poetic essence of visual
representation entails a definite critique of the descriptive nature of
both art and literature. In this regard, it is no coincidence if "Autour de
Corot" concludes with a reflection on the limited role played by
description in the art of writing. ("Une oeuvre purement descriptive
(comme on en a tant fait) nest en verite quune partie aæuvre. C’est
dire que si grand que soit le talent du descripteur, ce talent peut ne
mettre en jeu qu’une partie de l’esprit : un esprit incomplet peut suffire
a faire æuvre qui vaille, et æuvre excellente" (Pièces 195)). In other
words, description only defines an incomplete form of literature,
which is evidently also true for painting. This situation stems from the
fact that it can be reduced to a mere enumeration of various aspects of
visible things. In this perspective, discourse becomes a set of
substitutions. This is where the utmost importance of photography is
being implicitly reiterated: this new medium does question the very
meaning and usefulness of description for both art and literature to the
extent that it is able to focus on specific and tiny details that would
normally escape the gaze of the artist and the writer.
One must thus acknowledge the enormous visual power of
light, which largely exceeds the perception and sensorial capacities of
man ("Le cliché vient redresser notre erreur par défaut comme notre
erreur par excès: il nous montre ce que nous verrions si nous étions
également sensibles à tout ce que nous imprime la lumière, et rien
qu’à ce qu’elle nous imprime" (Discours 94)). In this sense human
description is insufficient, for the very reason that our senses can
never fully grasp the world that surrounds us. Its claim for authenticity
is therefore abusive. By contrast, photography allows us to correct our
own errors in the apprehension of reality. In other words, the true
objectivity is now that of light, and beyond, of the technique that relies
upon it. (Valéry talks in this regard about "the impartial light").
"Autour de Corot" ends with the assertion that art needs the
work of the mind in order to accomplish its aesthetic goals. For
Valéry, indeed, the true artist must also be a philosopher or even a
The Fascinated Eye 165

scientist. This explains of course his passion for the work of
Leonardo, on which he wrote an essay entitled Introduction à la
Méthode de Léonard de Vinci. His critique of modernity stems
therefore from the awareness that the creation of the artwork is now
more than ever submitted to the power of the artist’s sensitivity.
("Dans tous les arts, la souveraineté de l’esprit sur ses moments a dû le
céder aux qualités de l’artiste qui exigent le moins de puissance de
coordination, le moins de méditation, d’études préalables, de
préparation technique et, en somme-de caractère" (Pièces 196)). This
emphasis on the analytical dimension of art can be interpreted as a
peculiar form of classicism, to the extent that it obviously refers to the
artistic spirit of the Renaissance. But it can also be perfectly integrated
into the general movement of modernity, and even of the avant-garde,
if one considers for instance the work of Marcel Duchamp. The
"sovereignty of the mind" defines a new and broad perspective that
profoundly questions the cultural influence of romanticism. It is also
deeply rooted in the belief that art participates in the development of
modern knowledge, and as such, it emphasizes the ultimate reason of
It is this same reason that Valéry finds in photography. In this
context, reason is not the negation of poetry. It constitutes instead its
most profound expression. The last pages of his "Discours du
centenaire" stress thus the need for a philosophical understanding of
the medium. Photography forces us to think and it does so because it
forces us first to see. The physical phenomenon of light, which is at
the source of all pictures, has always been an object of study for
philosophers, theorists of knowledge and mystics. More precisely,
light has for centuries constituted a sheer metaphor of thought itself.
("Nous parlons au figuré de clarté, de réflexion, de spéculation, de
lucidité et aiaees. Et nous disposons de toute une rhétorique visuelle
de la pensée abstraite" (Discours 95)). Literally, the man who thinks
(the man with "clear" ideas and a "lucid vision" of things) is also the
man who sees: he does so because of the presence of a light that he
feels and incorporates in his own intellectual endeavor. Thought can
itself be defined as a mirror that reflects this light (a speculum). In this
passage, the poet also stresses the infinite multiplicity of the visible
world, which is precisely revealed through light. Ultimately, though,
the project of philosophy is to question the validity of appearances, to
go beyond light in order to find a hidden truth. The eye can easily be
166 The Paradox of Photography

deceived: this very process of deception is contained in photography,
to the extent that it belongs itself to the visual domain of images.
One could say that Barthes attempted to define a psychology of
photography, (although he pretended it to be first of all an ontology),
while Baudelaire tried to write a sociology (a cultural critique) of the
medium. Benjamin, on his side, insisted upon a possible history of
photography, even a minor one. By comparison, Valéry expresses his
belief in a philosophy of this means of expression. By philosophy, one
must understand a critical approach that is neither interested in the
subjective or purely emotional dimension of pictures nor in their
social significance (their significance for the community) at a
particular time. More precisely, what Valéry proposes in his text is a
sort of phenomenological interpretation of the medium.
This interpretation stems from the fact that photography is first
and foremost a physical reality. It is part of the universe, of the whole
of matter, and as such, it needs to be studied as a body that is
perceived by the human gaze. In this regard, it is important to notice
that he never alludes to a specific work or a particular artist. In this
sense, photography is not truly conceived as an art form, as a distinct
aesthetic language: otherwise it would constitute a sum of well-
defined and original objects. But its artistic identity is not being
denied either, as opposed to the content of Baudelaire’s discourse in
"Le Public moderne et la photographie". In other words, the main
concern here is not to wonder whether photography is or is not an art,
but rather whether photography can complete pre-existing art forms
and provide them with new keys for the representation and the
interpretation of the visible world.
This very physical nature of photography is linked to the whole
development of technique in modern society. This development
creates an entirely new apprehension of both time and space.
Photography is time, since it seizes the present and preserves it for the
future. But it is also space, since the process of reproduction on which
it is based enables pictures to be seen simultaneously in various
locations. In other words, photography stresses the issue of ubiquity,
an issue that Valéry considers to be essential for our understanding of
art in the twentieth-century.
In his essay, "La Conquête de l’ubiquité", also included in his
Pièces sur lArt, the poet reminds us that the classical tradition of fine
arts, in the Western world, was founded and established in an era that
The Fascinated Eye 167

was actually quite different from ours. At the time of this foundation,
man did not possess the power of action on things that modern man
has. The rise of modernity, with its emphasis on constant technical
changes, has profoundly transformed our perception of reality, and
more particularly, of the visible universe. Technique thus increases the
material nature of our relationship to things around us. ("Mais
l’étonnant accroissement de nos moyens, la souplesse et la précision
qu’ils atteignent, les idées et les habitudes qu’ils introduisent nous
assurent de changements prochains et très profonds dans l’antique
industrie du Beau. Il y a dans tous les arts une partie physique qui ne
peut plus être regardée ni traitée comme naguère, qui ne peut pas être
soustraite aux entreprises de la connaissance et de la puissance
modernes." (Pièces 103-104)). The domain of fine arts is also being
affected by this evolution. More precisely, this means that the very
concept of beauty is profoundly altered by the almighty rule of
technique. It is so because the space and time of the work of art are
being respectively expanded and accelerated in an irresistible (and
irreversible) manner. The notion of art itself becomes now radically
different from the past.
It is no accident, in this regard, if Valéry’s decisive remarks on
ubiquity in the modern world open Walter Benjamin’s celebrated
essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. For
the poet, technique is not just a means that defines or improves our
practical life: it transforms instead our whole vision of the world and
especially, of art and culture. In this perspective, photography plays a
crucial role, since pictures are now capable of appearing almost at any
time and in any place. In other words, photography embodies with a
particular intensity the law of ubiquity. In the France of the nineteen
thirties, pictures are already printed and reproduced on a large scale,
through mass communication, from magazines to advertising and
daily newspapers. They are literally everywhere and occupy a large
portion of the urban landscape. In this sense, photography is more
ubiquitous than cinema, since cinematographic images are mostly
confined to the screens of movie theaters. This means that the very
space of visual representation is now multiplied and somehow
fragmented in its public display or exhibition:

