Charles Negre Photographer
My wife and I recently visited Grasse, France. Grasse has been a perfume town ever since the 17th century, and today as the world’s perfume capital, its reputation speaks for itself. ‘The International Perfume Museum’ located in the heart of the city http://www.museesdegrasse.com/ is a fashion makers dream, the aroma which spills out around the city blows on the Riviera sea breeze.
With disoriented narrow winding streets and stairways, you discover a square Saracen tower, remains of the 16th century ramparts, the mayor’s office housed in what was formerly the bishop’s palace, the medieval houses raised in the 17th and 18th centuries, superb private mansions (Hotel de Cabris, Hotel de Ponteves, Court de Fontmichel) and magnificent 18th century villas.
You’ll also come across gurgling fountains and picturesque squares with welcoming café terraces, vaulted passageways, freshly painted red and yellow ochre housefronts. The Notre-Dame du Puy cathedral built in the Provençal Romanesque style in the 11th century and frequently altered since. Inside is a beautiful altar piece attributed to Brea, three canvasses by Rubens and a painting by Fragonard, plus stained glass windows and statues by Baillet: pretty impressive stuff.
However I had an alternative motive to agreeing to visit Grasse, the motive was to visit the home of Charles Negre. His name is not ominous in photographic circles today but was in the 1800’s.
Nègre was born in Grasse and moved to Paris in 1839. He enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts and took up his studies under the painters Paul Delaroche, Michel Martin Drolling, and, in 1843, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Delaroche was keenly interested in the new techniques of photography. He encouraged his students to take up the medium and to exploit the artistic potentialities of the daguerreotype. Daguerrotypes initially served simply as aide-mémoires, much like sketches made to help the recollection of motifs found in nature and in everyday life.
Paris artists were quick to grasp the importance of its greater potential. Compared with the pencil sketch or watercolour the new medium was a time-saver and thus more spontaneous – it could be used to handle complex changes of perspective, to depict figures in staged settings or capture changing views of a subject from different angles. In short, it provided a range of opportunities to vary the desired segment of an image. All this was to contribute to the recognition of photographs as autonomous works of art. Delaroche’s studio would be an important stepping stone in the careers of many leading photographers of the 1850s – Henri Le Secq, Gustave Le Gray, Roger Fenton and Charles Nègre – who were the direct heirs of the generation that had invented the new medium. They came to be known as Les primitifs de photographie
Nègre began to concentrate on the medium of photography in 1844, at first using the daguerrotype technique but turning to calotype in the late 1840s. Calotype had a number of advantages over the earlier method. A paper negative was used instead of a polished, silvered copper plate. Exposure time was shorter and an unlimited number of prints could be made.
“Being a painter myself, I have kept painters in mind,” wrote Charles Nègre after photographing in the south of France in August 1852. “Wherever I could dispense with architectural precision I have indulged in the picturesque . . . I have sacrificed a few details, when necessary, in favor of an imposing effect . . . [and] poetic charm.” Nègre’s new medium was, in fact, perfectly suited to the lessons he had learned in the painting studio: the course texture of his paper negatives and their tendency to mass light and shadow mirrored the “effect” sought by painters like his studio mate Daubigny.
Most striking in this photograph, made in Nègre’s hometown Grasse, is the geometry of his composition-the road zigzagging up the page to a nearly Cubist rendering of the mills and houses. The entire scene is laced with paths for the eye and punctuated by carefully placed details, such as the woman washing clothes, the laundry draped over the wall, and the young man seated on the hillside as if leaning against the left edge of the picture.
To find out more about Charles Negre visit http://daxermarschall.com/wordpress/portfolio-view/charles-negre