Georgia and I met for a much needed art afternoon on Friday. We decided on Crime and Punishment at the Musée d’Orsay as it seemed to be the talk of the town. Like all the big exhibitions at major museums in Paris, there were some extraordinary single pieces that blew me away — the Géricault “etude” on the exhibition’s publicity (below), Victor Hugo drawings and charcoals (above), a handful of rare Goyas and more. But also consistent with these major shows, it was difficult, if not impossible to get an overall sense of what the exhibition was about. Crime and Punishment, yes, but everything from David’s “La Mort de Marat” through Goya to surrealism, Andy Warhol, illustrations of Bentham’s panopticon, even an old guillotine? There was little to no cohesion to this fest of violence and its arraignment, primarily, but not solely, focussed on France in the wake of the Revolution. Needless to say, there was no mention of the "crime" and punishment of more recent times: the Algerian war and other colonial exploits were conveniently absent from this history — if indeed, that is what it was — as were the not so distant events in the banlieu.
By contrast, a small exhibition of early photography "Photography Not Art" Naturalism according to P.H. Emerson (1886-1895) was tucked away in the wings of the Museum’s tourist filled halls. Seeking refuge from the crowds, we found peace and quiet in this little-publicized, extraordinarily rich exhibition of Emerson’s photos.
Emerson was apparently a radical because he resisted the aestheticization techniques of photography. Labelled a naturalist, in his photographs we see rural life stripped bare of all glamour and illusion. And this makes these quite beautiful photographs eerily unsettling. There is no Romanticized landscape in images such as Poling the Marsh Hay (1886), but rather, we see the world “as it is.” What makes a photograph such as this one disturbing is also the apparent disregard for the finesse of composition. And so the woman in the foreground seems to big, as though she is about to walk out of the photograph. Emerson presents ordinary people doing ordinary things – like catching eel, poling hay, looking for driftwood. These worlds always appear somehow timeless, cut off from anything beyond their frame, as though time has stood still, as though we would find the same people today in the same landscape if we journeyed to Northumberland waterlands. All this,at a time when photography and its involvement with technological progress, modernity and industrialization is supposedly thriving. If technology appears in Emerson’s photographs, it comes in the form of a broken down water mill, overtaken by weeds, boggy marshes and its own ineffectivity. That said, we are always aware of the presence of the technology of the camera because Emerson does nothing to hide its presence. Many of the images are off center, the awkward placement of the human figures, the traces of a lack of focus around the edges, make us aware that we are looking at photography in contrast with a timeless, bucolic existence. This apparent invasion of the photograph is yet another thing that makes the world in the image appear strange and the photograph itself eerie and unsettling.