Sans doute ce ne seront d’abord que la reproduction et la transmission des
oeuvres qui se verront affectées. On saura transporter ou reconstituer en tout
lieu le système de sensations -ou plus exactement le système d’excitations-
168 The Paradox of Photography

que dispense en un lieu quelconque un objet ou un événement quelconque.
Les œuvres acquerront une sorte d’ubiquité. Leur présence immédiate ou leur
restitution à toute époque obéiront à notre appel. Elles ne seront plus
seulement dans elles-mêmes, mais toutes où quelqu’un sera, et quelque
appareil. (Pièces 104)

What is also at stake in this process is the presence of the work
of art in its instantaneous dimension. Photography imposes the
existence of ever closer and faster pictures. In many ways, the tone of
Valéry’s argument is quite prophetic. His observations do not just
concern the present: they speak for a future reality that will be even
more overwhelming. In fact, photography will not just be at the source
of film: it will also profoundly influence the advent of television after
World War II in its journalistic identity. Moreover, the rise of a
consumerist way of life in the nineteen fifties, both in Western Europe
and the United States, will largely depend upon the ongoing everyday
presence of photography in the realm of publicity. In his speech,
Valéry understands perfectly this cumulative power of the medium.
He knows that it cannot be reduced to a single use or a single goal.
Photography is destined to a sort of universal expansion that no one
will truly be able to stop or even slow down. If his speech was indeed
given more than six decades ago, right before the beginning of the
second world conflict, it nevertheless holds a strong and quite
meaningful resonance for our own global culture. In fact, the law of
ubiquitous images has never been as paramount as it is today. Of
course, new and more sophisticated technological media such as the
Internet have made our visual landscape totally dependent upon this
law. In other words, we never see a particular object (a particular
event) only here and now: we also see it there and before or later.
Images have reached a state of almost absolute reproduction, so much
so that it has become impossible to identify their origin or beginning.
Valéry himself did not experience the cultural proliferation of such
forms of visual representation, but he nevertheless anticipated, with a
particular acuteness, the utmost transformation of our sensations that it
would provoke.
The law of ubiquity implies that quantity now prevails over
quality. Images and signs are to be spread everywhere at the same
time: they are no longer characterized by their uniqueness or their
originality. They invade our personal space on a daily basis ("Comme
l’eau, comme le gaz, comme le courant électrique viennent de loin
The Fascinated Eye 169

dans nos demeures répondre à nos besoins moyennant un effort quasi
nul, ainsi serons nous alimentés d’images visuelles ou auditives,
naissant ou s’évanouissant au moindre geste, presque à un signe"
(Pièces 105)). These images and signs are all ephemeral and
instantaneous: therefore, our senses have to adjust all of a sudden to a
new set of rapid and unstable stimuli. In this regard, Valéry talks
ironically about "the society for the home delivery of sensitive
reality", a notion that no philosopher could have dreamt of. In other
words, our own space becomes a social space, the space that modern
culture at large occupies whether we like it or not. For Valéry, this
situation still contains a Utopian element: it is undoubtedly dominated
by positive consequences for the average citizen, especially at the
practical level. Pictures constitute in this context a mere source of
motion: they are located at the very beginning of a universal process
of circulation and dissemination. Contemporary thinkers such as Jean
Baudrillard and Paul Virilio will definitely radicalize the insights
provided by Valéry. They will indeed contemplate with a more critical
or skeptical eye a social order in which the law of ubiquity determines
a loss of meaning for all objects, including artworks. This loss of
meaning stems from man’s waning perception of reality in a global
culture where the power of the Symbolic is now almighty.
Therefore, ubiquity corresponds to a technological process of
simulation for which images are now defined by their increasing speed
and their power of seduction. Valéry still talks about "conquest" when
referring to this phenomenon. He stresses its progressive nature and its
benefits for the community (I am not sure, though, whether he would
have adopted the same viewpoint if he had still been alive today). In
his discourse, the best example of such ubiquity is provided by music
("La Musique, entre tous les arts, est le plus près d’être transposée
dans le monde moderne. Sa nature et la place qu’elle tient dans le
monde la désignent pour être modifiée la première dans ses formules
de distribution, de reproduction et même de production" (Pièces 105-
106)). He underlines here the future internationalization or universal
expansion of this art form, alongside science. These words can be
easily translated in contemporary terms, and replaced by the word:
globalization. For what constitutes globalization, if not the triumph of
a law of ubiquity that is not just cultural, but also and maybe above all
economic and social? (The universal domination of capitalism and
170 The Paradox of Photography

market forces, and of its dramatic implications in the configuration of
labor, which is now often precarious, outsourced or in short supply).
Such political or social considerations do not appear in
Valéry’s reflection. The author does not even speak as a poet here, but
more as a scientist or as a positive philosopher. This marks also the
intellectual limits of his prophecy, to the extent that it lacks a true
feeling of anxiety in front of the world to come. By contrast, this
anxiety will be at the forefront of both Benjamin’s and Heidegger’s
theoretical discourses on technique. This sort of overconfidence
towards the technical evolution of the modern world is particularly
troubling, if one considers the fact that these texts were all written in
the nineteen thirties, at a time when totalitarian ideologies were
gaining considerable strength throughout Europe, from Germany to
Italy, and from Spain to the Soviet Union. The speech on
photography, in particular, was given only a few months before Nazi
Germany declared war on France. Fascism and Communism both
exploited indeed the considerable technical advances of the time in
order to build both their war and their propaganda machine.
In other words, the rise of such ideologies demonstrated the
impossibility of separating the issue of technique from that of politics
in the modern world. (This will become even clearer, a few years later,
with the explosion of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
Technique was not the sole property of a supposedly "pure" and
disinterested science and thought: it was now being used by political
leaders and institutions whose aim was no less than the total
domination (if not the destruction) of mankind through violent means.
In this sense, Adolf Hitler became the first ubiquitous leader of the
West in modernity: the new media diffused and communicated his
image throughout the world in a very short period of time, as opposed
to previous conquerors like Napoleon or Alexander the Great who
could not benefit from the visual and also eminently political power of
photography and film.
There is nothing Saturnian in Valéry’s critical discourse on
photography and modern technique. One neither finds in him the
almost apocalyptic tone of Baudelaire nor the irrational sensitivity of
Breton. The melancholic nature of Barthes’ reflection is not present
here either. One could therefore state the rationalism of the poet’s
perspective, to the extent that it is largely influenced by scientific and
philosophical discourse. Photography, for him, expresses the
The Fascinated Eye 171

possibility of reason within the modern world. This can be understood
easily if one only considers the early history of photography, which
was dominated by portraits and classical representations of nature. But
the overwhelming chaos of twentieth-century history will soon
determine a profound transformation in the mind and the aesthetic
project of the photographer.
This chaos was not just that of wars and world conflicts, but
also that of art in its irresistible revolutionary movement towards the
avant-garde. Photography could no longer be satisfied with the status
quo of bourgeois representation, a status quo which of course favored
an illusory harmony of the world and its visual representation. It had
to exceed the seemingly rational identity of technique in order to
express man’s thirst for radical change both in the domain of art and
politics. This process implied a definite break with the purely
scientific and objective determination of photography. Pictures were
now used as weapons by the avant-garde artist: they essentially
reflected his will to create a new world in which imagination and the
poetic language largely prevailed upon the necessities of traditional
In other words, Valéry’s essay on photography is rooted in the
past while seemingly being geared towards the future. Paradoxically,
it celebrates the technical accomplishments of modernity although its
aesthetic viewpoint remains that of a nineteenth-century classicist.
The deliberate avoidance of any political or social issue associated
with photography, and with visual representation in general, also
reflects a specific philosophy of art that will be in many ways rejected
by the early twentieth century modernism of Dada and Surrealism (but
also by Futurism). In Valéry’s perspective, photography is deprived of
any Manifesto, of any ideological framework. It constitutes a sort of
absolute form whose presence in society is never contingent upon its
power structures, laws and values. Technique exists thus for him
beyond the realm of politics, in a vacuum that only belongs to the
scientist and the philosopher.
No surprise then that his speech at the Sorbonne ends with a
major reference to Plato’s cave. The poet here asks: what is Plato’s
cave, if not an already dark chamber, and the largest ever made? If the
Greek philosopher had reduced the opening of his den to a small hole,
and if he had also covered with a thin layer the wall that separated him
from the outside, he would definitely have obtained a large-scale film.
172 The Paradox of Photography

