Julia Margaret Cameron

Maison de Victor Hugo

Other shows of rare and interesting 19th-century material also seemed to be altered by their presentation. It was as if Heisenberg’s Principle—the hypothesis in physics that every phenomenon is disturbed by the way in which it is observed—applied to photography exhibitions. To get to the Julia Margaret Cameron show in Victor Hugo’s house, you first had to pass through a room full of Hugo’s own painting and drawing. Done while he was in exile on Guernsey, an island noted for boredom and mushrooms, Hugo’s art was remarkable for its hallucinogenic qualities. After those paintings, the photographs seemed a bit insipid, until you reflected that Hugo collected them on Guernsey, too. . . .

The post card exhibition was another show likely to produce hallucinations. It conveyed wonderfully the post card’s dual nature in France as both the post card and the French post card. On the one hand, post cards were the most public and respectable form of photography, great sights and scenic views done by masters of commercial photography like the Seeburger brothers. On the other hand, post cards in France were that most private and unmentionable (certainly un-mailable) photographic form, pornography. A whole chapter in the social and psycho-history of the nation could be seen in the difference between the heavy-bodied, idealized nudes done by “J.A.” around the turn of the century, and the trimmer, saucier, Louise-Brooks model by J. Mandel in the ’20s. What made the show hallucinatory, however, was not the photographs, but the gallery. Located in the Sheraton Hotel complex near the Gare Montparnasse, one of numerous areas where hideous high-rise buildings now intrude on the Paris skyline, the gallery was decorated entirely in black textured walls and black carpeting. Compounding the sense of weightlessness this produced, was the way many photographs were suspended on strings between floor and ceiling in the middle of the room. As I groped around trying to figure out where the walls were, I felt more as if I were in a fun house than in an art gallery.

Colin Westerbeck