In 1838 the Prussian-born Édouard Baldus (1813-1889) arrived in Paris with an eye to becoming a painter but met with little success. Instead his “eye” along with a lens led him to create what Malcolm Daniel of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s department of photographs called “the model for (architectural) photographic representation in genres that barely existed before him.”1 Daniel goes on to write, Baldus’s “views of historic monuments presented the vestiges of the past with unromanticized clarity for the architect, archaeologist, historian, and armchair traveler.”2
Daniel noted that Baldus approached “his subjects with a rigor that banished precisely those picturesque elements and anecdotal details traditionally considered necessary to topographic prints of the period.”3
Baldus began experimenting with photography in the late 1840s, and Daniel asserts, “By 1851, he was recognized as one of the few photographers to combine aesthetic sensitivity with an astonishing technical prowess in the still experimental and handcrafted medium.”4
The dozen or so images in “Building Pictures: Architectural Photographs by Édouard Baldus”5 at the Cincinnati Art Museum represent his mastery of the medium both technically6 and aesthetically.
“Building Pictures” (a title I particularly like for its chaste double-entendre) features photos from several of Baldus’s projects, but primarily from Les Villes de France, 1852, architectural views intended to link contemporary France with its rich Roman and medieval past. Baldus won this governmental commission because of his 1851 work as one of five photographers documenting the country’s architectural heritage, focusing especially on monuments in need of restoration, in Missions Héliographiques, sponsored by the Commission des Monuments Historiques.
Brian Sholis, associate curator of photography,brbr believes that it is the Villes de France photographs that first demonstrated Baldus’s “style of architectural photography that would become the classic model for its genre. These images are carefully composed, exquisitely printed, and shot from an elevated vantage point.” He continues, “The views taken from closer in offer a sensuous play of light and shadow, with each architectural feature described in stunning detail. The photographs made from a distance demonstrate the contours of urban space.”7
All of this can be seen in Place du Carrousel [Tuilleries (sic) from Pavillon de l’Horloge, Louvre, Paris] from the early 1850s. Taken from a great distance, he’s focused on the courtyard – the Place du Carrousel8 — in front of the Tuileries Palace, which was destroyed in 1871 by members of the Paris Commune.9
Baldus bisects the composition with the palace sitting on the horizon line, a device that he’ll turn to again and again. He’s framed the composition with blocky buildings on the left and right. It’s easy to miss the two tiny, almost silhouetted, figures in the foreground. One appears to be a top-hatted dandy and the other a military man, appropriately since the place would have been used for equine military presentations.
In the images in this exhibition, the human presence is more implied than present. This is particularly notable in Baldus’s photographs documenting the devastating flooding in June 1856 in Lyon, Avignon, and Tarascon. There are no people, just the damage caused by the rising rivers. He undertook this assignment in the middle of documenting the building of the New Louvre.
Daniel writes, “From a world of magnificent man-made construction, he set out for territory devastated by natural disaster; from the task of recreating the whole of a building in a catalogue of its thousand parts . . . Baldus created a moving record of the flood without explicitly depicting the human suffering left in its wake (30,000 were left homeless in Avignon) . . . as if the destruction had been of biblical proportions, leaving behind only remnants of a destroyed civilization.”10
In Baldus’s Ramparts of Avignon photograph, the 14th-century fortification against marauders is under siege by the floodwaters surrounding it. The rushing water has begun to recede; the fury of the rushing waters is spent, leaving an eerily placid flat mirror surface.
I think the power of Baldus’s photographs lies in his ability to meticulously record a moment in time without revealing exactly when that moment is. By eliminating the human element that would betray it with a fashion of the time, his images become timeless. He’s given us a stage set so that we can easily insert ourselves into the scene.
There are two images of Notre-Dame made in the 1860s that show the cathedral with scaffolding. It might be possible to more closely date the photographs if one could determine the stage of its more than 20-year restoration, begun in 1844 by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. In addition to building a new sacristy in the Gothic style, the spire was reconstructed, decorative sculptures restored, new windows installed, the central portal refurbished, and the organ repaired.
In one of the photographs, Baldus gives us a straight-on shot of the cathedral’s western face. It appears so flat that it could be a stage backdrop. Sholis says, Its “frontal orientation, elevated vantage point, and clean line, the photograph is typical of the artist’s mature style.”11
Baldus intended his images to be straightforward records, the opposite of romantic. But perhaps all architectural images carry a certain romantic air, even Hilla and Bernd Becher’s blast furnaces, grain elevators, cooling towers, and other industrial structures of the second half of the 20th century.
Baldus’s images evoke both the past and the present since the church still stands. In fact, I’ve stood where Baldus must have set up his camera for this view of Notre-Dame as well as for the one taken from across the Seine on the Left Bank and have my own memories of the great cathedral.
Baldus has captured a moment in time for all time, and, in the process, has given us a chance to experience in our own time.
–Karen S. Chambers
“Building Pictures: Architectural Photographs by Édouard Baldus,” through October 26, 2014. Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45202. Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (513) 639-2995, www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org.
1 Malcolm Daniel, “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Édouard Baldus (1813-1880).” www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bald/hd_bald.htm.
5 The Cincinnati Art Museum is fortunate to have a small cache of Baldus photographs. Seven of the albumen prints were originally part of the library collection gifted by Elizabeth Haven Appleton in 1891. They, along with another four whose source cannot be determined, were transferred to the museum’s collection in 1981. As Kristin Spangenberg, currently curator of prints, recalls, “The Baldus images were study photographs used by researchers in the library. Around 1980 the library decided they no longer needed the photographs, I as then curator of prints, drawings, and photographs reviewed the photographs and decided to keep some of them to catalogue to the permanent collection.” (October 14, 2014, e-mail from Jessica Stringfield, marketing and communications associate, Cincinnati Art Museum, to the author.) Spangenberg also explains, “Those that could not be retrieved because they were badly scratched or had faded beyond retrieval (albumen photographs fade in dark storage as well as in the light) were sent to an art history library where they could still potentially be of use.” (October 15, 2014, e-mail from Kristin Spangenberg, curator of prints, Cincinnati Art Museum, to the author.)
6 Baldus used a large-format camera that made paper negatives that he then contact printed on albumen-coated photographic paper. The quality he achieved with the paper negative was astonishing. The contemporary critic and photographer Stéphane Geoffray wrote in 1855, “Who has not asked himself upon considering the admirable prints of Notre-Dame, the Panthéon, and many others by M. Baldus, if they were not obtained on glass! [. . . ] A total absence of grain, a strength and transparency of shadow, a brilliance of light – such are the qualities that record the beautiful prints of this skilled photographer.” Brian Sholis, “What Is An Albumen Print?” wall text, “Building Pictures: Architectural Photographs by Édouard Baldus.”
7 Brian Sholis, “Les Villes de France Photographiées” wall text, “Building Pictures: Architectural Photographs by Édouard Baldus.”
8 Carrousel does not refer to a merry-go-round, but rather it is “a type of military dressage, an equine demonstration now commonly called military drill.” “Place du Carrousel,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Place_du_Carrousel.
9 Jules Bergeret, the former chief military commander of the Commune, ordered that the Tuileries Palace be destroyed. On May 23, 1871, 12 men set the palace ablaze at 7 p. m. using petroleum, liquid tar, and turpentine. Explosives placed in the central pavilion were detonated by the fires, which raged for 48 hours, completely gutting the building except for the southernmost part, the Pavillon de Flore. Encyclopædia Britannica 17 (14th ed.). Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. 1956. P. 293.
10 “Heilbrunn Timeline.”