French, 1801-1888, Portrait of the Photographer as a Drowned Man 1840 (Direct paper positive)
Hippolyte Bayard was not simply the least-known of the triumvirate who invented photography, he was arguably the medium’s first artist. The process he devised consisted of making a positive image directly on to sensitised paper in the camera, but this less practicable method was ignored in favour of the systems developed by Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot. So Bayard contrived this sour tableau. a parody of David’s Death of Marat, depicting himself as an unclaimed cadaver in the Paris morgue, a poor martyr driven by an uninterested world to commit the desperate act of drowning himself. In so doing, he gave us what might be ascribed the first photographic nude, the first photographic self-portrait, and, by virtue of its mocking, ironic self-referential qualities and written caption – ‘the body of the gentleman you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process which you have just seen, or of which you are going to see marvellous results’ – possibly the first postmodern image-text piece. It is, also, the first direct example of the photographic lie.
Bayard craftily utilised the camera’s propensity for combining verisimilitude with metaphor to convey his disgust at his treatment – his ‘mortification.’ In modern British parlance, one might also say that he was ‘gutted.’ Clearly, in this startling image, one of the earliest photographs we know, the photographer displays an immediate and sophisticated awareness of the medium’s endemic ambiguities. He was aware that he was fabricating a believable representation of death, not simply sleep, and that both were false. He was undoubtedly aware that the picture depended for its piquancy as an image partly upon a knowledge of David’s iconographic painting, but primarily upon its title, which colours our entire perception of it
Two fundamental truisms are demonstrated in this title. Firstly, that most pictorial images, especially photographs, connote some kind of narrative. And secondly, that all photographs deal with mortality. Henri Cartier-Bresson once remarked famously that every photographed moment passes into the realms of history at the moment of the shutter’s closing. When he made this picture, Bayard, for whatever reason, was ‘playing dead’. Now, as film-maker Peter Greenaway has observed, Bayard himself is long dead – ‘dust and bones for more than a century’ – but the photograph itself still exists to render its own ironies twice as bitter. This faded piece of fragile paper remains, this not-so-simple snapshot endures, not merely as an ironic, poignant memento mori, but as a curiously fitting epitaph to the man who did not so much invent the process as define the slippery art of photography from the very beginning. Greenaway enumerates both the picture’s qualities and the medium’s virtues (if they could be called that) precisely:
‘This modest photograph so early in the history of photography has already opened up an encyclopedia of doubts and challenges, artifices and deceits, ambivalences, ambiguities and downright lies.’