# 7-2 | Photographes en amateurs | Olivier Christin

We knew that photography had become an art in its own right by fighting for its legitimacy on the very terrain occupied by the Fine Arts. Today, it is a key component on the contemporary arts scene and in the art market. We did not know how, from the nineteenth century onward, it had positioned itself within society by participating in a decisive way in the reorganization of the world.
We know the important role the camera plays in the homogenization of modern life styles. Strangely, we did not know very much about the photographic practices of amateurs. Christian Joschke has just done their portrait in an innovative dissertation where he brings out a subject that was less egocentric than was thought to be the case, a volunteer fighter who worked to change the order of the world. Paying close attention to the German situation during the authoritarian reign of Wilhelm II, he shows in what way, faced with the threat of a breakup of the public space, bourgeois amateurs set their own aspirations for liberal progress in opposition to the traditional values of the aristocracy. Beginning especially in the 1890s, a growing number of exhibitions, competitions, instruction manuals, and texts helped to establish a kind of photography that was intended to be the common weal of enlightened men.
German culture was going to be changed thereby. That culture was no longer going to be characterized only by a shared language but also by a share gaze. By shifting politics from the explicit realm of a social contract to the implicit one of images, the liberal bourgeoisie nevertheless dangerously mixed up ethics and aesthetics. We know what was to be the posterity of this movement launched at the end of the nineteenth century, and not just in the vicious process that witnessed Nazism leaning to a massive degree on this culture of images in order to aid its intensive propaganda campaigns.
How did one go from a desire to educate crowds to the will to fascinate them? That is one of the questions posed by Joschke, which lies at the juncture of social history, political history, the history of the sciences, and the history of technologies. With his work, the history of art makes a contribution to the study of people’s mentalities. He belongs in this way of the pioneering tradition of his interlocutor, Olivier Christin, who has long studied the status of images in the West, in particular in his excellent book, Les yeux pour le croire : Les Dix Commandements en images. XVe-XVIIe siècles. Via the detour of ancient history, Christin has opened up some totally prospects on the power of images in a world dominated by the visual, our world.

Laurence Bertrand Dorléac
Seminar of November 24th 2005

What is an Amateur?

Olivier Christin

What is an amateur ? What does it mean to practice an art (theater, music, painting, or photography) as an amateur ? What does it mean to, at one’s leisure–that is to say, in a disinterested and yet sometimes passionate way–practice some activity with the expectation that that activity might be recognized as legitimate, useful, or even capable of garnering some prestige? Christian Joschke’s work offers a response to some of these questions. For, in restoring to amateurs, to the clubs and journals they founded, and to the exhibitions to which they gave rise their rightful importance in the history of photography’s autonomization as a legitimate cultural practice, his work induces our analyses of the relationships between the artistic field and the late nineteenth-century leisure class to make a decisive step forward.

Amateurism and Recognition

To recall that amateurs (scientists, doctors, engineers, ethnologists) were some of the main actors in the process by which photography became organized, was assembled, and came to seize a symbolic hold over the dominant political and artistic places of culture (the Reichstag in Berlin, the Kunsthalle in Hamburg) and that they were thus at the origin of photography’s recognition as an art form even though they did not consider themselves to be artists is to succeed in effecting a double shift in perspective. Not only is the question of photography’s artistic legitimation no longer posed in terms of an ontology of images and of an aura surrounding unique works (at the very time that these works had become technically reproducible), but neither does this question exclusively pertain any longer to an approach that would be limited to the artistic field alone: it is neither in the images themselves nor in the strategies of the most famous nineteenth-century photographers that we are to find an explanation for this new technology’s consecration as an art form; rather, it is to be found in the transformation of the modes of self-representation and of world-representation that were coming to light at that time among portions of the population.
Indeed, Joschke shows quite clearly that the recognition gradually obtained by photography and by those who practiced it is not to be explained solely in terms of some kind of inner revolution within which overshadowed [dominés] or scorned artists would have ended up gaining the respect and winning the approval of the prevailing forces [les dominants] and of the institutions they controlled. Struggles within the world of art, of museums and Academies, and of critics in their complex relationships with artists take on meaning here only when related to the aspirations of a new bourgeoisie which, having passed through the realschulen and steeped in a technological culture, saw in photography and in its practice a form of leisure activity consonant with its own representation of the world.
It would therefore be a mistake to project upon this specific leisure activity of the new leisure class the categories and celebratory strategies that at the time were those of avant-garde artists and of talk about art for art’s sake–that is to say, of artistic activity that would have no other end than itself and no other form of recognition but that accorded by one’s peers. In many respects, photography’s legitimacy was constructed along other lines than that of the pictorial or literary avant-garde : there was a claim to social and scientific utility, for example, a concern with the public and with interests, as well as an adherence to the moral and political values of the bourgeoisie.
The late nineteenth-century amateur photographer was therefore not the amateur lover [l’amateur] of photography, that more or less informed consumer who nevertheless remained alien to the very stakes involved in the artistic or cultural practice that interested him. He was not the flip side of the professional, of he who knows what he is doing and why he is doing it, even if the appearance of the term amateurism might lead one to think so. An actor in just as much as a spectator of the changes photography was undergoing at the time, a competent producer and technician just as much as a consumer of the new industrial, commercial, and artistic products of photographic activity, he defied the categories of the classical sociology of art. And it really for this reason that he helped to transform the very status of photography.

