Photogenic drawing was the phrase used by Talbot Fox, among others, to describe the photographic method: chemically treating a sheet of paper so that the light falling on an object made an impression of that object on the paper. Fox and Daguerre were contemporaries, and daguerrotype soon overtook photogenic drawing as the preferred term, to be overtaken in turn by photography. The word, from the Greek for product of light, was not forgotten, but came to be employed in technical contexts – for instance, in discussing light producting organisms like fireflies; but then it took a strange turn in its philological life history.
The first references to the new meaning of photogenic come from French cinema culture. Already, in 1921, in Cinea, Jean Epstein is connectng photogenie to a particular impression of a thing or a person on the screen:
“The cinema itself is movement, so much that even its natures mortes, telephones, factories, revolvers, revive and pulsate. It isn’t a question of worrying about making them live: let it happen and it gives life.
But it is a particular life, a life of ideas, a life of sentiments. Note: everything that is witness of an exclusive thought: habit, tiredness, animality, distraction, plays with a marvelous photogeneity. The cinema is mystical. It attaches a uniquely important value to everything which represents, exteriorly, the signs of intelligence.”
It is probably the French use of the term which floated back to the US. In the twenties, as we all know, a new American literature was being written by expats in Paris. What is less remembered is that numerous American news bureaus sited themselves in Paris, and there was a strong trans-Atlantic flow of journalists. The earliest US source that I can find is a story from the Washington Post, dated April 23, 1922, entitled Parisian News and Views, from a special correspondant. The item recounts the movie mania sweeping France, and makes the usual coy with the American image of France as the home of dashing male lovers, who have all the lines:
“So much is this true that if Don Juan lived today the spiritual Clement Vautel is sure his classic lovemaking would be transfored into such simple words as: “you are so photogenic. Would you like for me to present you to one of my friends – who is a moving picture director?”
Photogenic operates in that paragraph as an exoticism, an introduced species, something with an accent. At about the same time, the word appears in New York Times stories with quote marks around it. God bless the New York Times for having had, since forever, a stick up its ass about formal and informal English. One can go back in the archive and find words that are currently accepted as standard, like ‘leak’ for a leak of information, and trace their gradual loss of the branding quote marks in NYT stories. The appearance of the word in a cluster of newspaper stories of this time shows that photogenic was taking off, that it filled a need. Like the starling, another introduced species, it found the environment in the US conducive to massive growth.
By the 1920s, the film industry had been around for around 30 years. As Ty Burr points out in his recent book on stardom, Gods Like Us, film stars and the star system had not been around that long. The first photoplays didn’t name the people who appeared – acted? – in them. As audiences for these things grew larger, the studios began to receive massive amounts of mail asking for names. Burr picks one actor as the first star: Florence Lawrence. It is evident that Burr doesn’t quite get Lawrence:
“Her very few surviving films reveal a stat uesque woman, attractive in the preferred Gibson Girl mode of the day, with a prominent nose, broad face, serene expression. Her acting is histrionic with out being over bearingly so, yet there’s little that makes her jump off the screen the way a movie star is supposed to.”
“Jumping off the screen” is in the semantic neighborhood of Epstein’s terms in 1921 – reviving, coming to life, resurrection. Epstein’s examples – the objects of ordinary life – temper, of course, the hijacking of photogenic as an attribute of stardom. But the special correspondent to the Washington Post already caught the erotic charge, the personalization of the photogenic.
Surely we are encountering, here, one of the tripwires of modernity. Edgar Morin wrote, long ago, that the art that presents an image of reality injects that image into reality. What photogenic injected into reality was a new organization of appearances. One should, I think, see the photogenic against another term - “aura” – which is also emerging, although in philosophical culture, with Bela Belazs in Visible Man and, most famously, in Walter Benjamin essay on Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.