We all know that in this case Plato’s reflection focused on the divide
between the hidden truth of things and the visible world. Thus, to go
back so far in time means to emphasize the role of photography in the
chain of Western knowledge. From the beginning, man tried to isolate
himself in order to better see the reality that surrounds him. After all,
this is the main purpose of the dark chamber. In other words, darkness
and obscurity paradoxically enable man to point at the light of the
universe. The philosopher and the scientist, two figures that one can
bring together under the term: thinker, both work and write in the
secluded area of an office or a lab. Their own dark chamber or retreat
is a self-imposed one. From a certain distance, indeed, they can better
seize what is "on the other side". In this sense, photography becomes
an essential metaphor for thinking itself, for its particular conditions
and goals. But it also entails the apprehension of a specific conflict
between appearances and reality, between what seems to be and what
actually is. The gaze, therefore, is always the victim of some sort of
delusion. After all, this is what Plato told us. It can see certain things,
but not everything. If one really wants to pursue with the allegory of
Plato’s cave, one is therefore forced to recognize that the photographer
as philosopher is also a man who is prone to errors. A picture is only a
representation of reality, just as the shadow of a human figure is only
a physical projection of human life. Valéry’s imagery, here, allows
him to stress the importance of the photographic mind for the
development of Western thought and science. This mind was already
active way before modernity and the actual birth of photography. It
was born, thus, before the universal rule of technique and its political,
social and economic implications within industrial societies.
One could also read both "Le Discours du centenaire" and the
Pièces sur lArt as a series of fragmented texts on photography and
painting. In his celebration of photography, indeed, Valéry is less
interested in producing a finite body of work than in stating (or even
suggesting) a series of hypothetical propositions on photography. The
largely speculative spirit of his undertaking enables him to visualize
the medium as a sort of absolute concept detached from the
constraints of society. One knows that the form of the fragment has
played an important role in the development and the expression of
philosophical thought in the Western tradition. One can go back to
Montaigne’s Essais, in this regard, but one can also think of
Nietzsche’s numerous aphorisms, particularly in Beyond Good and
The Fascinated Eye 173

Evil. In other words, the fragment underlines the fundamental and
irreducible freedom of its author towards meaning itself: it allows him
to circulate through language according to his own will, and more
importantly, according to his own ideas. In his essay "Passages
Privés", included in the book Le Livre et ses Adresses: Mallarmé,
Ponge, Valéry, Blanchot (Paris: Méridiens Klincksieck, 1986),
Vincent Kaufmann stresses in this regard the fragmented nature of
Valéry’s discourse in his Cahiers:

Les Cahiers se présentent à l’évidence comme une pratique moderne du
fragment. Ils apparaissent comme un "tout improbable, contradictoire, ou
impossible à reconstituer". Ce caractère contradictoire a été souligné maintes fois
par Valéry lui-même, pour justifier la clarté du fragment au détriment de celle de
l’ensemble, son moi, désigné comme texte à déchiffrer. "Je sens toutes ces
choses que j’écris ici- ces observations, ces rapprochements comme une tentative
pour lire un texte et ce texte contient des foules de fragments clairs. L’ensemble
est noir." (CI 6). (160-161)

What is true for Les Cahiers is also true for "Le Discours du
centenaire" and the Pièces sur lArt: the fragment allows for the
expression of various contradictions, but at the same time, it exceeds
the opaque nature of totality in language in order to enlighten the
possibility of reading. After all, Valéry addresses in his speech at the
Sorbonne a group of writers and scholars whose actual knowledge of
photography is quite limited. One of the main purposes of his essay
(his bits and pieces on photography, so to speak) is therefore to shed
light, literally and figuratively, on the unique characteristics of this
new medium. Although his text obviously entails complex
philosophical statements, it is also destined to clarify the significance
of photography for the general public (for a public of non-specialists),
if not for the whole of mankind. In other words, the philosophical
form of the fragment does not imply here a break from the presence of
meaning. To the contrary, it opens to its more immediate reception by
a relatively large number of listeners and readers.
Moreover, the poet demonstrates in "Le Discours du centenaire"
his utmost fascination for this new visual language: photography
constitutes an irresistible presence that the eye of the poet cannot
escape. Its power of attraction is literally that of a magnet. Pointedly,
it is interesting to notice that the apparent rationalism of Valéry’s
discourse leads to the assertion of a bind that cannot be explained.
Fascination exists beyond any form of traditional causality. The
174 The Paradox of Photography

fascinated subject cannot truly define the reasons for his particular
mindset. He is not even interested in knowing exactly the identity of
the object to which his mind is tied. In his critical essay "La Solitude
essentielle", included in the book LEspace Litteraire (Paris:
Gallimard, 1955), Maurice Blanchot has analyzed in this regard the
power of fascination and its profound relationship to the close
presence of the image:

Pourquoi la fascination? Voir suppose la distance, la décision séparatrice, le
pouvoir de n’être pas en contact et d’éviter dans le contact la confusion. Voir
signifie que cette séparation est devenue soudain rencontre. Mais qu’arrive-t-
il quand ce qu’on voit, quoique à distance, semble vous toucher par un
contact saisissant, quand la manière de voir est une sorte de touche, quand
voir est un contact à distance ? Quand ce qui est vu s’impose au regard,
comme si le regard était saisi, touché, mis en contact avec l’apparence. Non
pas un contact actif, ce qu’il y a encore d’initiative et d’action dans un
toucher véritable, mais le regard est entraîné, absorbé dans un mouvement
immobile et un fond sans profondeur. Ce qui nous est donné par un contact à
distance est l’image, et la fascination est la passion de l’image. (Blanchot 28-

