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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Louis Remy Robert

Today, as the art and science of making photographic images has shifted from one of chemistry to digital electronics, we marvel at the speed and versatility all those little zeros and ones display in creating the luminous pictorial art seen on our computer screens. In that chemical photography is now about 170 years old, we've long since stopped marveling at how all those little silver halide ions were able to do the same thing so long ago. We've even stopped marveling at how light-sensitive dyes brought color photography from the miraculous to the mundane in as little as seventy-five years. Who knows what the next fundamental change in the area of image documentation might be? Advanced 3-D photography seems to be on the horizon. What next, brain implants maybe, enabling us to mentally "see" moving virtual images without need of photographic paper or computer monitors either one?

Caroline Robert, 1850s, salted
paper print from paper negative,
Louis Robert's wife. He apparently
neglected to take a photo of himself.
The "snapshots" we have come to take for granted, didn't come easy. We forget just how crude the first photographic images from the 1840s really were. We forget how "medieval" the first descendants of the truly medieval camera obscuras really were. We can hardly imagine the ancient, convoluted chemistry that made even these crude images possible. Moreover, most of us have never heard the names Victor Regnault, Louis-Desire Blanquart-Evard, Alphones Poitevin, Hippolyte Bayard, Olympe Aguado, or Phelix Tournachon, all early photographic pioneers. We may know the name Louis Daguerre or even his English counterpart and rival, William Henry Fox Talbot, but both these men barely started the ball rolling. It was left to the "forgotten ones" to perfect this crude science so that it might become an art medium. One of those who did, was Louis Remy Robert.

The Large Tree at La Verrerie, Romesnil, 1852,
Louis Remy Robert, salted paper print from
paper negative.
Louis Robert (pronounced ro-BARE) was born in 1810 into a Paris family of artist and artisans involved in painting on glass and china at the famed Manufacture de Sevres. It was a tight community of workers, artists, scientists, and businessmen. Louis was an accomplished portrait painter even before photography made its debut. It was only natural that as such, he should take an interest in the new science that seemed a potential threat to his livelihood. He was also in the unique position of having access to the laboratory facilities to experiment not just with taking photographs, but in developing them too. Moreover, whenever art and science meet in the person of a single individual, expect greatness.

Romasnil,  1850-55, Louis Remy Robert,
salted paper print from paper negative.
Robert's surviving portfolio is not great in number--less than a hundred images--forty of them newly discovered. No, the greatness we see in them comes from the discreet blending of an artist's eye and a scientist's curiosity. We see his trials, his errors, and his triumphs. In viewing his work, we can almost watch him discover what worked and what didn't both artistically and chemically. We watch him experiment with paper calotype negatives, salted paper, coatings of wax, whey, and albumen, exposing them wet, dry, and somewhere in between, forever trying to overcome the eternal 30 second to four minute exposure times needed, while all the time, working to translate the traditional arts of portraiture, landscape, and still-life to a new, expressive, yet demanding medium.

Still-life, ca. 1856, Louis Remy Robert,
salted paper print from glass negative.
The irony of all this is that, while the names of these pioneers in the art and science of photography are shrouded in the foggy mists of "ancient" history, today, we have little or no knowledge of the pioneering artists and scientists who have brought us the amazing feats of digital photography even though most of them are still alive. Who are they? These incredible geniuses of digital art and science, far from being forgotten, are seemingly not even known in the first place.

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