|Paul Géniaux, Marais Salant, Billiers. Early 20th century, Rennes.|
Silver Salts: Realism and Materiality in a French photograph, c. 1900
Working close to home, Paul Géniaux (1873-1929), photographed a female paludier, or salt-pan worker, in Billiers, on the south coast of Brittany in about 1905. Grayscale contrast has material consequences: we cannot avoid the dirt on her apron or her tough, bare feet on the salted earth. Registered in the image’s silver salts is the difference between the light cotton kerchief on her head and the dark skin of her face, exposed to the same blazing summer sun and wind that crystalizes the salt she skims.
Saliculture is a materially intensive agricultural labor, working with sea, sun and wind, yet it shares qualities with fishing and quarrying to harvest salt, the only rock that we eat. In the marais salants of the French Atlantic coast, trapped ocean water increases in salinity as it is guided through grids of carefully maintained, clay-lined channels to ultimately crystalize into prized fleur de sel. Like the crystals skimmed from the briny pan, Géniaux’s photographic practice was a gathering up of the world around him on silver gelatin dry plates. Although allied with a realist approach to photography rather than nascent French pictorialism, Géniaux photographed a highly selective archive of his native Brittany that inventoried the specificity of locally particular gestures, types and trades. Salt workers and their insular, clannish culture had been mythologized by Honoré Balzac, and had been a staple of travel illustration in the 19th century. Géniaux’s photographs generally echoed established visual tropes of rural labor and locale from travel writing to Salon painting; they were widely reproduced as collographs --a photomechanical fusion of camera and printing press-- in journals and as postcards that were reprinted for several decades.
This essay is a reflection on material equivalence in fin de siècle realist photography. It puts into dialogue Susan Sontag’s descriptions of photography’s “relatively undiscriminating, promiscuous, or self-effacing” literal qualities with Timothy Morton’s “weird essentialism” in which “things are partial, yet ‘organic.’ There are things, but they don’t come with a handy little dotted line that says Cut Here to separate the essence from the appearance.” Tim Ingold’s notion of landscapes as hybrid and dynamic “meshworks” is useful in getting away from “the sterile opposition between the naturalistic view of the landscape as a neutral, external backdrop to human activities, and the culturalistic view that every landscape is a particular cognitive or symbolic ordering of space.” Ingold has further called attention to the absence of materiality in studies of objects that have been “already crystallized out from the fluxes of materials and their transformations.” In addition to these theoretical approaches, I have found it fruitful to think about Géniaux’s photograph through the language of land art and collaborative artistic processes of working with the world’s materiality, especially Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), and his interests in salt’s crystalline properties.