#29 ‘Mariette’ by Carol Jacobi

Mariette, by Félix Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon, 1820-1910) , c. 1855. Salted paper print from a glass plate negative (210 x 147 mm), Wilson Centre for Photography.

Mariette, by Félix Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon, 1820-1910), c. 1855. Salted paper print from a glass plate negative (210 x 147 mm), Wilson Centre for Photography.


Mariette presents us with first photographic principles. Created by French photographer Félix Nadar in Paris, sometime around 1855, it is currently on display with over 90 other salted paper prints at Tate Britain.

Walter Benjamin, in his A Short History of Photography in 1934, described these early prints as ‘incunabula of photography’. For Benjamin, these had quickly been superseded by an industrialisation of the medium, extending into his own century, but were the ‘first flowering’ that pointed the way for photography in the future.

Nadar’s print Mariette catches the experiment of early photography. He made the negative image on a glass plate coated in a viscous solution of collodion and light-sensitive silver salts, a process barely five years old, and printed it as a salted paper positive, the earliest photographic reproductive method, introduced by Henry Fox Talbot just fifteen years before.

Very soon, as Benjamin explained, improved optics and finer albumen prints ‘conquered darkness and distinguished appearances as sharply as a mirror’.  Photography lost the balance of dark and light intrinsic to the relatively simple response of chemicals to shadow and illumination. Mariette’s pose, graphically white against modelled umbers, retains the sense that ‘the light wrestles its way out of the dark.’ The texture of the silver salts caught in the paper fibres subtly softens and equalises the contours, so that they echo one another across the image. Benjamin argued that a longer pose created a less spontaneous, more accumulated, synthetic likeness. Figures were, moreover, observed in an open place where ‘nothing stood in the way of quiet exposure’. As a result, Benjamin believed, ‘they live, not out of the instant, but into it… they grew, as it were, into the image.’

In our age of photographic celebrity, from Instagram to 24 hour rolling news media, it is interesting to reflect on Benjamin’s observation: ‘for these first to be photographed, the viewing space went un-framed or, rather, uncaptioned.’ Mariette resists framing, still. The woman who stood in front of the lens was Marie-Christine Roux (1820–1863), also know as Marie-Christine Leroux, a professional model who earned her living in the ateliers of Paris. Her career ended in 1863 when she drowned in the wreck of the Atlas, a steam ship on the way to Algiers. Mariette was the name given to a fictionalised version of Roux by her ex-lover, the writer Jules Champfleury, in Les Aventures de Mademoiselle Mariette (1853). She is also identified as Musette, an earlier fictionalised account of Roux, in Henri Murger’s short stories, Scènes de la vie de bohème (1851), which became the basis for Puccini’s opera La Boheme (1896). Nadar’s brother, Adrien Tournachon (1825-1903), made a portrait of Roux as this character.

Murger and Champfleury’s precocious tales of modern life aspired to the realism of photography. Their fictional Musette and Mariette played out tensions between real and false representation in the form of real and false love. Affairs were undone by the women’s ambition to earn money; their modelling was aligned with prostitution and their affections were shown to be sham. This tangle of life and art, truth and artifice, manifested itself in Nadar’s photograph of Roux posing naked before the camera. It registered a more open and inscrutable reality, however. Mariette reveals her body and covers her face. Hope Kingsley has pointed out that this may have been a precaution against censorship laws which could sweep up models in the prosecution of photographers for pornography. Roux’s pose also reflected contemporary anecdotes about models and courtesans concealing their identity to hide the means by which their apparently respectable bourgeois lifestyle was achieved. It was a time of  broader anxieties about the way modernity, and technical and demographic changes in the city, were  confusing clear class and moral boundaries and the difficulty of distinguishing these from appearances alone.

