Oops! The ‘failures and accidents’ that plague photographers — and have forever…at the Orsay

In this Parisian week of celebrating some of the best photographers in the world, it is something of a relief to laugh along with the Musee d’Orsay curators at the shocks and disappointments that awaited the earliest photographers, and still haunt us today.

OK, so how many times have you taken a wonderful landscape or streetscape photo, only to find that your own shadow has intruded in the composition, making it unusable?


Constant Puyo, Fontaine de Neptune, Florence.

This one could easily be cropped in the digital age. Here’s another:


I think even the curators are still trying to figure out how Baudelaire sneaked into this studio portrait of “M. Arnauldet,” attributed to Etienne Carjat.

Below is a more unfortunate shot at which one tries to stifle one’s giggles. It too is one that is equally possible in the digital age, and probably would find its cruel way onto Facebook:


Maurice Denis, capturing a couple of kids playing — and one we hope was ultimately only embarrassed rather than broken.

I should add here that, appropriately to the subject, the reader will note some accidents of digital reproduction that I’ve tried to minimize. Ignore the shiny exhibit lights and sloppy cropping of the photos’ frames, please. I would also like to disclose that I have absolutely no permission to reproduce these photos online, but as a wandering academic, I plead fair use for scholarly purposes.

It was delightful to find that there were manuals that addressed the predictable difficulties that attended not only sittings or street sessions, but also darkroom work. The curators found some of these manuals.


Those dratted halos.


They also found a manual that barked up a different tree and attributed some of these accidents to that nineteenth-century favorite, the paranormal.


This was pretty late in the long nineteenth century, actually, and it is sobering to think that what we thought of as chemical aberrations were actually messages from beyond — and we ignored them. Sad!

Here’s another ghostly appearance. I’m not sure we could reproduce this today with our digital gear — at least by accident — but I’d love to hear from anybody who’s done it or thinks it is possible. And who WAS this phantom child?


Because this is a photo by Eugene Atget, one is tempted to believe that the boy is not an error. This is the Fontaine, rue de Sevres, Paris. Maybe the boy is returning from another realm.

And here is another example of something that we’d be hard pressed to reproduce today except quite deliberately — or I guess by forgetting to unpush the “double exposure” setting on the new camera:


Paul Burty-Haviland, Group portrait of artists, including Marius de Zayas and Picabia.

Well, there are other issues here. We would have had to leave the infrared filter on, too.

This one I could have done with my beloved iPhone, and not on purpose:


The great Lartigue catches the action in an unintended way.

Again, pretend you don’t see the reflections of modern museum lighting. Just wasn’t any way around that. Full disclosure as well: I was able to “straighten” some of these snapshots of Great Shots using Snapseed. There’s a handy setting….

Contemporaries did notice and make fun of the photographic rage in the early decades of accessible equipment. Here’s a set of cartoon frames parodying precisely the errors and “oops”-es that the curators found in their collections:


Cartoons by Eugene Vavasseur, 1897.

One of the things that struck me most, perhaps just because I am a photographer guilty of — or plagued by — so many of these “accidents,” is that today some of these phenomena that seemed to be misfortunes in the first seventy years of photography were adopted or accepted by documentary and street photographers in the next generation. Here’s an example:


Prince Emmanuel Bibesco, photo of Prince Antoine Bibesco and the painter Pierre Bonnard in the train, 1901.

Granted, this is a bad reproduction of what may have been a not so great print, but the sunburst — the blown-out highlights — on the right side of the photo is not an awful effect at all, particularly given the Prince’s gloomy expression in the foreground.

I’ve written many times about the glories of the age of cell phone photography, and I stand by that approach, even though very few of the photographers I have written about here use such basic equipment. However, if I had the guts I would tell my Facebook friends that, truly, the editing tools to be found right on that basic equipment are worth using. Crop. Enhance. Lighten the shadows. Straighten the horizon. Please.

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