Camera Obscura

Degas’ funereal photography.

“Edgar Degas, Photographer”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Oct. 9, 1998-Jan. 3, 1999

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Feb. 2-March 28, 1999

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In 1895, Edgar Degas shipped a camera to his beloved sister Marguerite, who was dying in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she and her husband had fled from creditors. The camera, Degas explained, was “capable of both posed and instantaneous views.” With “no more than a month of practice,” she would be able to send him “a few good portraits”–including, he specified a few days later, “some negatives that I can have enlarged to see you better.” Degas’ enthusiasm for photography can’t conceal the morbid undertow of his request. He will never see her again, but this camera might get there in time. And the negative–so apt a word in this context–will assume her place. Degas’ pragmatic association of photography with death recalls Roland Barthes’ far more melodramatic one: “Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death.” Degas sends no consoling words to his dying sister, just a camera, and the hope that she has a month to learn how to use it.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has assembled the 40 or so known photographs by Degas, all dated (with an occasional “probable” added) during the years 1895-96. With this show the Metropolitan brings to a close an extraordinary cycle of Degas exhibitions that began with the huge retrospective of 10 years ago and proceeded through such lesser-known materials as Degas’ monotypes, his landscapes, and his private collection of works by other artists. The exhibition of Degas’ photographs, some of which have never before been seen in public, raises two questions. What sort of photographer was Degas? And what do these photographs add to our understanding of him as an artist?

You might think photography was perfectly suited to Degas. By 1870, when he was in his mid-30s, he had left large-scale historical and mythological subjects behind for good. No more medieval costume dramas or Spartan youths flirting in freeze frame. Degas spent the following decade developing an art that reflected the jostling shocks and perpetual motion of the modern metropolis. Close-ups of musicians in orchestra pits, with ballerinas above them, beheaded by the top of the frame. Horses jutting their heads into one side of a picture, while carriages are chopped off by the other. A disheveled dandy, his two daughters, and his dog, all facing in different directions and wedged into one corner of a picture, while the broad expanse of the Place de la Concorde takes up the remaining space. Odd croppings, odd angles, odd encounters. Give that man a camera.

It has often been suggested that Degas’ innovative urban perspectives were influenced by photography. But the opposite is closer to the truth. Degas’ manipulations of perspective, decentered compositions, and so on were always latent in the practice of Western painters; he merely pushed them further than anyone else had. The peculiar pictures that resulted made the new invention of photography, and especially the casually composed snapshots of the 1890s and after, seem less outrageous, more “artful.” Ambitious photographers followed Degas’ lead. But Degas came around to photography as a sort of afterthought.

D egas had acquired a Kodak by the summer of 1895, when he was 61, and he took it along for trips to spa towns and watering holes. The amateur photography craze was such that fashionable hotels provided darkrooms for vacationing shutterbugs. Degas took some tricky landscape shots, such as, where the curvature of the path and the converging trees on either side of the road give the illusion of a dead end, against a migrating wall of trees. Back in Paris, Degas showed no interest in pushing such plein-air experiments further–he was no Atget in the making. After all, he had already perfected in pastel and paint a daytime art of apparent spontaneity, with precisely the sort of visual jokes he’d found on that tree-lined road. What Degas discovered in photography was a nighttime art of stasis and meditative inwardness. “Daylight is too easy,” he insisted. “What I want is difficult–the atmosphere of lamps and moonlight.”

So he turned after-dinner hours into photo shoots, marshaling guests to pose in carefully orchestrated tableaux. The major surprise of Degas’ photographs is that the theatricality and staginess so resolutely banished from his paintings flooded into his photographs. At a time when the Kodak camera and roll film (first introduced in 1888) made the instantaneous “snapshot aesthetic” possible, Degas opted for an older approach: the pose held for two or three minutes, the long exposure, the “atmospheric” effects of lamplight on a black ground. A night with Degas and his camera was, according to his close friend Daniel HalÉvy, “two hours of military obedience.” Degas knew what he wanted and would push till he got it. HalÉvy recorded snippets of Degas’ imperious orders: “And you, Mademoiselle Henriette, bend your head–more–still more. Really bend it.” The twisting, one of only two surviving photographic nudes by Degas, bends her head so far that it disappears in darkness.