The gaze normally presupposes a distance between the subject
and the object, between man and the visible world. The fascinated eye,
though, is able to overcome this natural distance in order to be
touched by what he actually sees. In photography, this symbolic
contact becomes a real one, since pictures are items that one can easily
take in one’s hands or manipulate, as opposed to paintings and
canvases, which are usually heavier and more cumbersome. At a very
material and concrete level, they constitute tangible objects that are
defined by their intimate proximity. Their surface is a flexible one: it
asks for physical contact with the user and the viewer. The tactile
dimension of our everyday relationship to photographs therefore
defines a new concept of gaze: indeed, what we see is also what we
can touch (literally) and what can touch us (symbolically).
The philosophical confusion of seeing and touching beyond
distance implies "a passion for images". The term: "passion", in
Blanchot’s text, obviously refers to irrational and incontrollable
feelings. But it also entails the sense of a bind that defies reality. ("Ce
qui nous fascine nous enlève notre pouvoir de donner un sens,
abandonne sa nature "sensible", abandonne le monde, se retire en deçà
du monde et nous y attire, ne se révèle plus à nous et cependant
The Fascinated Eye 175

s’affirme dans une présence étrangère au présent du temps et à la
présence dans l’espace" (Blanchot 29)). The fascinated eye is
profoundly detached from actual time and space: he lives in many
ways in a "virtual" world. This loss of reality stems from a kind of
perception where the object of the gaze attracts the viewer with such
force that it ends up overwhelming him. In this process, the object
itself abandons the real world and asserts its imaginary presence
beyond meaning and reason ("Quiconque est fasciné, on peut dire de
lui qu’il n’aperçoit aucun objet réel, aucune figure réelle, car ce qu’il
voit n’appartient pas au monde de la réalité, mais au milieu
indéterminé de la fascination" (Blanchot 29)). After all, Plato’s cave
might very well be the perfect place for this process. The shadows that
man sees inside it are in fact the mere appearances of a reality that
only exists outside. In this cave, the gaze is fascinated by what he
sees, but this very fascination actually prevents him from
comprehending the truth that is located beyond the visible world. In
other words, the cave constitutes a space of utmost "de-realization", in
which man loses the sense of what really is and what really happens
around him.
This irresistible magnetic attraction, which seems always to be
drawing Valéry closer to photography, is the most striking aspect of
the conclusion of his speech. The poet does not seem to care for the
possible ties between the medium and everyday reality: he attempts
instead to define a cosmology of pictures, which integrates them into
the system of stars and planets. His own gaze becomes an
hallucination, dominated by visions that come from the contemplation
of the sky above him. (But isn’t the gaze in Plato’s cave the ultimate
proof of man’s drive for visions, of its own thirst for illusions
regardless of rational meaning?). Valéry evokes in this regard the
prodigious increase in the number of stars, radiations and cosmic
energies that have to be attributed to the power of photography.
Pictures enable us therefore to see the beyond, to expand our gaze to
the whole universe. ("Peu à peu, çà et là, quelques taches apparaissent,
pareilles à un balbutiement d’être qui se réveille. Ces fragments se
multiplient, se soudent, se complètent, et l’on ne peut s’empêcher de
songer devant cette formation, d’abord discontinue, qui procède par
bonds et éléments insignifiants, mais qui converge vers une
composition reconnaissable, à bien des précipitations qui s’observent
dans l’esprit" (Discours 96)). Once more, Valéry stresses the
176 The Paradox of Photography

extraordinary progress associated with this holistic perspective.
Photography changes our whole worldview, since it forces us to see
even the most remote elements of the universe.
It therefore demands a new definition: the latter is now the
product of the technical means that are available to man at a particular
time and which enable him to perceive various events far away from
his normal range. In other words, technique itself (in this case,
photography) shapes the very identity of the visible world instead of
merely reproducing it. Its role is thus proactive: it is now defined by
its creative and imaginative qualities. This creativity is of course more
that of the scientist or the philosopher than that of the artist. The gaze
of the photographer, here, is very well the gaze of the astronomer, of a
Galileo or a Copernic, the gaze of the Renaissance man suddenly
transplanted into modernity.
It seems then that Valéry’s discourse on photography and
technique can be defined as essentially Utopian. The issue of ubiquity,
in this regard, is closely related to that of Utopia. The former reflects
the ability of images to be everywhere at the same time, while the
latter provides us with the sense of their non-location, of their spatial
indetermination. But we are starting to understand in this day and age
that there is no profound contradiction between these two notions. The
endless and frantic circulation of pictures and visual signs in
contemporary culture, through the virtual media and digital
representation, only exists in a cyberspace that is at the same time
global (universally present) and infinitely distant or absent. In other
words, to be everywhere means more and more often to be nowhere.
Moreover, Valéry’s Utopia is more scientific or philosophical than
strictly technical (or technological): the poet is a worshipper of a mind
before being a worshipper of the machine. It stems directly from the
legacy of d’Alembert’s Encyclopedia. As such, it is intellectually
stimulating but not always satisfactory for the study of photography’s
role within both art and social or political reality.
In his perspective, photography opens to new fields of
knowledge that are not primarily concerned with artistic and aesthetic
issues. His unbridled optimism and idealism seems to be at odds with
the tormented spirit of his fellow French writers of the time. After all,
his speech at the Sorbonne takes place only a few months or even
weeks after the publication of Sartre’s major existential novel, La
Nausée. We are in 1939, which means that Hitler’s army is already at
The Fascinated Eye 177

the doorstep of France and of the rest of Europe. In this particular
historical context, a Utopian sensitivity does not appear to be the most
likely characteristics of the public intellectual, unless it is deeply
rooted in radical left-wing politics, as demonstrated for instance by the
ideology of the Popular Front, which was supported at the time by the
French Communist Party and by a large majority of the French liberal
Valéry’s attitude towards fascination is also quite ambiguous
(the same could actually be said of Blanchot’s reflection in "La
Solitude essentielle"). The fascinated subject inevitably distorts or
even forgets the reality of the object to which he is tied through the
gaze. In other words, his eyes are at the same time closed and wide
open. Fascination, therefore, expresses a state of mental confusion
between the visible world and the inner domain of thoughts and
desires. In this narrow sense, Valéry’s viewpoint is eminently modern,
since Western culture is today more and more dominated by visual
languages that precisely exert their power of utmost fascination over
the masses, from videos to the Internet. The fascinated eye is by
essence the eye of the modern subject who has become increasingly
dependent upon symbolic orders and modes of representation that
escape his own reason. If contemplation characterized the gaze of the
middle ages, in an era that was deeply influenced by religion and the
institution of the Church, fascination defines by contrast the visual
sensitivity and perception of a world ruled by science and technology.
In his own essay, Blanchot talks about the absolute light that is
associated with fascination ("Ce milieu de la fascination, où ce que
l’on voit saisit la vue et la rend interminable, où le regard se fige en
lumière, où la lumière est le luisant absolu d’un oeil qu’on ne voit pas,
qu’on ne cesse pourtant de voir, car c’est notre propre regard en
miroir, ce milieu est par excellence attirant, fascinant: lumière qui est
aussi l’abîme, une lumière où l’on s’abîme, effrayante et attrayante"
(Blanchot 30)). The gaze is turned here into light, a light that is also
the abyss, at the same time frightening and profoundly attractive. One
can think immediately of photography, "the writing of light", since
this striking physical phenomenon is actually at the source of all
pictures. Photography fascinates because it contains light, and is born
out of it from a technical viewpoint. Valéry’s cosmological
perspective indeed celebrates the uncanny beauty of the stars that
shine in the sky at night. One could not find a more valid metaphor:
178 The Paradox of Photography

photography seems like a bright comet that spreads a most powerful
light through the universe in the midst of darkness.
Utopia itself constitutes a space of fascination. Fascination does
foster it, since it implies by definition a loss of reality stemming from
a definite change in human perception. The subject who believes in
Utopia abandons the world as it is in order to reach a largely
imaginary space. He is bound by an attraction that challenges any
sense of reason or measure. His gaze becomes therefore subjugated by
a distant object that molds his own thoughts and ideas. For Valéry,
photography remains this distant object to the extent that it is never
truly identified with an independent art form. In the last sentences of
his speech, he emphasizes instead the considerable efforts made by the
pioneers in order to demonstrate that photography constitutes a
modern invention. These pioneers are confused here with amateur
scientists: the poet praises in this regard their admirable determination
and will in spite of the limited material and financial resources that
were at their disposal.
Ultimately, photography does not fully belong to the world of
art, but it does not constitute a true scientific discipline either. It is
also too much determined by the laws of modern technique to be a
mere craft. Moreover, its pioneers were too consumed by their work
and experiments to be interested in its commercial aspects, as Valéry
reminds us. In this sense, it is not really a part of trade and the
economic sphere either. In Valéry’s discourse, it becomes therefore a
u-topos, an object without its own place, by being a bit of everything.
Photography does not inhabit any specific space, which in concrete
cultural terms means that it is not being integrated (or not enough, at
least) into the institution of the museum.
In fact, at the time when the poet speaks, the medium remained
largely ignored by the major French museums and their permanent
collections. Even those that already focused their attention on modern
art and the avant-garde of the early twentieth-century did not consider
photography to be an important element of their artistic capital. It is
only after World War II and specifically through the development in
France of contemporary art museums and foundations in the last thirty
years or so that photography gained a status comparable to that of the
traditional fine arts, from painting to drawing and sculpture. Thus, in
1939 it is still looking for its own topos within the mainstream of
exhibition venues.
The Fascinated Eye 179

