Those responsible for the DATAR Photographic Mission viewed it from the outset as one more in a line of iconic projects in the history of photography: the Heliographic Mission 1851, the U.S. “New Frontiers” expeditions of the late nineteenth century and the Farm Security Administration (1935-1942).
Far from making a complete overview of the historical background, Bernard Latarjet and François Hers chose to write a particular story, that of “photographic missions”, as opposed to the much broader story of photographic commissions from institutions. They thus built an identifiable heritage, covering a wide temporal and spatial field, from the early days of photography to the 1930s, from France to the United States.
The exposure given to these three projects had a role in setting the scene for the DATAR Photographic Mission in the early 1980s. Indeed, each of these projects had reached a certain public at the time, due to the reissue of books or the exposure provided by exhibitions of their work. The photographs of the 1851 Heliographic Mission remained scattered among various French collections for a hundred years before being rediscovered and promoted by Philippe Neagu, head of the historical monuments photographic archives. The U.S. expeditions of the nineteenth century returned to prominence thanks to the undertaking to photograph the sites once agein, and the results were published in 1984. Finally the work of the Farm Security Administration was exhibited in France twice, in 1979 and 1980.
This choice of precedents reflected current knowledge regarding the history of photography. Bearing this in mind, we can now offer a complement to this historical perspective, based on recent reappraisals of photographic collections, especially in the French context. As a photographic production placed under the auspices of the government, the Mission follows in the footsteps of the achievements of the operators of the Mountain Land Restoration service in the late nineteenth century, and of the visual policy implemented by the Ministry of Reconstruction and Urbanism between 1945 and 1979. Moreover, if one looks at it in the context of the history of State commissions, The Archives of the Planet project conducted between 1912 and 1931 can also serve as an interesting precedent.
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