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Reading/developing images: Baudelaire, Benjamin, and the advent of photography.

When the technique of photography was first introduced in 1839, it created a sensation. After years of experiments with various technological solutions, photography achieved what painters had never accomplished: The reproduction of reality with an almost total verisimilitude. From that point on, the idea of realism was altogether transformed, the conflict between idealism and realism was intensified, and the visual arts were faced with a brand new situation; the age of technological reproducibility.

Twenty years later, in his "Salon de 1859," Baudelaire famously denounced photography as a sterile technology with no future in the fine arts. As he saw it, photography conflicted with the superior faculty of the artist: the imagination, and it appealed to the most contemptible feature of the petty bourgeoisie: vanity. This condemnation of a brand new medium may seem surprisingly conservative for the ever-so-modern Baudelaire. Although Baudelaire has become renowned for his antipathy toward photography, his stance in this matter may be worthy of a closer investigation. It might be interesting to examine how the technique of photography is treated by him poetically. Here, the prose poems "Les Fenetres" and "Mademoiselle Bistouri" are particularly significant. What is at stake for Baudelaire in these texts is the capacity for reading images; making use of his imaginative capacities, he reveals that one need not fall pray to the dominante of a new medium. In this regard, Baudelaire actually anticipates Walter Benjamin's claim in "Little History of Photography" on the importance of reading images; there Benjamin contends that the most important component of photography in the future will be the inscription--or literalization--of photography. As we will see, the reading of images is the crux of a series of intriguing questions concerning Baudelaire, Benjamin, and the advent of photography.


It is well known that Baudelaire was obsessed with images. In his diary, he states it clearly: "Glorifier le culte des images (ma grande, mon unique, ma primitive passion)" (1: 701). But, of course, Baudelaire was not the only one who was obsessed with images in 19th-century Paris. In the middle of the century, the visual arts--caricatures, sketches, lithography--took advantage of the developments of the industrialized printing press and extended their domain considerably. As for photography, the early technique launched by Daguerre in 1839--the daguerreotype--was based on individual prints on silver plates, and it was only when the negative was invented some years later that photography joined the other techniques of reproduction allowing for reproduction in numerous copies. The images issuing from these reproductive techniques belonged, to a large degree, to popular culture and were in many respects considered inferior to the art of painting. Photography, in particular, had an ambiguous status and only slowly gained access to the domain of the fine arts. When it was included in the annual art exhibition in Paris arranged by l'Academie des Beaux-Arts in 1859, it caused vivid protests by Baudelaire; in his review of the exhibition entitled "Salon de 1859," he launches his attack on photography, calling it "une industrie nouvelle" and rejecting its artistic potential (2: 616).

It must be underscored, however, that Baudelaire's point of departure was the art of painting, and it could even be argued that he had learned to see through the study of paintings. Baudelaire was committed to a romantic art that gave free rein to the imagination; he was partial to the vibrant colors of Delacroix, whereas he disfavored bleak realism, tactful art, and the well-ordered lines of Ingres. To Baudelaire, Delacroix's color "pense par elle-meme" (2: 595), transcending the objects whose garb it wore (2: 595). Here, the ideal was not reality, but beauty, and the method was not imitation, but "une mnemotechnie du beau" (2: 455). Seeing this beauty, however, required aesthetic sensibility, and Baudelaire was concerned with the decline he perceived in this domain. Not only did Delacroix have no true inheritors; there was also a general decline in people's sensibility to imaginative art. The public seemed no longer able to appreciate great and beautiful art, but preferred petty images.