In many ways, photography resisted the usual logic of the
museum because of its supposedly ephemeral and fragile nature. It did
not entail the sense of duration and material solidity provided by
painting and sculpture. In other words, photography was not destined
to be kept nor stored in a well-defined public space, as opposed to
more established visual art forms. The main purpose of the museum
was precisely to preserve the integrity of the artwork through time: it
needed the belief in its conservation in order to assert its own cultural
influence. These apparent shortcomings might paradoxically have
enhanced Valéry’s appreciation of the medium. In a short text entitled
"Le Problème des musées," also included in his Pièces sur lArt, he
expresses in this regard his strong reservations towards the very
process of accumulation associated with a museum’s permanent
collection. According to him, this process is largely abstract and
artificial, since it brings together in a series of empty rooms works that
often have very little in common. Notions such as classification,
conservation and public use dominate this kind of project: it is clear
that Valéry does not consider them to be decisive for his own love of
In his article, he emphasizes the chaotic and also contradictory
nature of such gathering, beyond the deliberate attempt made by the
curators to present an organized display of art works ("Tout ceci est
inhumain. Tout ceci n’est point pur. C’est un paradoxe que ce
rapprochement de merveilles indépendantes mais adverses, et même
qui sont le plus ennemies l’une de l’autre, quand elles se ressemblent
le plus" (Pièces 118)). His harsh critique of museums can be
summarized in one sentence ("Une civilisation ni voluptueuse, ni
raisonnable peut seule avoir édifié cette maison de l’incohérence"
(Pièces 118)). The almighty principle of accumulation defies both
human rationality and sensuality. It stirs indeed a profound dispersion
of the gaze, which is being attracted by too many objects at the same
time and in too many directions ("Je ne sais quoi d’insensé résulte de
ce voisinage de visions mortes. Elles se jalousent et se disputent le
regard qui leur apporte l’existence. Elles appellent de toutes parts mon
indivisible attention : elles affolent le point vivant qui entraîne toute la
machine du corps vers ce qui l’attire…" (Pièces 118)).
By comparison, human ears will not abide the sound of ten
different orchestras at the same time. As Valéry says, the mind needs a
focal point, and so do the senses, which include the sight. Instead,
180 The Paradox of Photography

museums impose a kaleidoscopic form of vision that neither respects
man’s need for concentration nor the original identity of any major art
work. In this sense, they embody the ubiquity of modern Western
culture, beyond their historic determination or mission and their ties to
artistic tradition. In a museum, the gaze of the viewer is forced to be
everywhere and to move quickly from one place to another: it is
therefore essentially ubiquitous. This peculiar situation of excess
constitutes a true assault on the gaze and on its very integrity, since it
profoundly negates the uniqueness of its object, which is the work of
art. In this regard, Valéry insists upon the fact that the outstanding
beauty and aesthetic quality of a particular art work is related to the
ongoing possibility of its distinction. The most remarkable object of
the gaze is thus a rare object, an object that cannot be confused easily
with any other ("Plus elles sont belles, plus elles sont des effets
exceptionnels de l’ambition humaine, plus doivent-elles être
distinctes. Elles sont des objets rares dont les auteurs auraient bien
voulu qu’elles fussent uniques. Ce tableau, dit-on quelquefois, tue
tous les autres autour de lui…" (Pièces 119). For the poet, this excess
is ironically a source of impoverishment. It is the mirror of an artistic
heritage that is quite overwhelming. In the museum, the visitor
inevitably gets lost in the midst of a vast quantity of art objects. He
feels his own isolation within a space that is in many ways too big for
him. It is in this sense that the museum constitutes an almost
inhumane creation, to the extent that it does not take into account the
irreducible specificity of both the artwork and the human gaze.
In these pages, Valéry’s discourse stresses with a particular
(and rather unusual) vehemence the negative impact of a perspective
that essentially ties art to a mere law of series. He is not very far here
from Walter Benjamin’s main philosophical statements on the work of
art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Wherever one talks about
an ongoing accumulation or a technical predetermination of art works,
one does highlight the universal domination of a cultural order for
which rarity has become a dirty word. Strangely enough, Valéry’s
emphatic critique of museums and large art collections in general
echoed or anticipated that of numerous avant-garde artists, from
Marcel Duchamp to the members of Fluxus in the nineteen sixties and
seventies. (In this regard, I want to refer here to the exhibit organized
by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Museum as Muse, in
the spring of 1999. It featured the work of numerous avant-garde
The Fascinated Eye 181

artists, from Duchamp to Robert Filliou and Marcel Broodthaers, who
used the museum as the subject of the artwork and often expressed
their critical attitude towards its institutional identity).
Valéry, in spite of being the ultimate classicist of modernity (a
label which in his case is not necessarily an oxymoron), expressed a
strong opposition to the mere superimposition of works for mostly
economic reasons. Artists themselves were the big losers in this
process, since their works were put together with those of "fellow
artists" with whom they often did not share any aesthetic purpose. In
this sense, the institutionalization of art and of its so-called collective
memory stirred a process of radical dispossession that was two-fold.
On the one hand, the viewer was deprived of his own gaze, while on
the other, the artist was bereft of his own aesthetic identity. This
fundamental tension between modernity and classicism, between the
longing for the past and the celebration of both present and the future,
constitutes the most interesting and original dimension of the poet’s
reflection on art and photography. It never ceases to question our most
entrenched beliefs. In the end, it might not be entirely successful,
especially from the point of view of the philosophy of art, but at least
it has the merit where it underlines the possible continuity and
resilience of the artistic mind beyond numerous technical and formal
changes. In other words, it takes away our revolutionary illusions, but
still indicates the possible links between what technique is and what it
could be. In this perspective, photography constitutes the privileged
symbol of a world to come, a symbol which is at once blurry and
particularly vivid. It exists by itself between imagination and reality,
between ideas and facts, in that wide-open space where man can
ultimately find his own inner light.


