Hans P. Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs will present an exhibition of more than fifteen early photographs of Chartres Cathedral by French photographers Henri Le Secq, Charles Nègre and the Bisson Frères from September 16 through October 24, 2014.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame at Chartres, about 50 miles from Paris, was built primarily between the 12th and 13th centuries. One of the finest examples of French High Gothic, it is a milestone in the development of Western architecture. Remarkably homogenous in style, its original stained glass windows and around 4,000 sculptures are largely preserved. Auguste Rodin stood in awe before those statues, during his first visit to the pilgrimage town in 1877, and referred to Chartres Cathedral as "the Acropolis of France."
In 1851, the Commission des Monuments Historiques appointed Henri Le Secq (1818-1882) as one of five photographers sent on the Missions héliographiques, photographic surveys of the nation's architectural patrimony. Le Secq had learned the paper negative process from Gustave Le Gray. His photographs of the cathedrals of Strasbourg and Reims so pleased the Commission that they hired him to document Notre Dame of Chartres the following year. The salt prints that Le Secq produced of Chartres Cathedral in 1852 constituted an accurate and poignant record.
"We are grateful ... to Mr. Le Secq for having further refined the process of reproduction," wrote Henri de Lacretelle in an 1853 article, "Albums photographiques," in the journal La Lumière. "The illusion of reality is so strong that we are tempted to touch these prints ... This is not paper, this is stone ... It is as if Chartres Cathedral has let Mr. Le Secq steal all its interior and exterior marvels."
Charles Nègre (1820-1880) was also a pupil of Le Gray, and a master in the art of the paper negative. From 1854, he made a series of large architectural studies of Chartres Cathedral in photogravure, a process of which he was one of the earliest practitioners. These beautiful plates were commissioned by the architect Jean-Baptiste Lassus, then in charge of the restoration work, to illustrate his monograph on the cathedral.
Unlike Le Secq, who only used paper negatives, Louis Auguste Bisson (1814-1876) and his brother Auguste Rosalie Bisson (1826-1900) adopted the new negative process of wet collodion on glass. By the mid-1850s, the Bisson Frères were regarded in the same league as the preeminent photographer of architecture, Edouard Baldus. Their views of Chartres from the late 1850s focus on a selected group of details. Dramatic lighting deepens the shadows and enhances the sculptural quality with a clarity that could not have been achieved with paper negatives.