The Mayer-Pierson Case

The years from 1859 to 1862 were a key period in photography’s history; not only did those years see the denunciations of photography by many French intellectuals as fake and inferior (something I will cover in tomorrow’s post), but they also were the setting for the celebrated Mayer and Pierson case.

In 1844, Pierre-Louis Pierson began operating a studio in Paris that specialized in hand-colored daguerreotypes. In 1855, Pierson entered into a partnership with Brothers Léopold Ernest and Louis Frederic Mayer, who also ran a daguerreotype studio. The Mayers had been named “Photographers of His Majesty the Emperor” by Napoleon III the year before Pierson joined them. Although the studios remained at separate addresses, Pierson and the Mayers began to jointly distribute their images under the title “Mayer et Pierson,” and together they became the leading society photographers in Paris. Pierson’s 1861 photographs of the family and court of Napoleon III sold very well to the public, not least because they included revealing pictures of Countess Castiglione, society femme fatale, Napoleon III’s mistress and rumored Italian spy.

Through the Countess, Mayer and Pierson became acquainted with her cousin, the Italian statesman Count Camillo di Cavour, and took photos of him. It was around one of Cavour’s portraits that one of the most decisive battles in photography’s short history was fought. In January 1862, Mayer and Pierson filed a law suit against rival firms Thiebault and Betbéder for copying their carte of Cavour, and against Schwalbé for copying their portrait of Lord Palmerston. The former case was more controversial because the image of Cavour was retouched, with the figure of Cavour enlarged, his leg pose changed, and a library background scene added.

Although a lower court decided against them, Mayer and Pierson appealed. The case was argued and reargued not only in the courts, but also among the intellectuals, artists and salons. Finally, it reached France’s supreme court, the Cour de Cassation. Betbéder and Schwalbé claimed altered photos did not infringe copyrights and also produced a declaration signed by many of the leading artists of the day declaring that photography was not art. The trial was fought like a modern courtroom drama, with Mayer and Pierson’s attorney producing one photograph after another and comparing them to famous paintings and convincingly equating the camera to the brush. The Supreme Court’s decision established photography as an art under French copyright law.

However, the debate raged on. Many subsequent lower court decisions failed to uphold the Supreme Court’s decision. It would take another fifty years before photography was universally regarded as an art form.

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