Cornell University, USA
Problematizing the Feminine Gaze: The Ambivalence of Geneviève Disdéri’s Prints
Geneviève Elisabeth Disdéri is often described as her husband Eugène’s ‘silent partner1’, whereas she co-managed her own photography studio in Brest and later opened one in Paris2. Similarly, she was professionally active until her death in 1878 but her death certificate reads unemployed3. As some daguerreotypes by the Disdéris are signed by both husband and wife, little is known about the extent of her implication in those studios. As such, her bound album Brest et ses environs, which bears only Geneviève’s name, offers an interesting counterpoint to Eugène’s carte de visite fame in Paris.
Through a close visual analysis of the landscape and architecture prints of Brest, this presentation will show how her photographs contravene discrete categories of gender, class, and art. For example, the centrality of built landscapes in the album complicates the ideal of femininity as domestic and emotional interiority. Moreover, Geneviève’s interest for provincial subjects challenges the balance of power between provinces and the capital although her social status – that of a Parisian bourgeois living in Brest – reinforces it. Her work also allows for an interrogation of the frontier between artistic and commercial prints. Contemporary scholarship has explored the vexed relationship between Eugène’s status as entrepreneur, technical innovator, and artist4, but this tension has been left unexplored in Geneviève’s case. Yet, Brest showcases both her knowledge and capacity5 as a commercial photographer and her use of composition as an artist. By confronting the essentializing trope of the feminine eye of the photographer and recognizing Geneviève’s talent as a female photographer, this presentation will aim at uncovering the ambivalence of women’s role in early photography.
1 McCauley, Elizabeth Anne. A.A.E. Disdéri and the Carte de Visite Portrait Photograph, Yale University Press, 1985. A&AePortal, www.aaeportal.com//?id=-19516. Chapter 2. ‘The Carte de Visite and the Search for Markets.’
2 McCauley, A.A.E. Disdéri. The studio in Brest was co-managed with her husband’s friend Eugène Collet-Corbinière. Later, in the Paris studio, she may have received some help from their son Jules.
3 McCauley, A.A.E. Disdéri. Chapter 7. ‘Disdéri’s Late Career and the Demise of the Carte de Visite.’
4McCauley, A.A.E. Disdéri. Chapter 2.
5 Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. 1st ed, Abbeville Press, 1994, p.44.