D egas’ photographic nocturnes evoke a Halloween world of phantasms and ghostly intimations, with death often lurking in the shadows. In, Louise, a sort of surrogate sister to Degas, appears to have fallen asleep, while the lamp to the right blooms like her dream world. In (BibliothÈque Nationale, Paris), one of a suite of self-portraits, Degas’ devoted housekeeper and cook looms above his penseur pose, her head the top of a pyramid, like a muse figure or a protective guardian. In the most complex of Degas’ photographs, his great dual portrait of the painter Renoir and the poet StÉphane MallarmÉ (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Renoir’s head is posed dead center in the composition, with the vertical of the mirror frame bisecting his head. In the mirror itself Degas’ camera apparatus is visible, but his own head is obliterated–the flash of genius or the death of the author–by a sunburst of illumination.

Despite his obsessive care in arranging shots, Degas the amateur photographer made mistakes, and some of these led to further discoveries. He preserved some double exposures of the HalÉvy family, with intersecting bodies extending vertically and horizontally and heads emerging here and there like ghosts. Among the most striking images in the show are three negatives of a ballet dancer assuming poses familiar from Degas’ pastels (see [Arm Outstretched]). The glass negatives were too overexposed to print, so Degas had them treated with chemicals to produce an orange and yellow effect like stained glass, images for a secular chapel.

Why did Degas give up photography so soon after being captivated by it? Had he “passed through the sadness and grief that accompanied the death of his sister and that helped spur his photographic activity,” as the curator Malcolm Daniel asks in his catalog essay? Well, no, Daniel concedes, since Degas continued to mourn Marguerite (who died in late October 1895), and other close companions died during the years immediately following. Daniel leans toward a technical explanation–that Degas “had solved the problem of the meditative lamp-lit nocturnal portrait.”

I would suggest another cause. Many of those portraits, over a third of Degas’ total photographic output, were of the HalÉvy family. They were Degas’ closest friends; he dined with them regularly and treated them, at a time when his own family was dispersed and in financial trouble, as virtually his own relatives. Then came the accusation of treason in 1894 against the French army officer Alfred Dreyfus, who happened to be Jewish, and the subsequent division of French society into French nationalists convinced of Dreyfus’ guilt and those equally convinced of his innocence. Degas was in the former camp, and by 1895 would have his housekeeper ZoÉ read aloud from anti-Semitic tracts at the breakfast table. Two years later, he could no longer tolerate any association with Jews, including the thoroughly assimilated HalÉvys. As Daniel HalÉvy reported, “An almost unbelievable thing happened in the autumn of 1897. Our long-standing friendship with Degas, which on our mother’s side went back to their childhood, was broken off.”

The art historian Linda Nochlin has traced what she calls Degas’ “perfectly ordinary” anti-Semitism to status anxiety. The Degas family (which sometimes changed their name to “de Gas” to suggest noble roots) came to prominence through the same international banking connections the Jewish financiers they deplored had. When his family fell on hard times, Degas blamed it on the Jews. One wonders whether the dark and shadowy world of his photographs might have had some association in his mind with the ambivalence he felt toward the Jews he posed in such excruciating positions. Degas, according to Daniel HalÉvy, “carried his camera as proudly as a child carrying a rifle.”

The Dreyfus case is all but unmentioned in the Metropolitan show and catalog. The oversight is not the result of an effort to avoid downbeat or offensive sides of Degas, but rather a failure to understand the seismic shift in French society caused by “l’affaire.” Photography and French nationalism were also linked in Degas’ mind. As Daniel HalÉvy wrote in his diary about a visit with Degas in December of 1895, “We went out; he talked about France, about photography, about photography, about France, all mixed together with equal excitement.” When Degas walked out on the HalÉvy family, he walked out on photography as well.