Mariette was one of the first paper photographs to represent the figure unclothed. The covered face removed it from the realm of the portrait to the nude, entering photography into its long dialogue with the conventions of the painted and sculpted nude. At the same time, it established the modern media’s distinctness from painting and sculpture. Roux’s contrapposto stance, with all her weight on one leg, is close to that of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ (1780 – 1867) life-size nude La Source, which was exhibited in 1856, on which he was working at the same time. Ingres was well known to both Nadar and Roux: she posed for the painter, and the photography historian Helmut Gernsheim has suggested that the photograph was taken for the purpose of being painted. In Mariette, the element of exposure intrinsic to the photographic method is expressed in its more stepped back, empty perspective and the expanse of drapes apparently dropped at the figure’s feet. In comparison, Ingres’ figure raises her arm to support a vessel of water and with her distracted gaze appears unaware that she is watched, while the contradictory combination of Roux’s defensive arm and her frontal stance are united in their acknowledgement of the lens.

A few years later, in 1861, another painter in their circle and customer of Roux, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 –1904) purchased a print of Mariette. He adapted it for three paintings. The first was Phryne Before The Areopagus. Phryne was a model and courtesan from classical times, the legendary muse of the painter Apelles and the sculptor Praxiteles. The painting showed her before a court on charge of impiety. As a last resort, her lawyer was said to have bared Phryne’s breasts to the judges, and thus secured her acquittal. Nadar’s photograph was ideal for this subject, but Gérôme raised the defensive arm slightly to reveal Phryne’s shadowy eyes, to hint at an acquiescent gaze, and diluting the image to something more permissively painterly. The modern resonance of Gérôme’s central motif, the model dissembling respectability, was not lost on contemporaries, however. ‘This skinny, knock-kneed Phryne’, one critic wrote, ‘whose flat hips still bear the mark of the corset, just as her legs show the line of her garter, and who is nothing but a brazen wench.’

Phryne’s marble-like flesh is immaculate. The modernity the critic speaks of, a degraded modernity in his eyes, is that of the photograph, what Benjamin called ‘the spark of accident’. ‘All the artistic preparations of the photographer and all the design in the positioning of his model to the contrary, the viewer feels an irresistible compulsion to seek the tiny spark of accident, the here and now. ‘ An indentation left by a garter can be seen on Roux’s calf. Her underarm and pubic hair depart from the conventions of the smooth skinned classical nude (Nadar had tidied the latter on the negative before printing). Roux’s knees are knees that bend, that have sinews and tendons emphasised by her contrapposto position. That indexical presence is continued in the fabric, an inconsequential but nonetheless impossibly complex distribution of mass and movement settled on the fine texture of the rush mat, beyond the skills of any draper painter. ‘Something remains that does not testify merely to the art of the photographer, something that is not to be silenced, something demanding the name of the person who had lived then.’

‘These images were taken in rooms where every customer came to the photographer as a technician of the newest school,’ Benjamin wrote, while ‘the photographer, came to every customer as a member of a rising class.Roux was not strictly a customer, but Mariette emanates from model and photographer – each of them, incidentally, 35 years of age – negotiating the professional, technical, artistic and social change of their times. This intersection of method, medium and moment was what Benjamin called the aura: ‘For that aura is not simply the product of a primitive camera. At that early stage, object and technique corresponded to each other.’


Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860 ran 25 February – 7 June 2015 at Tate Britain.  

Carol Jacobi is Curator of British Art 1850-1915 at Tate Britain.

#3 ‘April Kool’s Day, 2005’ by Emer O’Brien

April Kool’s Day, frame 5, 2005, by Emer O’Brien.


I have been a stranger in a strange land. A vagabond amnesiac, Walter Benjamin might claim. In I-creation* Hackney Wick had transformed into a semblance of an antique excavation, with ruins, a sacred place with an entrance to the underworld. Viewed through my lens, this vast playground regained something of the original terror; or as Benjamin has noted: a track that carried with it associations of the terror of wandering. In my mind associations or traditions upheld by urban flâneurs and many great photographers both past and present allowed the residual power of a photograph a place to linger somewhere between the past and the future on the edge of the great beyond.

