New York

“Edgar Degas, Photographer”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Edgar Degas’s photographs, mostly taken in a single year (1895), were a brief enthusiasm for the artist, amateur offshoots of his preoccupations as a painter, pastelist, printmaker, and sculptor, done in private for private consumption. This doesn’t mean he was casual about them; on the contrary, he often seems to have cared the most about his most private series of images. Degas’s attitude to the many different media he engaged in was restless and experimental, but intensely committed, and his relationship to his photographs was no exception. In this small, three-gallery show curated by Malcolm Daniel and Maria Morris Hambourg, one sees evidence of that attitude in the photographs’ courting of mistakes, as in the accidentally electric orange of several solarizations and the double exposures of the Taschereau and Niaudet clan, with their overlays of phantom faces. One sees the same experimental outlook in Degas’s occasional engagement in snap-shotty effects, as in the protocinematic sequence of a pair of street scenes, the blurred wire and the tumbleweed look of a fast-approaching dog in one odd landscape, the drunkenly canted line of trees in another. One sees it in the mediumistic inclusion of the camera, flash of light, and headless photographer in Degas’s famous portrait of Renoir and Mallarmé, where the mirror carves an uncannily spectral space out of the domestic framework of the bourgeois salon. In a few well-chosen examples, the curators underline the affinities between Degas’s photographs and his experiments in other media, juxtaposing, for example, the familiar late oil After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself and the photographic work Nude (Drying Herself), replete with folds of back flesh, the dirty sole of a foot, and the haptic surfaces of a rough towel and paisley fabric, not to mention the Nude (Putting on Stockings), whose mundane corporeality sends one spinning momentarily back to a modeling session that took place more than a hundred years ago. And the show dramatizes the closeness of Degas’s “photographic theater” to his inky forays into the chiaroscural netherworld of monotype as well.

Like others of Degas’s most interesting series, the photographs are manifestly perverse: Carried out at a time when his aging eyes were giving him trouble, they persist in exploring the most difficult of viewing conditions. His portraits in particular commit deliberate infractions against the rules of studio lighting. Indeed, most were taken in the evening, in the dark; they are frequently riven by blinding flares of lamplight; and in their obscurity one must often work very hard to discern the details they highlight. That is the case especially in the pair of contact prints of Daniel and Louise Halévy: The two sit in the dark, taking turns in the same armchair with the same antimacassar, their heads and hands in slightly different arrangements, punctuated by a ring here, a brilliantly white cuff there, the detailing of veins and knuckles disconcerting in its corporeal specificity. They are surrounded by dim glimpses of photographs on the wall, protruding bits of carved wood furnishings, a piece of glowing latticework, the barely seen stripes of trouser legs disappearing into the shadows, and the somewhat more visible crinkling of a somber taffeta dress. Long before, at the beginning of his career, Degas had had a miniaturist sensibility; here that tendency is given a spooky new life, in the form of the photographic punctum emerging from the dark that he seems to have seen as the ground of photography. This was typically contrary: Where the mainstream history of photography has emphasized light as the essence of the medium, Degas sought out the negative of light.

On the walls one finds two sets of enlargements to measure against this pair of diminutive prints, each more tightly cropped than the last, further homing in on the details at the center and eliminating more of the extraneous gloom at the edges, with all its faint, distracting glimmers. These are instructive—they are better seen and more carefully controlled compositions, and Degas obviously sent them out to his printer to have them enlarged for precisely those reasons. But the contact prints that he made himself from his old-fashioned glass-plate negatives are the more intriguing. Along with the photographs of Louise Halévy reading and sleeping, these small prints are the ones that resonate most eerily with such nineteenth-century oddities as mesmerism and spirit photography. They are the ones that most suggest the somatics of vision, pressing as they do on the physiological limits of what one can see—in my case forcing a confrontation with the brief blurring of vision that now accompanies the shifting from near to far and back again of my own eyes. These were, for me, the highlights of the show, for rather than being “revolutionary,” or predicting twentieth-century modernist visuality, as the curators would have it, they are throwbacks to an earlier time, and an earlier attitude toward the experimentalism and uncanny facticity of photography. The ghostly traces of Louise and Daniel Halévy are poignant too, given that shortly thereafter their friendship with Degas was forever ruptured by the Dreyfus affair. They fascinate, therefore, not as harbingers of the twentieth century, but as shades of the end of the nineteenth century.

“Edgar Degas, Photographer” will be on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, from February 2 to March 28, and at the Bibliothèque Nationale, in Paris, from May 31 to August 22.