Solid Pictures: Photosculpture and the Reproduction of Reality

Thursday, September 29, 2022
6:30 pm | Campbell 160

Lindner Lecture Series

Patrick R. Crowley, Associate Curator of European Art at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University

On May 17, 1861, François Willème presented his invention of photosculpture to the Société Française de Photographie in Paris. It is difficult to overstate the significance of Willème’s technical achievement, in many ways the precursor to modern 3D printing, which combined the sensuous plasticity of sculpture with the vaunted reality-effects of photography. Although little-known today, it serves as a key example of the marriage of art and industry in the Second Empire. The turnaround must have seemed almost magical: the photographic capture of the subject in the studio took only ten seconds, and a finished sculpture was promised in as few as forty-eight hours. Thanks to the labor-saving nature of its mechanical apparatus, photosculpture promised to democratize portrait sculpture, a traditionally elite category thanks to its considerable expense, making it truly affordable for the middle class. And yet, Willème’s invention was not a commercial success; he operated his Paris studio for only five or six years until closing it in late 1867 or early 1868, by which time various competitors had devised and patented their own versions. This lecture, in anticipation of an exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford, investigates the technical aspects of photosculpture in the 1860s, as well as its even more obscure afterlives in the 1890s through the 1930s, to reveal its ambivalent, even opaque relationship to labor.