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27 August 2012

A Laboratory for first time experiments: the Société Française de Photographie collections.

Established in 1854 and state-approved in 1892, the SFP is one of the oldest photographers societies still active and one of the most important private collections of historical photo-graphs in Europe. Bringing together objects, images, books, periodicals and handwritten documents, the collection, today listed a historic monument, was formed according to its member’s activities: technical, theoretical and visual experimentations. In fact, although these early photographers often patented their innovations, they more regularly made their discover-ies official by presenting them at the SFP, followed by the publication of an article in the society’s Bulletin and donations of prints and objects.

Hence the SFP conserves the first photolithography by Alphonse Poitevin, the experi-mentations of colour photography by Louis Ducos du Hauron and his early research into ana-glyphs, and the Lumière brothers’ first autochrome tests.

To the technical ‘first times’ (developing a process or a camera) are added the ‘first time’ uses (applications), among which figure numerous attempts at snapshot photography, the first images of the Earth seen from above – aerostatic photography – by Paul Nadar, along with the successful attempts at the transmission of images from a distance by the Bélinographe.

The actual idea of conserving photographic innovations of every kind for the future has been central to the SFP’s missions since its inception. Hence today, there are many prac-tices and uses of the image that have followed on from the multiple tentative steps of which the collection conserves the memory and hesitations. But first times were sometimes also fail-ures and several examples, now illegible, have not resisted the vagaries of their period or of time.

Apart from the socio-historical interest of these images, today these incunabular of photography also invite us to an aesthetic reading of ‘photographic experimentation’. Offered in all kinds of mediums, manipulated and bearing the traces of these manipulations, annotated on both front and back, and reproduced in several forms, these images have fed and continue to feed the photographic imaginations of which they form a precious archaeology.

Luce Lebart, curator, in charge of the SFP collections

Exhibition produced in collaboration with the Société Française de Photographie (SFP).

Exhibition venue: Musée départemental de l’Arles antique, Rencontres d’Arles 2012.