It is against this background that Baudelaire's attack on photography should be understood. As he saw it, the advent of photography only aggravated the situation, as its aim (allegedly) was to reproduce reality identically. Parodying the language of those who saw in photography a superior art, and in Daguerre their "Messiah," Baudelaire summarizes their aesthetic credo: First: "Je crois que l'art est et ne peut etre que la reproduction exacte de la nature." Second: "Ainsi, l'industrie qui nous donnerait un resultat identique a la nature serait l'art absolu." And third: "Puisque la photographie nous donne toutes les garanties desirables d'exactitude (ils croient cela, les insenses!), l'art, c'est la photographie" (2: 617). In contrast to this popular appraisal, Baudelaire granted photography a quite restricted role: It should be considered the servant of the art and sciences, and humbly assume the same role as the printing press. For, if photography was allowed to enter the domain of art, art would soon be corrupted, due to the dangerous alliance between photography and the vain crowd.

But not only photography encouraged mimetic effects at the expense of true aesthetic beauty; the stereoscope also had this appalling effect. The virtue of the stereoscope was that it made two-dimensional images appear to be three dimensional and in this manner enhanced the reality effect produced by photography. According to Baudelaire, the devotees of the stereoscope looked into it as if it were a window to infinity: "[D]es milliers d'yeux avides se penchaient sur les trous du stereoscope comme sur les lucarnes de l'infini" (2: 617). Thus, Baudelaire knew very well that he was not the only person obsessed with images in 19th-century Paris. But his aesthetic preferences differed considerably from those of the mass public: Where he saw images as an inspiration for the imagination, the public was more fascinated with their verisimilitude, and the technique of photography appeared to cater to this particular preference.

How, then, should we today assess Baudelaire's stance on photography? Often, Baudelaire's opinion on this issue is simply dismissed as reactionary. Although he actually anticipates Benjamin's analysis in "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility," seeing photography as a technique aiming at identical reproduction of reality, Baudelaire mainly saw the negative consequences this had for art. Benjamin, on the other hand (almost a century later, it must be kept in mind), considered the possibilities the reproductive techniques offered in the aesthetic domain in a much more positive manner. In his essay on photography, "Little History of Photography," Benjamin comments on Baudelaire's so-called pessimism in respect to photography, pointing out what Baudelaire "failed to grasp": "the lessons inherent in the authenticity of the photograph" (2.94). It may be, however, that he parts with Baudelaire too soon. In fact, Benjamin's own thoughts on this matter may provide the key to a different understanding of Baudelaire's stance on photography.

What Benjamin discusses at the end of this essay is the importance of inscription [Beschriftung] in respect to photography. Pointing out that that photography may indeed paralyze our imaginative abilities, he claims that photography requires inscription, or literalization: "The camera is getting smaller and smaller, ever readier to capture fleeting and secret images whose shock effect paralyzes the associative mechanisms in the beholder. This is where inscription must come into play" (294). Asserting that the future illiterate will not be the one unable to write, but the one unable to read images, Benjamin closes his essay with a proposition: "Isn't inscription bound to become the most essential component of the photograph?" (294). This predicament is actually of great interest in respect to Baudelaire. As the prose poems "Les Fenetres" and "Mademoiselle Bistouri" reveal, Baudelaire was highly concerned with our capacity for reading images.


In the prose poem called "Les Fenetres," the visual possibilities of the window are addressed in the most interesting manner, implicitly referring to the vision offered in photography. The prose poem opens with a maxim that apparently gives the rule of vision: "Celui qui regarde au dehors a travers une fenetre ouverte, ne voit jamais autant de choses que celui qui regarde une fenetre fermee" (1: 339). In this maxim, a paradox is created in which the values of transparent and opaque are reversed: The open window offers less to see than the closed window. It should be observed, however, that in both cases, the vision in question is from the outside looking in, not the other way around. Accordingly, the viewer is not confined to the gloomy interior of an apartment, as a prototypical romantic poet would have been; he is out on the street. Already at this point, we recognize a modern feature; Baudelaire is describing the gaze of the flaneur, having made the streets his interior.

