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Adolphe Braun - The Paris Commune and the Aftermath of the Franco-Prussian WarThe Franco-Prussian War, which included the Siege of Paris and the German bombardment of the city, and the subsequent Paris Commune, during which the government forces inflicted further damage on the capital, left large areas of Paris and its suburbs in ruins. Many Parisian photographers, notably Hippolyte-Auguste Collard, Hippolyte Blancard, Bruno Braquehais, Pierre Émonts, Alphonse Liébert, Eugène Disdéri, Auguste Muriel, J. Andrieu, and E. Durand, saw the commercial opportunity offered by these evocative and emotive ruins, and various series of views of the destruction swiftly appeared on the market. For those who had not been present, and for those who were unable to visit the ruins, these photographs served as a means to share the experience. They also served as a tool of political propaganda, since the considerable damage was blamed, albeit tacitly, on the Germans and the Communards, regardless of the fact that much of the worst of it had been inflicted by the French government itself. The Commune, moreover, had been savagely suppressed, and the memory of La Semaine Sanglante weighed heavily on the collective conscience of the middle-class. Photography, still considered by most to be a faithful and objective witness, showed, at least for those predisposed to view the images from that perspective, the desolation wrought by the Communards and justified the means-to-an-end taken by the government in order to regain control.
In his series on the Ruins of Paris and its environs, Adolphe Braun displayed his characteristic love of texture, the evident relish with which his lens treated the stones, bricks, rubble and earth echoing his earlier, scenic landscapes and rendering beauty out of destruction. The same is true of a similar series he produced, entitled Théâtre de la Guerre, 1870-1871, which showed the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War in eastern France, where most of the fighting had taken place. The town of Belfort in Alsace was only 48 miles from Braun’s birthplace, Besançon, and Mulhouse, where his studio was located [Dornach is a suburb of Mulhouse], was, at 23 miles distance, even nearer.
Adolphe Braun was born at Besançon in 1811. He first trained as a textile designer and opened his own studio at Dornach in Alsace [Eastern France]. He only turned to photography in 1853, when he produced a series of some 300 still-life studies of flowers, entitled Fleurs photographiées. Originally intended as designs for wallpaper and as an aid to designers in the fabric industry, these were immediately recognized as an artistic achievement in their own right. One album of the photographs was presented to the Empress Eugénie, and the work met with such success at the 1855 Exposition Universelle that Braun left the field of design for photography.
By the 1860s, Braun’s output was primarily topographical. He invariably traveled with teams of assistants, mounting ambitious photographic expeditions in France, Germany and Switzerland, the results of which were sold as series. Many of these views were also available as stereoscopic cards and these brought him considerable financial success. From 1866, he began to photograph works of art in Europe’s great museums, often printing these in the more permanent carbon process, the better to render the tonality of the originals. After his death in 1877, the studio continued in the hands of his son, Gaston.