Demachy, a Frenchman, was a banker by profession, and an amateur artist,
becoming a leading photographer in the 1890s. He was the founder of the
Photo Club of Paris, a member of London's Linked Ring, and of the
An influential photographer of the time was Dr. P. Emerson, who fostered a
more subjective approach to photography than hitherto. As a result, there
was an emphasis on minimum detail and soft focus.
However, for some photographers this was as far as one should go; it was
perfectly admissible to control one's photography at the camera stage, but
one should not tamper with the photograph at the printing stage beyond
employing very modest negative re-touching techniques.
his was not sufficient for other photographers, and Robert Demachy,
together with other photographers such as George Davidson and Alfred
Maskell began to experiment at the printing stage as well. A familiar
phrase attributed to Demachy is "The end justifies the means", which sums
up his approach to picture making.
His photographic work was quite diverse; he exhibited portraits, street
scenes and figure studies, and wrote a a number of books and about a
thousand articles on photography.
He is an interesting photographer to study because his work epitomises the
controversy which existed in the world of photography at the turn of the
century. Demachy had little time for the "straight print" photographers,
especially if they presumed to call themselves artists. No straight print,
he declared, with "its false values, its lack of accents, its equal
delineation of things important and useless" could really be called art.
"A straight print may be beautiful, and it may prove.. that its author is
an artist; but it cannot be a work of art... A work of art must be a
transcription, not a copy, of nature...This special quality.." (which
makes it a work of art) "is given in the artist's way of expressing
himself... If a man slavishly copies nature, no matter if it is with hand
and pencil or through a photographic lens, he may be a supreme artist all
the while, but that particular work of his cannot be called a work of
However, perhaps to counter argument, he also made the observation that
manipulation was not necessarily art: "Too many pictorialists will meddle
with their prints in the fond belief that any alteration, however
bungling, is the touchstone of art...."
In addition to deliberately using soft focus lenses to blur and soften the
image, he also used printing processes which required manipulation. The
final result was by no means pure photography, because the finished result
in many of his pictures was achieved by using brushwork together with
An example of this technique is his Figure Study from an Etched Negative,
a gum print produced in 1906. One can readily see the long diagonal lines
etched over the body greatly reducing photographic detail.
Among his favourite subjects was young ballet dancers, in a style very
much reminiscent of Degas' work. He also made studies of people.
A powerful image is En Bretagne, which must be a composite from a number