Issue #155  1/2/2009
Girault De Prangey's Daguerreotypes

By Matt Damsker


2008. Published by Musee Gruerien and Editions Slatkine to accompany the exhibition of the same name, which continues through March 29, 2009 at Le Musee Gruerien, Bulle, Switzerland. In French; hardback; 191 pages, approximately 100 color plates. ISBN No. 978-2-8321-0332-6. Information: http://www.musee-gruerien.ch .

Apart from a small book of lithographs of his delicate watercolors and ink drawings, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (1804-1892) did not exhibit or promote his art during his lifetime, even though it's possible that he learned daguerreotypy from Louis Daguerre himself and produced nearly 1,000 important daguerreotypes of Middle Eastern and European architecture and landscapes. Recently, Switzerland's Musee Gruerien rediscovered a collection of 61 of his daguerreotypes, including wonderful views of Basel, the Jura, Bern and its highlands, Vevey, the Tête-Noire passage in the Valais region, the Mont-Dore ruins in Auvergne and the Mer-de-Glace in Chamonix.

The museum is now displaying these works along with 17 of Girault de Prangey's images of Paris and the East Mediterranean--Athens, Istanbul, Izmir, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cairo, plus key drawings--and this handsome exhibition catalogue meticulously reproduces the photographer's seminal studies for us. These are certainly important daguerreotypes by any measure, and the accompanying essays (in French) by Cristophe Brandt, Cristophe Dutoit, Sylvie Henguely, Susanne Bieri, Philippe Kaenel and Isabelle Raboud-Schule provide a great deal of context for the work, with scholarly treatises not only of Girault de Prangey but also of Daguerre's process and conservation techniques.

Not unusually for his time, Girault de Prangey, who studied painting at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, considered himself more of a draftsman than a photographer. His daguerreotypes were important to him mainly as studies for his elegant watercolors, for example, a sun-drenched depiction of the ruins of Ramses' temple in Thebes, drawn note for note from the silvery daguerreotype he produced in 1844. No doubt Girault de Prangey envisioned, hopefully, that his painting would outlive his photography, but the obvious irony is that his camerawork would emerge as posterity's treasure. Indeed, the painterly eye he brought to his photography served him particularly well in the production of these pioneering images--beautifully composed, carefully exposed, well-preserved, and now deservedly and thoroughly chronicled by Le Musee Gruerien.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

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