Like the English and the Belgian photographic society (founded in 1862), the SFP was created in that brief moment when the development and orientation of photography was dictated by groups of enthusiastic inventors and amateurs rather than the commercial and industrial interests that would ultimately come to dominate the medium. The flowering of the SFP is emblematic. It was rooted in the Societé héliographique, a group of amateurs brought together in 1851 by their desire to champion paper-based photography in the face of the overwhelming popularity of the Daguerreotype. This small circle of friends, whose association would quickly dissolve because of internal rivalries, published La Lumière, the first periodical devoted exclusively to photography.

Among other topics, the pages of La Lumière rehearsed the history of photographic invention, examining rival claims for priority. Its anglophobia inspired Roger Fenton and a group of English photographers to form their own photographic society in 1853 in order to defend against the French claims. In turn, the success of the English society with three times the memberships of the Société héliographique galvanized a new French association, which would become the SFP in 1854.

The birth of the SFP was marked by conflict between commercial and artistic interests and a tension created by the differing perceptions of the new medium and its burgeoning practice. The history of its early years, incorporating the character of its factions, its struggle to find a secretary, a building to house it, the construction of its categories of membership, its elections, statutes, publications, its attempts to stand for photography in all its formations - its struggle for authority, in other words - embodies the extraordinary history of mid-nineteenth century photography.

This history is told here for the first time. The second essay written by André Gunthert with a detective story at its heart. The mystery begins with the absence of Eugène Durieu, the veritable founder of the SFP, whose name was omitted from the discourse given by Alphonse Davanne on the occasion of the society's centenary. According to Davanne, Victor Regnault (the SFP’s first president) and the duc de Luynes were the co-founders of the Society whose joint aim was to «rapprocher la photographie des industries d’impression graphique». Why had Davanne changed the history of the SFP? The answer lies in Durieu's personal life, which was as chaotic as his professional life was austere. In 1857, after being «accusé de faux en écriture», he had disappeared, abandoning his family to certain ruin and necessitating his obliteration as founder of such an esteemed institution.

In November 1854, Durieu, an ancien haut fonctionnaire, had succeeded in constituting the SFP as a legal entity with a strict formal organization. He produced rules for its membership and statutes for its functioning whose rigidity melded potential conflict and harnessed members to a collective future. Most critically, Durieu insisted that scientists be the titular heads of the SFP. As a result, the Society had an authority that the Société héliographique and the Royal Society, presided over as they were by artists, could never have.

Thanks to the formal edifice Durieu had constructed, his disappearance hardly made a dent in the smoothly running organization. From 1860, its presidents, including Janssen and Marey, oversaw continued and exponential growth; its collections became home to every possible use of the medium, and its Bulletin became the field's foremost publication.

L'Utopie Photographique highlights the wealth and diversity of its collections. It is divided into seven sections, each accompanied by a pithy one-page introduction also written by Poivert, but for some reason unattributed. The sections are simultaneously chronological and thematic so that the images – full page and beautifully reproduced – make visible the role of the SFP in creating a history of photography from its invention until before WWII and demonstrate the richness of that history. The first section, "Inventer, Créer", emphasizes the society as «la gardienne de la mémoire des inventions.» Here are reproductions of calotype negatives, which permits to «comprendre la dimension technique et esthetique a la fois», negatives of portraits taken by Regnault and the less well-known tableaux of Humbert de Molard. In this section and throughout the catalogue, the possibilities of the medium - for truth, evidence, exploration, artifice or art - are clearly laid out. The second section, "L'espace de la connaissance" illustrates not only the spaces of science with astronomical and microscopic photography (again with negatives, the presentation of which seems to be a major theme in both exhibition and catalogue), but also the space of politics in Lucien Hervé and Charles Périer's images of the destruction of the Tuileries by the Commune.

The other sections follow this pattern, a mix of one-part familiar icons to ten parts unfamiliar photographs. All the inventions, including colour, three dimensionality, instantaneity, X-ray images and panoramas are represented, as well as all the themes that illustrate the reach or potential of innovation and technique. Pure abstractions - lines of light across a black image, puffs of smoke - are the experiments of the scientist-members, tests for shutter speeds and flash powders. Travel and excursionist photographs include the world seen from the ground and from the air, from both balloon and kite. Amateur and reporter bring us into the world of 1900 bicycles and automobiles as well as early social documents whose subjects are the clochards and petit metiers. "L'Art et le moderne" considers pictorialism and the photographic art exhibited by the SFP at their international salons. Here we can find Demachy's scratched and worked negatives, Léon Gimpel's ravishing retouched autochromes of neon signs from 1925, and Rodchenko and Drtikol's modernist abstractions.

L'Utopie Photographique is completed by a 44 pages "Notice des oeuvres reproduites" written by Carole Troufleau (and for four entries, Michel Poivert). This dense text provides information about each photographer, his relation to the SFP, the subject of his image(s), the technique that produced it and most importantly, how it found its way into the collection. The notices are often dramatic narratives in themselves, such as Nadar's invoking the SFP to support his court case against his brother using his name, or the Bisson brothers' three attempts to scale Mont Blanc before their ultimate success in photographing the peak with the difficult and awkward collodion process. Each notice is accompanied by a short bibliography, a number of entries written by current members of the SFP and published in Etudes photographiques.

But why should one be surprised? The exhibition and catalogue were produced on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the SFP by the young scholars who literally rescued it and its collections in 1993. That story is not told here although it is touched upon by Poivert in his essay. After WWII, no longer the springboard for the inventions and experiments of the enlightened amateur, the SFP became outmoded, a research base for the few historians aware of the importance of its collections. By the end of the 1980s it was also in deep financial trouble and there was talk of dismantling and selling it off to pay its debts. The fact that we find it intact and flourishing today, capable of mounting an exhibition of its holdings and writing its own hitherto unknown history, owes much to Poivert, Gunthert and another young art historian, Nathalie Boulouch. Aware of the history of the SFP and its centrality to the historiography of French photography when photographic societies were of little interest to the majority of photographic historians, the group succeeded in finding support to wrest the collection from institutions that would see it broken up or integrated into their collections. Through the offices of Bernard Marbot, then the nineteenth century photography curator at the Bibliothèque Nationale (and author of a 1976 book on the SFP collections), space was given to the SFP in the BN. From 1993, Poivert et al. attracted financial support, museum partnerships and a group of sympathetic young historians who worked (without pay) to safeguard and research its objects, images and library; they ultimately succeeded in having the latter classed in 1995 “au titre des monuments historiques“. Its Bulletin was revived, and Gunthert inaugurated Etudes photographiques in 1996. (The Royal Photographic Society, by comparison, celebrated its 150 years of existence in 2003 with a 64-page catalogue containing 100 colour reproductions; in 2004 its collections were relocated to the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, England.)

L'Utopie Photographique is an important contribution to a neglected history of that fragile moment when art and science came together in the creation of the photographic image. But it is equally a symbol of the utopia that the current SFP is building, a vibrant international association of seasoned and emerging historians and theorists who in Etudes and this exhibition and catalogue have begun to write the new history of photography.

Copyright 2006 Marta Braun.
Traduction française à paraître dans Etudes photographiques, n° 18, 2006.

  • Exhibition: "L'utopie photographie. Regard sur la Société française de photographie", November 02, 2004–February 6, 2005, Maison européenne de la photographie, Paris.