The Amateur, From Court Civility to Bourgeois Leisure Activities

This amateur was certainly no longer the same person as the one celebrated in the courtier manuals and treatises on civility from the early modern period. He was no longer like the wellborn man who knew how to make of his honorable idleness a supreme form of self-accomplishment in the new social space of the court, that dilettante who had to know how to danse, to play a musical instrument, to write or to recite poetry, and to talk about painting or drawing without ever seeming gauche yet without ever being boring. But neither was he the ridiculous figure imagined in the modern cult of the misunderstood artist, a figure that takes shape only in the nineteenth century; that is to say, this amateur did not fit the figure of an incompetent or clumsy imitator, the weekend painter or the hick poet. The vocabulary used by the associations of Wilhelmine Germany’s amateur photographers directly testifies to this lingering prestige of the amateur, in the sense of a connoisseur, when speaking of a “dilettante” or while retaining the French term.

Amateurism and Tourism

Joschke’s study is not limited to reestablishing the amateur at the origin of photography’s recognition as a legitimate cultural practice and in the end as art. This brings up a second paradox that is just as key to the history of the figurative arts in Germany at the time, a point to which we must return for a moment. It really was the liberal bourgeoisie that seized hold of photography as the setting for an expression of its political aspirations and of its particular world view. Both the Hamburg photography exhibition and the choice of the Reichstag as the site for a photographic exhibition offer proof of this, just a few years apart. But since the practice of amateur photography was not unrelated to the boom in tourism and a folkloric rediscovery of Germany during the final decades of the nineteenth century, amateur photography adopted in large part their favorite subjects, their interest in exploring the countryside and the rich diversity of its heritage, and their effort to describe the country’s various populations and their traditions. German regional landscapes, popular traditions and peasant costumes, rural architecture, craft activities and leisure pursuits, and the Empire’s strange peoples who were at the time in the process of constituting themselves held the attention of amateur photographers as well as of the tourists they sometimes also were. Without having any plan in mind or any explicit project on this score, without wanting to, to be sure, and in any case without thinking about it, the liberal bourgeoisie of the Wilhelmine age cast into the apparently innocent but useful leisure activity of photography some of the future seeds of the Völkisch ideology. In the end, what it offered was the means to transform into a mass culture and into a product of popular cultural consumption regional ways, local customs, and various traditions that until then were disappearing beneath the blows of industrialization and urbanization, along with landscapes suddenly torn from the realm of nature so as to become emblems of a nation. Thus can we understand the interest this Völkisch trend and then totalitarian ideology were going to show for an art that is capable of producing such emotions and such collective representations.


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Christian Joschke  est historien. Professeur d’histoire à l’Université Lyon II, membre de l’Institut Universitaire de France, directeur d’études à l’EPHE Il a publié de nombreux textes sur les images et l’iconoclasme à l’époque moderne. Parmi d’autres : Une révolution symbolique: l’iconoclasme protestant et la reconstruction catholiques, Paris, Minuit, 1991; Les yeux pour le croire : les 10 commandements en images. 15e-17e siècles, Seuil, 2003 ; il a participé à l’édition du Traité des Saintes images de Jean Molanus, Paris, Cerf, 1996 et à l’exposition, Iconoclasme: vie et mort de l’image médiévale, Berne-Strasbourg. Il prépare actuellement une édition de l’Atlas Marianus de Gumppenberg (1657-1672).

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