Guest article: Edouard Baldus and the RIBA Library Photographs Collection

By Robert Elwall, assistant director at the RIBA Library Photographs | 07 April 2010
a photograph of a building covered with scaffolding

(Above) New Louvre under construction, Paris (circa 1855). Architects: Louis-Tullius-Joachim Visconti and Hector-Martin Lefuel, Photographer: Edouard Baldus. Courtesy RIBApix

Culture24 has teamed up with the RIBA Library Photographs Collection to bring you a series of features highlighting some of its hidden treasures. Robert Elwall, assistant director at the Collection, discusses the work of Edouard Baldus here...

In the wake of Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre’s announcement in 1839 that "inanimate nature, and architecture" were the "triumph" of the first viable photographic process, French architects were far quicker to appreciate the importance of the camera for architectural recording than their British counterparts.

This is evidenced in particular by the creation in 1851 of the Mission Héliographique by the Commission des Monuments Historiques. This important instance of the state patronage of photography aimed to make a photographic inventory of France's architectural heritage, and in particular of any endangered monuments as a precursor to their historically accurate repair.

The list of buildings to be photographed was drawn up by a subcommittee of the Commission that included the architect Léon Vaudoyer. Its Director, the writer Prosper Merimée, and five of the best photographers of the day were awarded "missions" for particular areas.

Edouard Baldus was despatched mainly to Burgundy and Provence; Hippolyte Bayard to Normandy; Henri Le Secq to Champagne, Alsace and Lorraine; and Gustave Le Gray and Mestral, who appear to have combined their missions, to Orléans, Poitou, the Charente and the Auvergne.

By 1852 more than 300 negatives and some prints had been deposited with the Commission that demonstrated that photography far from being an exercise in objective recording could be governed by differences in style and emphasis between photographers.

Thus, while Henri Le Secq's contribution was highly atmospheric, seeking to capture the evanescent effects of light and shadow, Baldus's was one of clinical statement with a concentration on the rendition of fine detail.

Born in Grunebach, Prussia in 1813, and having unsuccessfully attempted to become a painter, Baldus took up photography in 1848 and soon became one of the finest renderers of architecture of the age.

a photograph of a building with an ornate facade

Pavillon Turgot, New Louvre, Paris (circa 1856). Architects: Louis-Tullius-Joachim Visconti and Hector-Martin Lefuel. Photographer: Edouard Baldus. Courtesy RIBApix

Nowhere is this better seen than in his "stone by stone" documentation of the construction of the New Louvre, the centrepiece of Napoleon III's campaign to transform the heart of Paris, designed by Louis-Tullius-Joachim Visconti and Hector-Martin Lefuel.

Working with large glass plates that enabled him to capture the myriad details of the building with pin-sharp clarity, Baldus, with the help of 12 assistants and an on-site darkroom, made more than 5,000 views, creating a commission of unprecedented scale.

Many of the more general exterior views he took such as that of the Pavillon Turgot were deliberately shot head-on to resemble an architect's elevational drawing and to suggest an objective detachment.

This decontextualization of the subject was sometimes enhanced by retouching of the negative or print to eliminate adjacent buildings – such manipulation was a factor in photography long before Photoshop.

This severe, monumental style accorded well with the Second Empire character of the buildings portrayed and Baldus's photographs enjoyed a wide distribution.

Special presentation sets of more than 2,000 images were issued in 1857 and 1858, and many could be found in schools of drawings and libraries throughout the country, especially in the form of the photogravure reproductions which were produced for Palais du Louvre et des Tuileries (1869-1871). Baldus died in 1889.

For more information on the RIBA Library Photographs Collection, browse the RIBA Library Photographs Collection online at

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