Next, the poet-flaneur asserts that the closed window offers two advantages to the beholder. First, the glass establishes a distance between the viewer and the object, thus making the object more interesting: "Ce qu'on peut voir au soleil est toujours moins interessant que ce qui se passe derriere une vitre," he claims. Here, what is being disavowed is not so much daylight as naked reality; that which offers itself to the gaze without mediation, that is to say, without glass. (1) Second, the window, which appears to the eye only after dark, appears like a "hole" in the building, latent with life: "Dans ce trou noir ou lumineux vit la vie, reve la vie, souffre la vie" Here, we may notice that the window, seen from outside, offers a vision that is framed and illuminated. What the prose poem describes is actually the transformation that takes place in the urban landscape after dark: At night, Parisian windows turn into a gallery of still images offering themselves to the gaze of the flaneur.

Here I would like to suggest that Baudelaire's idealization of the framed, semi-transparent and illuminated view may be influenced by the technique of photography. Just like the framing of the camera, the framing of the window functions as a visual machine, producing a specific visibility by omitting context. In this perspective, the "trou noir ou lumineux" could be seen as corresponding to the view of the camera. Interestingly, Baudelaire's wording in this prose poem echoes his comment on photography/stereography in "Salon de 1859." As we have seen, Baudelaire there commented on the many pairs of eyes that were glued to "les trous du stereoscope," as though they were the "lucarnes de l'infini" (2: 617). In this passage, Baudelaire explicitly compares the holes, or the lenses of the apparatus, with windows [lucarnes]. In the prose poem as well, the word "trou" is used to describe a specific kind of framed vision, a dark or glowing hole, latent with life (1: 339).

The relation between these two texts could thus be described in the following manner: Where the "Salon de 1859" describes visual technology (photography/stereoscopy) in terms of the window, the prose poem actually describes the window in terms of visual technology. In both cases, the vision offered is described as a hole, and a dazzling light is evoked, with a more or less explicit reference to a world beyond. It would seem, then, that the window--viewed from outside at night--and photography/stereoscopy offer a similar kind of vision; both offer a framed view to a "secret" world, full of promise. Here, we should also keep in mind that due to the long exposure time, early photography in fact shares with Baudelaire's nocturnal window a mysterious, dreamy look.

What further supports this interpretation is the poet-flaneur's description of the woman he sees in the window, which emphasizes her immobility: "toujours penchee sur quelque chose, et qui ne sort jamais." The woman appears to be frozen in a position, and accordingly, the words "toujours" and "jamais" could be seen as absolutes. The woman is here captured in the observer's gaze, just as the motif of a photograph. The window-frame in this respect represents a cut into the flow of reality, a cut that is necessary to give form to any visual perception.

Still, the gaze in "Les Fenetres" is not identical with the gaze of the camera; it differs from it by giving priority to the imagination. The window-image serves only as a point of departure for a poetic reverie in which the poet-flaneur invents the woman's story. He even discloses that he makes up her story without any concern for its veracity:
   Avec son visage, avec son vetement, avec son geste, avec presque
   rien, j'ai refait l'historie de cette femme, ou plutot sa legende,
   et quelquefois je me la raconte a moi-meme en pleurant.


      Peut-etre me direz-vous: 'Es-tu sur que cette legende soit la
   vraie?' Qu'importe ce que peut etre la realite placee hors de moi,
   si elle m'a aide a vivre, a sentir que je suis et ce que je suis?

Here, the window-image clearly influences the imagination of the poet-flaneuf, feeding his reveries. But although the prose poem in this manner advocates a romantic aesthetics favoring the activity of the imagination over reality, it is also appears to be influenced by the technique of photography, and the word "legende" testifies to this influence. Often, this word is taken to mean a story having some mythical dimension, but if we consider the text in the light of photography, the word takes on another meaning: "Legende" is also the French word for caption, a short text serving as a key to an image's "reading" or interpretation. Thus, in the prose poem, when the poet-flaneur claims that he makes up the woman's "legend," he could be seen as captioning her frozen image, allowing his imagination to "fill in the picture."

