In the 1850s, as photography took its first steps toward commercial reproducibility, a more intimate use for light-sensitive plates briefly bloomed. It had a few names: heliographic drawing, photographic autography, or, as it is best known today, cliché-verre. Miya Tokumitsu takes us to the towns and forests of France where a group of friends began making marks on photographic plates, and finds their camaraderie cohere in lyrical arrangements of topography and light.
In May of 1853, the celebrated painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot drew his first photographic negative on a glass plate. He was in the northern French town of Arras, visiting his dear friend, Constant Dutilleux, also a painter. It was a festive time: Corot was close with his friend’s family, and the occasion for the visit was the wedding of Dutilleux’s daughter, Élisa, to the artist and publisher Alfred Robaut.1 Encouraged by friends, Corot scratched a stylus around the collodion-coated plate, removing bits of the emulsion in scribbles and wisps. This cliché-verre (glass plate) was then used as a matrix to create the resulting print, The Woodcutter of Rembrandt (Le Bûcheron de Rembrandt). Thus began a spirited but brief efflorescence of cliché-verre making in France. Eugène Delacroix, Théodore Rousseau, Jean-François Millet, and numerous others tried their hands at the newfangled technique, though none besides Corot found it to be a sustaining medium for their work. This story of cliché-verre, from its delightful beginning to its general quiescence a few years later, reveals what a generative — and delicate — creative force friendship can be.
Cliché-verre is a graphic art technique that combines aspects of photography and printmaking. Until the twentieth century, it had an unsettled nomenclature that awkwardly attempted to bridge these mediums and included various knotty terms like “heliographic drawing” (dessin héliographique) and “photographic autography” (autographie photographique).2 In the most common, “drawn” method of cliché-verre that Corot employed for The Woodcutter of Rembrandt, a transparent glass plate is covered with an opaque coating, such as collodion. As with copperplate etching, an artist draws through this coating with a stylus, scratching or flecking it off the surface. Indeed, Corot’s invocation of Rembrandt van Rijn, one of the great masters of etching, in the title of his first cliché-verre, perhaps staked a hopeful claim for the new technique. Once the composition is complete, the plate is a photographic negative; light shines through only the transparent areas of the plate onto light-sensitive paper, creating a photographic image.3 No camera is required.