The very existence of photography embodies the eternal
conflict between reproduction and representation. It is clear that,
during the first stages of the medium, the former largely eclipsed the
latter. Taking a closer look at Baudelaire’s critique, photography was
destined to perform its mimetic function and therefore collide with the
identity of art in the Western tradition. Even if figurative painting
prevailed for many centuries, it could always leave room for a
recreation of reality, whether in its mystical, allegorical or
expressionistic forms. The nineteenth century, in many ways, was a
century filled with contradictions. On the one hand, it allowed for the
rapid development of scientific research and new techniques, but it
also stirred almost simultaneously the expression of an unlimited
romantic sensitivity. Photography was therefore caught, from the
onset, between the rules and norms of modern capitalist society and
the dreams and aspirations of the modern artist.
The legacy of painting remained paramount for a very long
time: it overshadowed in many ways the specific accomplishments of
photography. In this regard, Baudelaire did not really consider the
medium as such: he could only read it through the prism of this
legacy. In other words, photography could never escape the burden of
history. It could not impose the power of its own time: its apparent
novelty and youth would always be marked by the traces of the past.
One could indeed marvel at its exactitude and sense of details:
nevertheless, one was also forced to acknowledge the supremacy of
painting in its capacity for visionary perspective. This historical
burden would for a long time haunt the critical discourse on
184 The Paradox of Photography

photography. The case of Baudelaire is evident, in this regard. The
poet attempted to integrate photography into a general critique of art.
This critique implied the existence of a golden age, namely the
Renaissance. From there, Baudelaire stressed the progressive decline
of art in the West, of which the birth of photography was one of the
most obvious manifestations.
The paradox of photography is largely that of modernity as a
whole. When we commonly refer to this term, we most often imply
notions such as progress and freedom. But modernity was and still is
at the same time an age of darkness: the irresistible advancement of
technology and science has not been able to prevent widespread
phenomena such as poverty, war and diseases. Modernity in its
essence, therefore, defines a paradoxical era. Romanticism implied
both in literature and in painting the expression of a contradictory
world full of conflicts and tensions, primarily the tension between the
individual and society. It rapidly became the symbol of mid-
nineteenth-century art: in this context, photography was born and
grew before even asserting its own identity. Baudelaire was still
himself in many ways the product of this romantic ethos: as illustrated
by his main work of poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal, the human existence
was doomed to the experience of chaos and nothingness, an
experience that could only be tempered by the embrace of the poetic
language. Romanticism demanded a radical expression of being: it
could not tolerate the social and esthetic compromises imposed by the
bourgeois order.
In other words, romanticism and post-romanticism could not
accept a mere reproduction of reality through art, since this very
reality was considered alienating and even oppressive. This should not
come as a surprise, therefore, if Baudelaire stated in his essay his
profound hostility towards photography. He staged an imaginary trial
against the new medium, a trial in which he played the main judge.
One remains baffled today by the essential theatricality of his
argument and style: through photography, thus, the poet attacked the
whole society of his time, and photography became the scapegoat for
all the ills and vices of the modern world. It embodied the cultural
power of the masses and their thirst for popular entertainment.
Baudelaire’s aristocratic views were a mere reflection of the poet’s
deep suspicion towards an egalitarian philosophy of art. The artist had
Conclusion 185

to be chosen by the Gods: he could not be identified with the
movement of the mob.
Moreover, the utmost melancholy expressed by Baudelaire in
his poetry, better known as spleen, could not find any echo in the
apparent objectivity and crude realism of photography. The poet
denied the very existence of a true pathos in this medium. Nothing
would be further from the truth: the work of celebrated photographers
such as Robert Capa or Walker Evans, to name two, would instead
emphasize later the ability of photography to reveal the tragic fate of
mankind stemming from events such as the Great Depression or
World War II. In the course of the twentieth century, indeed, and
particularly through the works of the Magnum group, photography
would become an open window on the world’s eternal chaos and
suffering. By contrast, a thinker like Walter Benjamin immediately
perceived the emotional power of pictures, when he referred in his
Petite Histoire de la Photographie to the spirit of the pioneers and
early creators of the medium. The pictures produced by these modest
craftsmen and practitioners who did not pretend to be artists actually
conveyed the sense of an aura, of a magic touch, and also of a
profound and sincere form of subjectivity. But the subsequent
technical developments of photography somehow undermined, for
Benjamin, this original quality.
Through the writings of André Breton, photography was
inevitably linked to the history of the avant-garde. This history had
been first and foremost that of literature and poetry, for the author of
the Surrealist Manifestos. Nevertheless, Breton stressed the important
role played by photography in the construction of a Surrealist
aesthetics. Like Baudelaire, he was still influenced by a long Western
tradition of art that established the supremacy of painting over all
other art forms. Nevertheless, he acknowledged the sheer modernity
of the medium and its ability to express and represent the dreams and
hidden desires of mankind. It is this very dream-like quality of
photography that Baudelaire had stubbornly denied. With Surrealism,
photography broke, maybe for the first time, with the dominance of
reality. Pictures had to exist in many ways beyond reality, inside a
secret realm shaped by the unconscious. But reality still remained the
starting point from which one could assert his or her own freedom. In
this regard, a novel like Nadja celebrated the supernatural dimension
186 The Paradox of Photography

of everyday life. In other words, reality was not to be erased in
photography but rather transfigured.
Faces and places occupied a central position in Breton’s
definition of the photographic unconscious. The sense of emptiness
and absence stemmed in Nadja from a particular representation of the
city of Paris that Atget had developed so well in his own work.
Pictures suggested here the constant possibility of the void, regardless
of the relentless urban agitation that surrounded the novel’s characters.
One could talk more precisely in this case of a fold of reality ("un pli
de réalité"), and therefore of a hole or break in the surface of objective
facts and actions. Surrealism did not constitute a radical rejection of
the real world and of mundane affairs: to the contrary, it asserted their
imaginary identity. Breton used photography to unveil the maze-like
structure of everyday life: one could only wander inside it without
ever being truly able to escape from it and live outside of it. This did
not mean that reality constituted a prison: the power to create images
that defined human existence would always enable man to exceed the
limits of reality and overcome its constraints. In this process, objects
played a decisive role: they expressed the absolute sovereignty of
human imagination (its ability to see behind the visible world and to
point at the invisible one), an imagination that was nowhere more
striking than in the character of Nadja herself.
For Breton, photography constituted a unique narrative tool or
device. It allowed him to describe what could not be described by
mere words. In this sense, it was still dependent upon the particular
power of literature. Pictures also served as illustrations of his own
philosophical discourse, as demonstrated by LAmour Fou. They did
not fully belong to the domain of art, but rather to that of writing and
thought. As objects, they embodied the aimless visions of Nadja and
therefore opened up to the dark world of madness. Photography thus
enabled Breton to write a more detailed clinical account of his
personal experience. It could help him define life as a sum of
unforeseen events and encounters shaped by chance and randomness.
Therefore, photography possessed a distinct existential dimension,
beyond its illustrative or descriptive function. It determined the fate of
the subject and of the narrative voice that echoed it.
With Roland Barthes, photography became maybe for the first
time a separate entity, an original body to be clearly separated from
both literature and painting. In this sense, Barthes tried to move
Conclusion 187

beyond any kind of historical framework. Photography did not belong
to any pre-established tradition: it could now exist and evolve by
itself. The author of La Chambre Claire searched for the authenticity
and the true originality of the medium. In order to do so, he had to
distance himself from his own past as a literary critic. The "I"
constituted for him an absolutely essential mode of knowledge,
regardless of any theoretical and so-called objective system of
interpretation. It is this "I" that enabled him to read photography, from
a radical and unique perspective. Some argue over the fact that his
discourse was largely guided by personal feelings: the image of the
dead mother dominated his relationship to pictures and the lasting
influence they had on him.
Nevertheless, this highly emotional quality of photography is
also part of its ontology. Whether one thinks of the mid-nineteenth-
century daguerreotypes or of contemporary digital pictures, one
witnesses the same deeply subjective attachment that people have to
them. Daguerreotypes enabled the members of a family to remain
closer together and also to preserve the memory of the dead for their
parents, brothers and sisters. More than one hundred fifty years later
nothing has changed in this regard, in spite of all technological
changes and so-called socio-economic progress. Men and women
throughout the world still use photography as a privileged means of
retaining an image of their loved ones: this reality is at the same time
universal (global, one would say today) and eternal. Whether these
loved ones are alive or departed, photography remains a unique way
of confronting and ultimately overcoming both absence and even
death. Such need becomes even more urgent in a world as unstable
and unpredictable as today’s: global social, cultural and economic
realities often force family members and couples to be set apart by
circumstances on which they have no control. Physical distance is a
common feature among human beings that are supposed to be united.
Even sophisticated and powerful systems of communication such as
the Internet cannot conceal or even less erase our shared sense of
remoteness or aloofness. Photography, in this regard, prevails as a
unique mode of representation and personal expression, because of its
extraordinary capacity for memory and crystallization (or suspension)
of time, in a world constantly threatened by collective amnesia and
acceleration or precipitation of time. In many ways, photography
defies speed and challenges our own perception of time imposed by
188 The Paradox of Photography

