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Another Impossible Task

Another Impossible Task

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Chevalier Dubois de Nehaut represents a type of amateur photographer of the 1850s whose work exemplifies some of the most striking technical and aesthetic advances achieved by the medium in its second decade. A judge at the magistrates' court in Lille, he left the bench and settled in Brussels in 1851, pursuing his interest in photography. This image, as well as nos. 68 and 69, is from an album of thirty-two plates that the photographer dedicated in 1856 to the widow of a friend. The subjects, all of personal significance to the photographer, include self-portraits, portraits of friends and their children, views of the immediate vicinity of his house, train stations, and studies of the zoological garden in Brussels. The images, often annotated with the photographer's humorous comments about the subjects and about the quality of the prints and the technical difficulties he encountered, demonstrate Dubois de Nehaut's pursuit of the successful depiction of movement, his efforts to obtain images at various times of the day and under different weather conditions, and his predilection for photographing sites from a high vantage point so as to reveal surprising geometries not apparent at eye level. In the caption to this photograph of the elephant Miss Betzy, the photographer tells us that it is his twelfth attempt--the first successful one--to photograph the elephant in motion. Miss Betzy had come to Brussels from India via the London Zoo, and was one of the first tenants of the newly built zoological garden. The photographer managed to catch something of her distinctive way of moving, with her bulk thrust forward onto one leg, a habit she developed while swaying with the movement of the boat during her arduous sea voyage from India.
Louis-Pierre-Théophile Dubois de Nehaut (French, active Belgium, 1799–1872)

With the invention of photography, the eighteenth-century British passion for recording exotic lands and studies of the peoples in India was given new impetus. The earliest photography on the continent dates from 1840 in Calcutta, the political center of British India. The technology for photography arrived in India quickly became popular among the local rulers-many of whom employed photographers at their courts-as well as the British who had come to make their fortunes in the colony. For both populations, the new medium replaced painting as the method for recording the local landscape, architecture, people, and important events.





The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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