This image belongs to a series of photographs commissioned in the nineteenth century by the Société d’Ethnographie, a club of French ethnographers who studied the variety in humanity, frequently forming race-based conclusions. This photogravures feature a young woman, Cora, completely nude and in three poses facing away from the viewer, facing the viewer and in profile to the viewer. Cora’s nudity and positioning have two seemingly contradictory effects. The first is a dehumanizing quality associated with nudity. At the same time, her positioning harkens back to classical European sculpture. The statuesque pose, the vague background, the bare skin, and the expressionless all point to this reference. The crumpled rug beneath Cora breaks the sterile feel of the photogravure and provides a sense of intimacy and domesticity.
The photogravure of Cora is part of a long tradition of photographing black people in a way that denies their humanity. Beginning in the nineteenth century, photographers such as Albert d’Arnoux Bertall intentionally photographed their subjects nude and vulnerable, which emphasized the powerlessness of black people in the dominant culture and justified racist notions toward them. This particular image—like many of this type and subject matter—was part of a larger series of ethnographic materials that circulated throughout the West.
Originally printed in the albumen process and published between 1865 and 1867, the first plates of this collection were also exhibited at the Universal Exhibition of 1867. By 1882 the Society recognized that the prints were fading and resolved to publish a “new” edition using the superior process of photogravure. This “new edition”, sold by subscription to the booksellers of the Ethnographic Society, thus reproduced, in gravure on copper plate, 9 of the 42 photos that had originally been printed on albumen paper. As the text points out, the use of this process offered better image stability and the photogravures have indeed retained an incredible freshness. The images are so remarkable that one would easily be led to celebrate their artistic value, but that would be to forget the primary objective of the Ethnographic Society, which remained the updating of different “human types”. In fact, the photographs are essentially rigorous and methodical; in this they respond to the “resolutely medical tendency” which was practiced at the time.
Princeton University Art Museum
P.-J. Jehel. "A photographic illusion: sketch of the relations between photography and anthropology in France in the 19th century".
"Acquisitions of the Princeton University Art Museum 2008," Record of the Princeton University Art Museum 68 (2009): p. 69-119., p. 87