Museums and Contemporaneity


Blurring the Picture Frame: Self-Portraits of Nineteenth-Century French Photographers







With the pictorial turn of visual culture, the discourse of photographic history has overstepped the issues and methods of art historical studies and moved to develop its own unique historical discourse based on those properties innate to photography. In the process of this canonical shift in the art world, studies of early photographic portraits could no longer be confined to the conventional framework of discourse on portraiture. The issue of the portrait had been challenged, and this lead in turn to issues of representation and simulation. For this reason, essential differences between the two distinct media of photography and painting contributed to a fracture between discourses on art history and photographic history. Studies on photographic images have broken down the standard art historical categories and even effected a redistribution of categories in discursive framework of visual arts theory.

The self-portraits of the early French photographers offer an example. The artistic training, class background, purposes for making images and context in which their images were viewed differ greatly from the self-portraits of previous artists. The current investigation proceeds through an interdisciplinary methodology of studies of visual culture in order to probe issues of spectatorship and discursive space and to expand the discussion of representation since the second half of the 19th century, when photography began to intervene in artistic and social practice. It particularly, this essay looks at technical mishaps that enabled photographers to create special effects such as spectral shadow images. Such techniques became a playground for early photographers’ wits and talents and let them question or reverse the dualities of reality and fiction, self-disclosure and self-concealment, and the interior and exterior of the picture frame, thereby revealing a system of symbolic visual expression that contrasted with the relatively fixed and singular system of representational art that preceded it. Photography presented meaning to viewers by capturing realistic images. Its visual representations would no longer be limited by the single, static, cohesiveness of the picture frame, but would instead indicate a varied and dynamic territory beyond the frame. Photography articulated images as slices of an infinite, continuous reality and as being open-ended in meaning.


photographic self–portraits, representation, frame, spectatorship, intersubjectivity