Here, we may recall Benjamin's comment on the inscription in respect to photography. Basically, a caption serves to read, interpret or literalize the photograph, and for Benjamin, such a reading is the essential component of photography. But as Rosalind Krauss has claimed, the caption is also the very element that robs photography of its autonomy and precludes it from being a self-contained art object ("Reinventing the Medium"). In this sense, the caption should be seen as a parergonal element, a supplement that is hot part of the image proper, but that is still constitutive of the image as such (Derrida, The Truth in Painting). This is why the ontological status of the caption is altogether ambiguous, and why it is hard to separate an image from its caption. For who is to say where the image ends and the caption begins; where the objective representation stops and the imagination takes over?

With Benjamin's and Krauss's perspectives in mind, we may thus observe an intriguing feature in Baudelaire's prose poem: The "window-image" of the woman and the poet's reverie, which is based upon it, could be seen as corresponding to a photograph of a woman and its caption. Here the title of the prose poem--"Les Fenetres"--takes on full meaning. As a border between inside and outside and an intermediate between transparency and non-transparency, the window draws attention to a transgression which is actually all but clear. At stake here is the capacity for "reading"--or developing--what one sees before one's eyes. It appears that "what is there" is not simply given; it requires an effort on the part of the beholder. The viewer needs to frame what he sees to make it perceivable and provide it with a caption to make it conceivable. The prose poem thus reveals how visual perception changes in the age of photography, and how different forms of perception influence each other. Playing with the technique of photography, Baudelaire asserted himself as a poet in the age of technological reproducibility.

In the prose poem entitled "Mademoiselle Bistouri," the positions from "Les Fenetres" are reversed. The poet-flaneur is here victim to a woman he meets on the street, and it is she who makes up his story. Just as in "Les Fenetres," the story issues from her imagination, but what is interesting here is the way her imagination is nurtured by her collection of portrait photography. The prose poem could be read as a comment on a fetishistic imagination, stimulated by the circulation of a new and captivating medium: photography.

The prose poem begins when the poet-flaneur on his stroll is approached by Mademoiselle Bistouri, who claims that he is a doctor she has met previously. Even if he denies both that he is a doctor, and that they have met before, she insists, and, lured by his passion for mysteries, he agrees to go home with her. Interestingly, the poet-flaneur right away demonstrates a distance from romantic poetry; he refuses to describe the hovel she lives in and dismisses it as a romantic cliche: "J'omets la description du taudis; on peut la trouver dans plusieurs vieux poetes francais bien connus" (1: 353). Instead, he describes a detail that has caught his attention: "Seulement, detail non apercu par Regnier [a romantic poet], deux ou trois portraits de docteurs celebres etaient suspendus aux murs." Paying attention to details, the poet-flaneur in fact seems to have abandoned the mode of romantic poetry and adopted the mode of photography.

Mademoiselle Bistouri, too, focuses on details, but her adoption of a "photographic mode" has taken the form of fetishism. As the poet-flaneur discovers, she is obsessed with her collection of doctors' portraits, to the point that she neglects reality. We are thus introduced to the visual media of the period:
   Et elle tira d'une armoire une liasse de papiers, qui n'etait autre
   chose que la collection des portraits des medecins illustres de ce
   temps, lithographies par Maurin, qu'on a pu voir etalee pendant
   plusieurs annees sur le quai Voltaire.


      Et elle deploya en eventail une masse d'images photographiques,
   representant des physionomies beaucoup plus jeunes. (1: 354)

It is significant that the photographs in Mademoiselle Bistouri's collection portray young doctors, or interns, whereas the lithographs portray older doctors of renown (presumably the generation of 1848, cf. the comment "C'etait le temps des emeutes."). This dissimilarity accentuates the development in technology occurring in the period, where photography takes over the role of portrait painting and gives a new sense of verisimilitude to portraits.