both the media and the global economic order. It invites us to pause,
to stop for a moment and take a closer look at a face that we cherish:
therefore, it allows for the creation and the lasting presence of a
community that is both imaginary and real, both physical and spiritual.
Whatever new technologies provide, they will always have to deal
with this unique aspect of photography, and they will never be able to
repress it.
In this sense, Barthes’ apparently impressionistic discourse on
photography remains largely relevant for the contemporary reader.
The issue of the "I" within images, of its very survival in a world
where the media too often impose a contrived and fabricated vision of
reality, is essential and will still be for years to come. How can one
preserve one’s own private images and personal secrets in a world
ruled by transparency and immediacy? Barthes already raised those
questions some thirty years ago, only a few months before his passing.
The subject of the image is therefore ethical, and not self-absorbed.
One cannot conceive photography without the possibility to express
this ethical dimension, what Barthes himself called lair in portraits.
Valéry’s perspective on photography seems to relinquish the
supremacy of subjectivity. Although himself a celebrated poet, the
author attempts to define a true Utopia of the image stemming from
the overwhelming power of both science and technique in modernity.
This power enables us to see our world as a whole, in its relationship
to other planets and comets. This original cosmology of the image
implies the definition of a new gaze, which is characterized by a sheer
fascination for the various phenomena of the visible universe. One can
speak in this regard about the totality of photography, which
encompasses not only the domain of the fine arts but also that of
philosophy and speculative thought.
According to this particular perspective, the Utopian nature of
photography finds its roots in the Renaissance, an era which obviously
established the necessary fusion between all fields of knowledge and
all artistic practices. The paradoxical dimension of Valéry’s discourse
relied upon the fact that its historical context was that of the late
nineteen thirties. Mankind was already plunging into the darkness and
abyss of warfare and collective annihilation: the unbridled optimism
of the poet’s vision stood in sharp contrast to the political reality of
fascism spreading throughout the European continent. Valéry’s essay
must be considered in its hypothetical identity, rather than as a clear
Conclusion 189

and lucid assessment of photography’s place within society. The death
of culture expressed by Nazi ideology, in particular, profoundly
contradicted the possibility of a universal visual language that would
have connected and bound together all human beings, regardless of
origin and nationality.
The history of photography is never-ending, and constitutes
the history of its own critique. It remains perpetually open to technical
innovation, but also to the evolution of subjectivity throughout time.
Nothing unites the ultimate negativity of Baudelaire and the
fundamental positivity of Valéry, although both intensely believed in
the beauty of aesthetic forms and the transcendental nature of lyrical
language. Nevertheless, they each reflected in their own way the
growing dominance of photography in modern culture. One can assert
indeed the almost ubiquitous dimension of the medium in our world.
This ubiquity, the capacity for the image to appear everywhere at any
given time, had already been foreseen by Valéry several decades ago.
The main issue, then, becomes the following: how can mankind
distinguish today between all these images, and point at the ones that
are authentic works of art and not just objects of rapid and cheap
consumption? This is the new and daunting challenge that we all now
face. Baudelaire’s discourse already expressed the fear of an
overwhelming cultural confusion, although he could not anticipate the
specific technological realities of the digital and virtual era.
Fortunately, many artists and writers continue today to
explore thoroughly the creative possibilities of the medium. In France
alone, there are recent narratives written by Michel Tournier and
Hervé Guibert, as well as visual works created by Sophie Calle,
Sophie Ristelhueber and Christian Boltanski in the domain of
contemporary art. Add to that the final writings of a major social
thinker such as Jean Baudrillard, who in the last years of his life paid
particular attention to the philosophical significance of photography in
post-modern culture. The texts studied in this book only offer some
partial answers to the issue of photography and its artistic identity, an
identity that we no longer question. They constitute the undisputable
traces of a history of critical discourse on the medium, a history that is
always influenced by the poet’s particular subjectivity. If the majority
of the authors analyzed here are indeed poets, it might be precisely
because the very nature of photography calls for the poet’s attention
and acute aesthetic sensitivity. One will never be able to reduce the
190 The Paradox of Photography

existence of photography to the mere issue of technique. Nor will one
be able to apprehend the complexity of its forms through the prism of
sociological objectivity. The voice of the poet is needed, here, to the
extent that the poet always asks for a model of representation that
exceeds the finite realm of reproduction. The question: "is
photography art?" becomes "is photography a poetic language?", a
question that the Surrealists and the avant-garde artists of the first part
of the twentieth century answered with a resounding "Yes", if one
only thinks of the works of Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy. The ultimate
paradox of photography in the contemporary world will therefore be
that of a genuine artistic form simultaneously confused with the
domain of commodities and the capitalist order of instant
Photography must now abide by the rules of global
advertising and submit to the sheer power of universal market forces.
Nevertheless, many artists and writers never cease to assert its unique
imaginary meaning and its original relationship to the world of dreams
and desires that society too often represses. This paradox constitutes
thus also a struggle: this struggle is constant, since the integrity of the
image is always threatened and jeopardized by a symbolic order
requiring its instant utility. But this struggle already appeared in
Breton’s writings: it is therefore the sign of an ongoing cultural
conflict that can never be fully resolved, but can at least be
approached and grasped by both art and critical discourse.


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Ronald L. Martinez. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
1993, 41-46.

Aragon, Louis. Les Collages. Paris: Hermann, 1965.

Barthes, Roland. La Chambre Claire. Note sur la Photographie.
Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 1980.
Le Degre Zero ae lEcriture, suivi de Nouveaux Essais
critiques. Paris : Seuil, 1972.
Le Plaisir du Texte, Paris : Seuil, 1973.
Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes. Paris: Seuil, 1975.
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–––––– LEmpire aes Signes. Paris : Flammarion, 1970.
–––––– "Sagesse de l’Art/The Wisdom of Art", Catalogue of the
Exhibit of Cy Twombly’s paintings and drawings (1954-1977), New
York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1979, 8-23.

Baudelaire, Charles. Critique aArt suivi ae Critique Musicale, Paris :
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–––––– Les Fleurs du Mal, Edited by Jacques Dupont, Paris : Garnier
Flammarion, 1991.

Baudrillard, Jean. "Objects in this mirror", in Le Crime Parfait. Paris:
Galilée, 1995, 125-129.

192 The Paradox of Photography

Bazin, André. "Ontologie de l’image photographique", in Quest-ce
que le cinéma ? Paris : Cerf, 1975, 9-17.

Beaujour, Michel. Miroirs aEncre. Paris : Le Seuil, 1980.
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Béhar, Henri. Andre Breton, Linaesirable. Paris: Calmann-Lévy,

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of art in the age of mechanical
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Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, New York: Harcourt, Brace and
World, 1968, 219-245.
–––––– Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High
Capitalism. London: NLB, 1973.
–––––– "Petite Histoire de la photographie", in Études Photo-
graphiques, 1, Paris: Société Française de Photographie, 1996,
translated by André Gunthert, 7-36.

