A History of Photography Through the Collections of the Musée Nicéphore Niépce

A History of Photography Through the Collections of the Musée Nicéphore Niépce


For The Eye of Photography, photographic books are as important as an exhibition or a portfolio. They make the history and the actuality of the medium. Our correspondent Zoé Isle de Beauchaine has a tirelessly curious and knowledgeable look at the latest publications.

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Nicéphore Niépce Museum in Chalon-sur-Saône, Sylvain Besson, director of the museum since 2008, has published an original history of photography, a celebration of the immense diversity of this “inexhaustible” medium, told through the museum’s collections.

With “four million photographs, more than 8,000 cameras, at least twice as many accessories, thirty thousand magazines and technical books or books illustrated with photography”, the collections of the Nicéphore Niépce Museum have a lot to tell. This incredible collection is distinguished above all by its heterogeneity, the result of a work of valorization of the medium as a whole, initiated by Paul Jay, the first director of the museum, and continued by his successor François Cheval.

Over the years, the collections have been enriched with photographs made by professional and anonymous people, vacation souvenirs and family albums, legal or scientific photographs, postcards, advertising or pictures of everyday objects, relief photographs and microphotographs. The Niépce museum has also largely contributed to the opening of the discipline to photography magazines and books by being one of the first to integrate them in its collections, whereas many people prefer the uniqueness of an original print.

It is precisely this notion of uniqueness, borrowed from art history, that the museum has always refused to confine itself to. In the eyes of Sylvain Besson, the opposite “would mean excluding the notion of series for an author-photographer, the album of photographs for the amateur, the illustrated magazine for the press agency, and neglecting the very essence of photography as envisaged by Nicéphore Niépce: that of the multiple.

Echoing Niépce, the book published by Textuel proposes to explore the history of photography through the multiple paths it has taken, from its creation to digital, offering its share of (re)discoveries. In an encyclopedic form, it traces its technical evolution as well as that of its distribution media, its omnipresence in an infinite number of domains – fashion, advertising, press, documentary, propaganda, judiciary, science, eroticism, cinema as well as the whole intimate sphere – and finally its apprehension as an art in its own right.

In this “other history” of photography, as singular as it is fascinating, the anonymous rubs shoulders with the great names of photography, the artist and the craftsman become one, technique and aesthetics walk hand in hand, the intimate becomes professional and vice versa.

Sylvain Besson’s book embodies fifty years of acquisitions whose heterogeneity makes for richness and pays homage to the Niépce museum, which has never ceased to promote the universality of this multi-faceted medium, responding to François Arago’s ambition for photography: “that everyone should get hold of it.


Sylvain Besson – A history of photography through the collections of the Musée Nicéphore Niépce

Foreword by Michel Frizot
Published by Textuel
21 x 28, 360 pages
59 €
ISBN : 978-2-84597-928-4
Available in bookstores or online