The central theme of the prose poem is the way these portraits become the focus of a lonely woman's sexual desires and fantasies. Mademoiselle Bistouri collects doctors; she entraps them in photographs and in her fantasies, as she admits herself: "Voici maintenant W., un fameux medecin anglais; je l'ai attrape a son voyage a Paris" (1: 354). The poet-flaneur is victim to the same alluring approach as other men, and Mademoiselle Bistori asks him to bring his picture on his next visit: "Quand nous nous reverrons, tu me donneras ton portrait, n'est-ce pas, cheri?" Apparently, "seeing doctors" here corresponds to a visual desire, a fetishism whose procedure is entrapment, collection, and fixation.

But obviously, "seeing doctors" also implies some kind of prostitution, although the logic of prostitution is here given a twist. Instead of money, Mademoiselle Bistouri requires photographs from her doctors, and it may seem that photographs have here replaced money as a currency. Further, the prostitute is usually depicted as an object of desire, but here she is transformed into an active subject exploiting the doctors she encounters. Still, it is obvious that Mademoiselle Bistouri's agency is only apparent. After all, she is incapable of transgressing the world of images, remaining, as it were, their prisoner. Her gaze seems to be fixated by photography, as if photography performed a cut in reality and offered it to her fetishistic imagination.

In this context, the name of "Mademoiselle Bistouri"--which translates as "Miss Scalpel"--should be commented on. This name refers not only to her preference for doctors, but also to the nature of her sexual desires: Her relationship to men, her penetrating gaze on their photographs and her fetishistic imagination are here associated with the cutting and penetration of the surgeon. The same association of visual technology and surgery appears in Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility," although there he is talking about the film camera. In order to make the difference between cinema and painting conceivable, Benjamin compares the technique of cinema to the surgeon's method and the technique of painting to the magician's method:
   The surgeon [...] diminishes the distance from the patient by
   penetrating the patient's body [...] unlike the magician (traces of
   whom are still found in the medical practitioner), the surgeon
   abstains at the decisive moment from confronting his patient person
   to person; instead he penetrates the patient by
   operating.--Magician is to a surgeon as painter is to
   cinematographer. (35)

This analysis may serve to shed light on the nature of Mademoiselle Bistouri's obsession. Her fixation is the fixation of the camera, cutting out details instead of confronting reality as a whole; drawing the object closer and penetrating it instead of maintaining ordinary human relations. In this perspective, the prose poem could be seen as describing the advent of a new medium capable of paralyzing the imagination, and of turning the image as such into a fetish. Baudelaire thus points to the violence of photography: its power to capture the gaze of the viewer, prey on his visual desire, and make him a prisoner of images.


If Baudelaire makes the reading of images a central topic in his poems, it is also a recurrent topic in Benjamin's theories on art. In a rarely quoted fragment written in 1921 or 1922, well before his Baudelaire study, Benjamin approaches this issue in a highly interesting manner. There, he actually describes Baudelaire's talent as a talent for reading images, using the technique of photography to describe his poetic method:

An image to characterize Baudelaire's way of looking at the world. Let us compare time to a photographer--earthly time to a photographer who photographs the essence of things. But because of the nature of earthly time and its apparatus, the photographer manages only to register the negative of that essence on his photographic plates. No one can read these plates; no one can deduce from the negative, on which time records the objects, the true essence of things as they really are. Moreover, the elixir that might act as a developing agent is unknown. And there is Baudelaire: he doesn't possess the vital fluid either--the fluid in which these plates would have to be immersed so as to obtain the true picture. But he, he alone, is able to read the plates, thanks to infinite mental efforts. He alone is able to extract from the negatives of essence a presentiment of its real picture. And from this presentiment speaks the negative of essence in all his poems. ("Baudelaire" 361-62)

Benjamin's comparison between the technique of photography and Baudelaire's poetic method is intriguing, first of all because of his original use of technological imagery. This is one of the rare places where Benjamin explicitly considers Baudelaire in respect to photography, even if it is at a metaphorical level. Benjamin's work on Baudelaire otherwise appears to be unaffected by his own concern with the new medium. (2)

Second, the passage is astonishing because the metaphor of photography here seems to prefigure a literary device which, at a later point, Benjamin saw as crucial for Baudelaire's poetry: allegory. Photography and allegory could be seen as parallel procedures insofar as they both involve a process of development: an act of interpretation or a literarization is required. Here, Benjamin's contention concerning the importance of inscription obviously resonates: Just like a photograph, an allegorical representation must be provided with an inscription or a caption, and this requires an effort on the part of the beholder/reader.