Bensmaïa, Reda. The Barthes Effect: The Essay as Reflective Text.
Translated by Pat Fedkiew. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1987

Bersani, Leo. Baudelaire and Freud. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1977.
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Nietzsche", in The Culture of Redemption. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1990, 47-101.

Blanchot, Maurice. LEspace litteraire. Paris : Gallimard, 1955.
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Blood, Susan. "Baudelaire against photography: An Allegory of old
age", MLN, 101, 4, September 1986, 817-37.

Brassaï, Georges. Marcel Proust sous lEmprise ae la Photographie.
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Agamben, Giorgio: 8, 24, 25.
Alighieri, Dante : 144
Althusser, Louis : 101.
Apollinaire, Guillaume : 24, 122.
Aragon, Louis: 89.
Archimedes : 117.
Arp, Jean : 109.
Atget, Eugène: 88, 142, 182.
Avedon, Richard : 135.

Balzac, Honoré de : 68, 103, 112, 150.
Barthes, Roland: 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 95-116, 120-139, 142, 163, 168,
182, 184.
Bataille, Georges: 126.
Baudelaire, Charles: 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 15-57, 61, 71, 79, 88, 96,
104, 117, 120, 142, 144, 158, 160, 163, 168, 179-181, 185.
Baudrillard, Jean: 124, 166, 185.
Beaujour, Michel: 8, 59, 70.
Beckett, Samuel: 55, 98.
Benjamin, Walter: 8, 10, 19, 25, 89, 98, 100-104, 112-114, 116-117,
127-128, 137, 155, 163-164, 167, 177, 181.
Bensmaïa, Reda: 8, 125, 126.
Bergson, Henri: 36.
Bersani, Leo: 8, 40, 41.
Blanchot, Maurice: 9, 57, 98, 172, 174.
Boiffard, Jacques-André: 65, 73.
Boltanski, Christian: 185.
Boucher, François: 53.
Bouin, André: 65.
Bourdieu, Pierre: 97.
Braque, Georges: 84, 115.
Brassaï, Georges: 88, 142.
200 The Paradox of Photography
Breton, André: 5, 6, 8, 12-13, 43, 57, 58, 60-63, 68-93, 159, 168,
Broodthaers, Marcel: 178.
Buren, Daniel: 122.

Capa, Robert: 89, 181.
Calle, Sophie: 185.
Cartier-Bresson, Henri: 90.
Cervantes, Miguel de: 144.
Cézanne, Paul: 84.
Chaplin, Charlie: 56.
Chardin, Jean-Baptiste Siméon: 53.
Chirico, Giorgio Di: 77, 88.
Cooper, David: 72.
Comte, Auguste: 43.
Copernic, Nicolas: 173.
Cornell, Joseph: 78.
Corot, Jean-Baptiste Camille: 156-160.

Daguerre, Louis: 44.
Dali, Salvador: 68.
Da Vinci, Leonardo: 24, 67, 151, 156, 162.
Debord, Guy: 64.
Deguy, Michel: 8.
Delacroix, Eugène: 31-33, 37-39, 53, 156.
Delaunay, Robert: 85.
Deleuze, Gilles: 72, 96.
Democritus: 117.
Derrida, Jacques: 8.
Descartes, René: 36.
Desnos, Robert: 65-66.
Dickens, Charles: 144
Didi-Huberman, Georges: 8, 129-131.
Dostoyevsky, Fedor: 144.
Dubuffet, Jean: 83.
Duchamp, Marcel: 25, 76, 78, 80-81, 91, 109, 111, 118, 121, 138,
150, 162, 177-178.
Index 201
Edison, Thomas: 74.
Einstein, Albert: 152.
Eluard, Paul: 66, 81.
Ernst, Max: 78-79.
Evans, Walker: 181.

Filliou, Robert: 80, 178.
Flaubert, Gustave: 16.
Foucault, Michel: 72.
Fourier, Charles: 43.
Freud, Sigmund: 69.

Galilei, Galileo: 173.
Giacometti, Alberto: 82.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von: 144.
Gorky, Arshile: 77.
Goya, Francisco: 158.
Guattari, Félix: 72.
Guibert, Hervé: 185.
Guys, Constantin: 39-40, 48-49.

Heartfield, John: 89.
Hegel, Georg Wihelm Friedrich: 80, 155.
Heidegger, Martin: 168.
Hill, David Octavius: 127.
Holbein, Hans: 50.
Hugo, Victor: 38-39.
Huysmans, Joris-Karl: 58.

Jarry, Alfred: 150.

Kafka, Franz: 104, 127-128.
Kandinsky, Vassili: 77, 82, 149.
Kaufmann, Vincent: 170.
202 The Paradox of Photography
Klein, William: 121.
Krauss, Rosalind: 8, 75, 77, 89.

Lautréamont, Comte de: 58, 84.
Lefebvre, Henri: 63.
Léger, Fernand: 24, 85, 150.
Lumière, Louis and Auguste: 55-74.
Lyotard, Jean-François: 8, 118-123, 125.

Maar, Dora : 115.
Magritte, René : 68, 77.
Malebranche, Nicolas : 36.
Mallarmé, Stéphane : 8, 98, 144-145, 161.
Manet, Edouard : 161.
Man Ray : 65, 78-79, 81-82, 91, 123, 186.
Manuel, Henri : 65.
Marey, Étienne-Jules : 143.
Masson, André : 68, 75, 80.
Matisse, Henri : 135.
Maupassant, Guy de : 144, 150.
Michaud, Éric : 44.
Michelet, Jules : 103.
Miró, Joan : 82.
Moholy-Nagy, Laszlo : 123, 186.
Mondrian, Piet : 82, 119, 149.
Monet, Claude : 37, 161.
Montaigne, Michel de : 36, 170.
Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat : 36.
Morandi, Giorgio : 84.
Muybridge, Eadweard : 143.

Nadar, Félix : 48, 135, 142.
Nancy, Jean-Luc : 134.
Newman, Barnett : 110, 119, 122.
Newton, Isaac : 117.
Nietzsche, Friedrich : 71, 101, 170.
Index 203
Paz, Octavio : 21.
Philotée : 129-131.
Picard, Raymond : 97.
Picasso, Pablo : 77, 115.
Plato : 167, 172.
Poe. Edgar Allan : 37, 40.
Proust, Marcel : 57, 112, 142.

Racine, Jean : 103.
Rembrandt, Harmenszoon van Rijn : 158.
Reverdy, Pierre : 73.
Riestelhueber, Sophie: 185.
Roche, Denis : 124.
Rothko, Mark : 110.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques : 21, 46, 62.

Sade, Marquis de : 71.
Sander, August : 112.
Sartre, Jean-Paul : 36, 101, 174.
Schoenberg, Arnold : 149.
Schwitters, Kurt : 163.
Seurat, Georges : 37.
Sévigné, Mme de : 21.
Simon, Claude : 124, 142.

Tanguy, Yves : 68, 80.
Tarde, Gabriel : 43.
Thoreau, Henry David : 46.

Tournier, Michel : 185.
Trotsky, Léon : 92.
Twombly, Cy : 124.
Tzara, Tristan : 123.

204 The Paradox of Photography
Utrillo, Maurice : 116.

Valéry, Paul : 5, 6, 8, 10, 12-13, 28, 141-178, 184-185.
Van Gogh, Vincent : 161.
Virilio, Paul : 27, 166.

Warhol, Andy : 41.
Webern, Anton : 149.
Wiseman, Mary Bittner : 8.

Zola, Émile : 144, 150, 161.

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