Long before it became one of New York City’s most photographed landmarks — before it was even completely erected, in 1886 — the Statue of Liberty featured in countless pictures. Beginning in 1875, images of the statue’s fragmented head, hands, and torso emerged to form comprehensive documentation of its construction. They were part of a carefully orchestrated campaign by its designer, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, to build worldwide excitement — and, of course, draw money, in order to make the mammoth work a reality (an early precedent of today’s ubiquitous Kickstarters). One hundred of these images are now on view in Lady Liberty: The Photographic Making of an Icon, an exhibition at the Rencontres d’Arles that was curated by Director of the Canadian Photography Institute Luce Lebart and the photography festival’s director, Sam Stourdzé. The vast majority arrive from the archives of Musée Bartholdi.
The first-ever public images of Liberty, according to Lebart, appeared in October 1875 issues of two journals, L’illustration and Le Journal Illustré. Many more followed, as Bartholdi hired photographers to capture the construction process and distributed the images to promote his project. Conceived of in 1865 during a dinner conversation about France and America’s friendship, the statue had not received enough public donations — mostly from French citizens — to be completed, as Bartholdi had hoped, by 1876, the centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And so he continued to sell postcards, stamps, and other easily disseminated items emblazoned with the statue’s image.
“The adventure of the construction of the Statue of Liberty is a real media phenomenon on an unparalleled scale at the time,” Lebart writes in a catalogue accompanying the show published by Éditions du Seuil.
Along with photographers Albert Fernique and Charles Marville, Pierre Petit was responsible for many of the views of a scaffolded or skeletal Liberty, her wooden innards not yet covered in plaster and sheathed in a copper outer skin. A number of Petit’s photographs document the process inside the workshop near Paris’s Parc Monceau; his lens captures a huge team of carpenters, plaster mixers, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, and other craftsmen working on giant body parts. In one particularly uncanny image, the half-plastered hand of Liberty clutches a tablet much like one would hold an iPhone to snap a selfie. To further finance the statue, Bartholdi welcomed members of the public to tour the workshop.
In 1876, the statue went on a world tour — or rather, parts of it did. A large number of photographs focus on the torch-holding hand, which was the only section of the work actually finished by America’s 100th anniversary of independence. Bartholdi shipped this nearly 33-foot-tall fist and fire across the Atlantic, first to Philadelphia for the Centennial Exhibition, then to New York City’s Madison Square Park; it garnered more camera attention and money as visitors paid to scale to its balcony, which could fit 12 at a time. The monumental hand then returned to Paris. When craftsmen completed Liberty’s head in 1878, that too was exhibited, at the third Paris World’s Fair on the Champ-de-Mars esplanade, complete with a souvenir stand. Historical illustrations complement the photographs in Lady Liberty, and one shows how people could pay to climb a wooden spiral staircase inside the statue’s head in order to reach the cupola and sweeping views of Paris. One recurring visitor was Rudyard Kipling, who writes fondly in his booklet Souvenirs of France of venturing into the head:
One ascended by a staircase to the dome of the skull and looked out through the vacant eye-balls at a colored world beneath. I climbed up there often, and once an elderly Frenchman said to me, “Now, you young Englisher, you can say you have looked through the eyes of Liberty Herself”. He spoke less than the truth. It was through the eyes of France that I began to see.
By the time the statue was ready to be pieced together, marketing images and pictures by tourists were in heavy circulation, continuously building hype for the final product. Crisp photographs by Fernique show the assemblage of Liberty outdoors, growing over two years and eight months to tower, at 150 feet high, over the buildings of Paris. She received more visitors — including Victor Hugo — while awaiting the completion of her pedestal across the ocean on Bedloe’s Island, and then was finally dismantled. Over 300 wooden crates containing the pieces traveled to the US, first by rail before landing on a naval steamer bound for New York, where it took another four months for workers to rebuild the statue. Finally, on October 28, 1886 — almost exactly 11 years after the first public images of Liberty emerged — Americans celebrated her erection with great fanfare. Many, of course, took the opportunity to pose with her, and Lady Liberty, arranged in chronological order, concludes with a few such examples. They are familiar portraits, recalling the ones snapped by tourists today snap. The smiling individuals are emblematic of the success of the monumental project, made possible only because of a fundraising campaign you could say was as well-crafted as Liberty herself.
Lady Liberty: The Photographic Making of an Icon continues at the Rencontres d’Arles in the Arles Antique Departmental Museum (Avenue 1ere division de la France libre, presqu’île du cirque romain, Arles, France) through September 11.
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