According to Benjamin, reality, understood as the material conditions of a period, creates an imprint on an artwork which only becomes possible to develop at a later point in history; it enters into readability at a certain time. The exact same procedure is true of photography; but in this case, "reality" is what offers itself to the camera eye, the "imprint" is given a materialist grounding, and the time required for development depends on technology rather than history. The structural parallels between these two processes are striking, and it may even seem that Benjamin's concept of allegory is indebted to the technique of photography. At least we may assert that the question of reading images in Benjamin's writings is laid out both in terms of allegory and in terms of photography.

In view of this, it is not surprising that Benjamin describes Baudelaire's method in terms of photography. However, as we have seen, Baudelaire also describes the method of the poet-flaneur in terms of photography: Adopting the gaze of the camera, he perceives the windows that appear after dark as a series of still photos, and he knows exactly how to read, subtitle, and allegorize the "images" he perceives. Baudelaire and Benjamin thus appear to plead similar causes in similar terms. The issue for both of them is to liberate images from fixity in the age of technological reproducibility. Baudelaire advocates an active use of the imagination in respect to images, warning that one must not become a prisoner of images, and Benjamin highlights the importance of reading and interpreting images, concerned that photography may paralyze our imaginative abilities.

It may thus be seen as a twist of irony that Benjamin in his essay on photography more or less dismisses Baudelaire's views on photography proper, for Baudelaire's insight into the new technique was basically the same as Benjamin's: in the age of technological reproducibility, everything depends on our capacity for reading images. This means that we should not see photography as a self-sufficient and autonomous phenomenon. Photography wants something from us; it calls for our reading, and we must consequently develop our sensitivity to its secrets and its gestures. As Baudelaire knew very well, our imaginative abilities are indispensable also in the age of photography.

Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages

University of Oslo, Norway


Baudelaire, Charles. Oeuvres completes. Ed. Claude Pichois. 2 vols. Paris: Gallimard (Bibliotheque de la Pleiade), 1975-79.

Benjamin, Walter. "Baudelaire." Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Selected Writings 1. Ed. Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1996, pp. 361-62.

--. "Little History of Photography." The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. Eds. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. Trans. Edmund lephcott [et al]. Cambridge, Mass.: Belnap Press, 2008, pp. 274-98.

--. "Paris--the Capital of the Nineteenth Century." Charles Baudelaire. A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Trans. Harry Zorn. London: Verso, 1997, pp. 157-176.

--. "Some Motifs in Baudelaire." Charles Baudelaire. A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Trans. Harry Zorn. London: Verso, 1997, pp. 109-154.

--. "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility." The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. Eds. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. Trans. Edmund Jephcott [et al]. Cambridge, Mass.: Belnap Press, 2008. pp. 19-55.

Derrida, Jacques. The Truth in Painting. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Krauss, Rosalind. "Reinventing the Medium." Critical Inquiry 25 (Winter 1999), pp. 289-305.


(1.) In the poem "Le Soleil," by contrast, the sun dominates the scene, and the view to the windows is blocked by persian blinds ("Les persiennes, abri des secretes luxures") (1: 83). The poet-flaneur is thus forced to go elsewhere to compose his poems.

(2.) "Paris--the Capital of the Nineteenth Century" was published in 1935 and "Some Motifs in Baudelaire" in 1939, whereas "Little History of Photography" was published in 1931 and "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility" was first published in 1936. Benjamin's work on Baudelaire was thus conceived in more or less the same period as his work on the new medium, but in spite of this, his references to new technology are scarce, and they are almost always brief.
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Title Annotation:Charles Baudelaire and
Author:Grotta, Marit
Publication:Nineteenth-Century French Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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