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Direct positive on paper
9.3 × 10.6 cm (3 11/16 × 4 3/16 ins) (image, irregularly trimmed)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005, Accession Number: 2005.100.32
Curatorial description (accessed: 12 October 2016)
Even before the detailed processes of Talbot and Daguerre were revealed, a third inventor had successfully obtained photographic images using a process of his own creation. Hippolyte Bayard, experimenting in the hours left free from his civil service job, had brought his process from conception to fruition in the short space of a few months early in 1839. Like Daguerre's technique, Bayard's was a direct-positive process; like Talbot's, it produced photographs on paper. Each picture required some thirty minutes of exposure.
This photograph, inscribed on the verso "Essai de 1839 Avril Mai," is one of Bayard's earliest surviving prints and among the rarest of photographic incunabula. Its chemical stains and slight discoloration only heighten the modern viewer's sense of bearing witness to the magic that first enabled sensitized paper to retain an image thrown by the lens of a camera obscura.
The picturesque windmills of Montmartre, the outlying suburb that was becoming the bohemian quarter of Paris, were a frequent subject of Bayard's earliest photographs, and likely figured in some of the thirty pictures shown by the artist in the first public exhibition of photographs, held in Paris in July 1839. Remembering that occasion a dozen years later, the critic Francis Wey wrote of the exhibited works, "They resembled nothing I had ever seen. … One contemplates these direct positives as if through a fine curtain of mist. Very finished and accomplished, they unite the impression of reality with the fantasy of dreams: light grazes and shadow caresses them."