Pictorial photographer (Leon) Robert Demachy was born in the wealthy Paris suburb of Saint-Germain-en-Laye on July 7, 1859. The youngest child of a wealthy banker, his privileged upbringing allowed him pursue interests in music and fast cars. When he discovered the family banking business was not to his liking, he focused on art, becoming a painter and literary critic. In 1882, he became interested in photography as an Impressionist art form. Strongly influenced by painter Edgar Degas, who was also a photographer, he wanted to infuse the artistry of painting into his photographs. In Mr. Demachy's view, the photograph itself is just the first step in an extremely intricate process.
To give his pictorial photographs the look of paintings, Mr. Demachy employed the gum-bichromate process, which allowed the photographer to add pigments that would provide the prints with texture. During this process, a negative would be printed onto paper that was coated with a gum, arabic, potassium bichromate, and color pigment emulsion. Light would then be passed through the negative's thinnest and darkest parts. Because the emulsion's hardening is proportionate to the light, it would wash away in the lighter sections, but would provide strong texturing in darker-toned areas when the image was developed in warm water. The emulsion could be used to simulate a painter’s brushstrokes, applied either smoothly or coarsely for contrasting texture. Color could also be artfully added to enhance the print further.
Mr. Demachy became the photographer most associated with the gum-bichromate printing method, which he employed in a series of female nudes and landscapes. He was also passionate about the telephoto lens because its smaller field depth was compatible with his Impressionist image interpretations. Elected to the Societe Francaise de Photographie in 1882, Mr. Demachy was also an active member in the Royal Photographic Society as well as Linked Ring, and the Photo Secession avant-garde movement. His voluminous text output included five books and more than 1,000 articles on various types of photographic techniques. Because of his vast knowledge and proficiency with English, he became a frequent contributor to Camera Work and the British Journal of Photography.
In 1893, Mr. Demachy married American socialite Julia Adelia Delano, a distant cousin of future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. However, the union was an unhappy one, and they were divorced in 1909. World War I marked a period of profound global and photographic change. Up-and-coming photographers were moving away from pictorialism and embracing more realistic photographic styles. The Linked Ring disbanded, the Photo-Secession dissolved, and Camera Work - once the leading proponent of pictorialism - now embraced newer techniques. The First World War also marked the end of Robert Demachy’s photographic career. Perhaps because the time of pictorialism had passed, Mr. Demachy lost interest in photography to the point where never again used a camera, even refusing to take pictures of his grandchildren. He also donated his collection of photographs to the Paris Photo-Club and the Royal Photographic Society. Robert Demachy died on December 29, 1936 at the age of 77, and was buried in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, the final resting place of many notable artists including Honore de Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, Georges Bizet, and Oscar Wilde.
2008 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 408-409.
2002 Photography: A Cultural History (London: Lawrence King Publishing, Ltd.), p. 173.
2002 Photography: An Illustrated History (New York: Oxford University Press), p. 63.
1913 The Sinclair Handbook Of Photography, by James A. Sinclair
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