Photography by the book at Orsay

Paris. La photographie se livre (octobre 2020-janvier 2021) – a mysterious name for an even more mysterious exhibition – is tucked away on the 5th floor of the Musée d’Orsay. Curated by Marie Robert, it presents forty black and white photographs, all featuring books and all hand-selected from the museum’s very own archives. 

The objective of this rather small exhibition is to demonstrate how books persisted as a standard prop in 19th century photography. During the Victorian era, photography itself was still relatively new and experimental. This particular collection emphasizes the multiple functions a book can serve within the photograph, revealing in the process how literature can be distanced from the actual act of reading. In other words, the exhibition invites visitors to examine how literature can become the subject in a work of art.  

Displayed across one large, unified space, certain photographs contain portraits of well-known public figures (I.e. Victor Hugo, Edgar Degas…), while others portray family members or close friends of the artist in question. This diverse spectrum of models happens to mirror the variety of ways in which books themselves are incorporated into the selected images. 

Hawarden, C. <em><span class="NormalTextRun SpellingErrorV2 SCXW211592802 BCX0">Clementina</span><span class="NormalTextRun SCXW211592802 BCX0"> Maude, fille de la photographe, au 5 Princes Gardens, à Londres</span>. </em>Circa 1862. Albumen print. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. © Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Alexis Brandt.

Hawarden, C. Clementina Maude, fille de la photographe, au 5 Princes Gardens, à LondresCirca 1862. Albumen print. © Musée d’Orsay, Paris, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Alexis Brandt.

In the example above, for instance, Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-1865), captured her daughter as a young lady in the act of reading a book. This was a rather bold artistic choice at a time when the concept of adolescence was yet to be envisaged by Victorian society. She chooses to portray her daughter not as a child, but rather as a young woman, with nude shoulders and a beautiful, fancy dress. The pages of the book she is reading mirror the folds of said dress. As a viewer, it piques our curiosity: which book might so captivate her attention to the extent that she does not even notice the camera?  This is just one example of how books are used to create mystery in photography. Another is the following work by Francesco Bruneri (1849-1926).  


©Between 1890 and 1910. Silver print. ©Musée d’Orsay, Paris © Musée d’Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Alexis Brandt.” width=”222″ height=”300″>

In this close-up of a woman’s ankle, the sense of mystery is achieved slightly differently. Are books so despicable that they can be stepped on in such a way? The image is puzzling, to say the least. Is this position an excuse to photograph a portion of the female body? Or is the model reaching for something forbidden, perhaps? Is this a woman or a child? The rips in the stockings might even suggest a prostitute. It appears here that literature is used mostly as a prop, although we might also be tempted to infer a metaphoric meaning from the use of books. They quite literally elevate the body in the same way that they also elevate the mind.  

This idea of literature as a means by which to achieve higher intelligence can be seen throughout the exhibition, especially thanks to a series of cards. Here, individuals are represented holding books, in front of their bookcases, or next to piles of hefty books, using said texts to signify both social and intellectual status. Such examples challenge the notion of books in art as simple aesthetic objects, highlighting their financial, social and intellectual significance.  

The exhibition also examines the philosophical nature of pictures of books in general. When a book is photographed, is it not to some extent an attempt to photograph the author himself? Hommage à Émile Zola is in fact a triple portrait of the writer. The first two elements are obvious, as they contain the face of Zola himself. The books are slightly more enigmatic, yet very clear nonetheless.

 E. Zola, Hommage à Émile Zola. Médaille avec livres, fleurs et portrait de Zola enfant. Circa 1900. Silver print on cardboard. ©Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Donated by the Kodak-Pathé Foundation, 1983. © Musée d’Orsay, dist. RMN- Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt.

The duality of the work is particularly striking. On the one hand, as a vanitas or post-mortem hommage, the rose may symbolise death, and the face of Zola the classical image of the skull. On the other hand, are books not a means of reaching immortality? If they do indeed represent their creators as objects, as implied by this photograph, then as long as they exist, so do their authors. 

Ultimately, “La photographie se livre” allowed me to contemplate the aesthetic value of books as works of art inside another work of art. No matter if they appear as decoration, or as a means to signify intellect or the importance of a particular literary figure, they always create a sense of mystery.  

On a lighter note, I would like to conclude this review with a humorous, yet nevertheless powerful image.  

Frénet, J. Garçonnet tenant la pose sous le soleil. Circa 1855. Salted paper print. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

J.Frénet, Garçonnet tenant la pose sous le soleil. Circa 1855. Salted paper print. ©Musée d’Orsay, Paris. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

I couldn’t help but wonder why this little boy, the son of the artist, looked so upset. Is it because he is having a difficult time reading, or is it because his father was taking too long with the camera? We may never know!

Clémence Varène, Master 2 MC2L, Université Paris 8
Département d’Études des Pays Anglophones

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Caroline Marie (2021, 3 août). Photography by the book at Orsay. . Consulté le 23 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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