Could you describe the context of these photographs?
All the images featured in this exhibition belong to what could be called the prehistory of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). This adventure began in 1915 with the creation of a subdivision in the Department of National Defense, which was transformed in 1917 into the Under-Secretariat of National Defense. Jules-Louis Breton, who would become a catalyst for inventions, was put in charge of the new organization. A cinema enthusiast, starting in 1917 he single-handedly systematized the use of photography and cinema in the service of inventions. He remained the director of the ONRS until 1938, when the National Office for Scientific and Industrial Research was transformed into the CNRS. We are dealing with thousands of images, which have been carefully culled for this exhibition. They reflect the state policy of support for invention and industrial and scientific research between 1915 and 1938.
“I was also struck by the imaginative power of this iconography”
What exactly was the role of photography in the Invention Department?
When Breton systematized the use of photography it was both for the purpose of archiving—although, as national secrets, the images and films were not shown to the public—and in order to cut the red tape, which he despised. He wanted to accelerate the bureaucratic process and ensure that any idea, regardless of its origin, could be paired with a scientist or manufacturer and see the light of day. This required expertise to simplify committee discussions and reports. Once an image is out there, it becomes the focus of debate and agreement.
How did you hear about this archival collection?
From my colleagues in the CNRS image division who have preserved a whole heritage of negative glass plates—forerunners of film negatives—dating back to the interwar period. We started with the glass plates to go back in time to the very beginnings of the encounter between photography and invention within the administrative framework of the inventions department.
What caught your interest in these images?
What is fascinating is that these are all utilitarian images without any artistic ambition, and yet they are aesthetically stunning. Some of them—since among the thousands, not every image is of the same quality—have a rather surrealist feel to them. Sometimes we seem to be looking at photograms or unusual found objects. Other times we are confronted with Braque’s compositions, such as his still life with pomegranates. These images also evoke the work of contemporary artists like Carl André or Louise Bourgeois. This is a very rich and surprising archive. I was also struck by the imaginative power of this iconography. In addition to the genre of still life, the devices are staged with human models. The images can be quite funny. Earlier, I saw people laughing in the exhibition! So there is a whole cinematographic imagination at work here, which is quite exceptional, quite unique, and rather interesting in the history of photography.
What is the main message you wish to convey with this exhibition?
I wanted to present the archive and at the same time use it as a starting point to tell stories. This archive is like a large, visual laboratory notebook—you know how scientists always have these workbooks to log data—detailing the steps in creating inventions. What I found most touching was the relationship to failure, and how research progresses through trial and error. It was Samuel Beckett who said: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” An invention is not something that appears overnight; it requires the work many people over time until, little by little, it is shaped into something useful. But nothing happens right away, and this is what I wanted to show in this exhibition. All the trial-and-error may result in a useless object or, just as well, generate something that twenty years later can be marketable and meaningful. This is what research is all about! I think most scientists are aware of this, and so are artists. We always keep on trying, failing, starting over, without getting discouraged.
What invention impressed you the most?
It’s hard to say, but if I had to pick one, it would be the image one I’m looking at right now. It shows a terrestrial earpiece: we see someone standing in the street with a sort of a giant stethoscope similar to those used in medicine. But here, the diaphragm is placed to the ground, and the man—very focused, wearing a military uniform—appears to be listening to the pavement like a doctor to a patient’s heart. There is a comic/burlesque/military aesthetic here, and when we learn that the picture was taken by the oddball filmmaker Alfred Machin, we gain a new insight into the image.
Interview by Coline Olsina
La Saga des inventions, Du masque à gaz à la machine à laver, les archives du CNRS
July 1 – September 22, 2019