I went twice to see Tate Britain’s 2015 exhibition Salt and Silver. This picture hung in the final room, Portraits and Presence. Certainly, it was the presence of a woman who must have been dead for nearly a century and a half by the time I was standing in front of her portrait that drew me back to this particular photograph again and again.
Like Matthew Brady’s General Robert Potter and Staff. Matthew Brady Standing By Tree (1865) which is discussed in chapter 2 of Graham Clarke’s The Photograph, this is two pictures in one. – In the Brady, there was the conventional depiction of martial authority set against Brady, smiling, proprietorial, leaning against a tree, slyly undercutting the meaning of the first.
Here, the conventional, Victorian picture is of two girls – the daughters of the title – seated at a table, holding a doll. Both look down, demure, not acknowledging the camera in any way, but they have cheated their gaze out from the doll so they can be seen in three-quarter face. The bottom third of the picture is filled with the folds of their skirts – lovely patterned material in stripes and a tight check – and the cloth that covers the table that they lean on.
But you don’t really register any of this, because you can’t help looking at their mother, smiling slightly as she looks directly into the lens of Frénet’s camera and out at us. Her hair (presumably tied in a bun like her daughters’) and dress are barely registered by the camera, so they are not available as signifiers of ‘Victorian-ness.” Instead, you are left with her face, her gaze and her hand, resting gently on the elder daughter’s shoulder. She seems rather modern somehow. She seems in control.
And then you notice a third child peeping out from the darkness in the centre of the picture. Like her mother, she is part of the second, unconventional photograph. Her gaze is directed either towards her big sister or at the man standing by the big camera on its tripod as he exposes the negative. And above her Mme. Frénet looks out, not at the man operating the machinery with collodion-stained fingers (from the fast and relatively new process that allows her animated pose) but at us.
If her two older daughters are the camera’s object, she is the picture’s co-subject. You can almost see her pop her eyebrows as if to say “Haven’t we done well, Jean-Baptiste!”
Jean-Baptiste Frénet (1814-89) was a journeyman painter with a wide range of other interests. He began to experiment with photography in the 1850s, probably influenced by a fellow member of the local chemistry society who had worked with the Parisian portraitist Nadar.
Although he would twice go on to run a photographic studio in Lyons, Frénet’s surviving photographs date from his period of early experimentation in the 1850s. When his collection was discovered and auctioned off in 2000, some pictures were bought by the Musee du Orsay and others by the Wilson Centre for Photography. Three of them were included in Salt and Silver, making Frénet a major figure in the exhibition. While Frénet will most likely remain a minor figure in the greater photographic canon, this picture and his wife’s lovely smile will stay with me for a long time yet.
Frénet, J-B (2015) Madame Frénet et fillettes, c.1855. [salted paper print from a collodion negative transferred from glass to paper support] ‘Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840 – 1860’. Location: Tate Britain. Feb 25 – Jun 7
- Clarke, G (1997) ‘The Photograph’ Oxford, Oxford University Press
- Hope, K (2015) ‘Biography: Jean-Baptiste Frénet’ in: ‘Salt and Silver’. ed. by Fleury, P. London, MACK
- French Wikipedia Article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Baptiste_Fr%C3%A9net
Links Accessed 05/06/17