Frame 5 depicts an empty field, a static car and a well-worn path. I am reminded of Richard Long’s show ‘Heaven and Earth’ at Tate Britain in 2009. I too often embark on long solitary walks, losing myself briefly but continually documenting the process on film. Not just places but points in time are captured on a single roll of film and exist like a tangible trail of white pebbles in the forest or a way in and out of my memories.

A desire path is powerful. As a social concept it is capable of repressing urban alienation and social estrangement by commanding a following with the comfort of little resistance. On this day I contemplated the inhabitants of Hackney Wick and a city too rapidly transforming to comprehend in traditional terms. In retrospect my observations seemed to foreshadow a site now virtually unrecognisable as the Olympics approach. But in the present that was, I merely concluded that the creatures that lived here were only intermittently human and therefore transient by nature. Where could this car take you? A journey through a wormhole to another dimension perhaps. I turned back the way I came and continued my quest for physical clues and an understanding of the social conditions of Modernity.

This was April 2005, it was a cold day in springtime and the snails were fruitful. They increased abundantly and multiplied and waxed exceeding mighty and the Eastway was filled with them. As traffic spun out crossing the A12 their individual details were absorbed into a larger constellation of sight and sound. I couldn’t help wondering what this mass molluscan exodus meant. Where were they all going with so many homes tethered to their backs? I walked on, through certain tribulation and mindful of the gaps.

Meanwhile back in the beating heart of Hackney the Outlaws and Rig Doctors** confronted our corrupt and decadent society. On bank holiday weekends the airwaves were often highjacked by pirate broadcasting. These transmissions seemed to provide shelter for the transient and the disconnected. In the distance a man was breaking vinyl with his sledgehammer. To his right, the biscuit tin, still warm with inspiration and the battle cry of Modernism. It was CRCA and they have considerable powers of confiscation. They take music, the most tangible and residual form of urban alienation. I wondered what the future of pirate radio was, the last bastion of analogue communication. And I saw connections between my solitary walks, their solitary voices and vehicles that transcend space and time whether symbolised in the journey of a snail, a burnt out car, or materialised across the airwaves.

I no longer know the way back to Hackney Wick. Probably because the path keeps changing – more rapidly than a man’s heart, the type of change Baudelaire’s lamented many years ago, mourning for his lost city, Paris.  But I can remember this day and my journey through the frames on this roll of film by the process of spatial dissolution. I can find the old entrance to my old studio on Wallis Road and the way through the gate, the small doors, the workplace, the corridor, the room and up the ladder and into the rafters. I can remember my studio was warm from the incineration below: warm like the biscuit tin. I can remember the drone of the music from the party on this little island and how I just about hung on. Looking back maybe I was dreaming but the sound of my camera dropping like a pound press on that table still resonates and the morning after remains. It was Good Friday 2005, so I walked out into the light.


Post Scriptum

April Kool’s Day: April 1st 2005 Hackney Wick, 2005. This was the name of the bank holiday party advertised on Kool FM.

Some years ago I had a studio in Hackney Wick. What I remember most vividly about that time was the pirate radio stations and the bank holiday parties often connected to them. Kool Fm would interrupt the BBC London frequency and I would wonder what happened to the world I knew. It was like time and place had disappeared. My studio was in an industrial park and in a joining building a party was spinning out of control. When fleeing promoters fell through the rafters of my space I found myself tangled up in the onslaught. My camera still bears the proof as an officer shacking out the contents of my bag back onto a metal table back at the station.

*i-ration. pron.(i-rai-tion) 1.  Rastafarian term that emphasis subjective involvement in universal creation. 2. The Rasta way of using the word creation. The letter i is used to refer to god, and all people. In Rasta culture i is used to denote god, you, me, and everyone or i, i, i, and i.3. The Rastafarian state of mind, from which, one is absent of the world, but within the self; only to be achieved by inhaling holy smoke.

** Rig doctor. n. 1. Someone that builds pirate radio transformers, often hidden when placed outside in biscuit tins.


Emer O’Brien is a Canadian artist who lives and works in London.