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HomeContentsOnline exhibitions > Photograph album - An Unknown Street Photographer in Paris (1896)

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Photograph album - An Unknown Street Photographer in Paris

These photographs come from a small, olive green Kodak album with the handwritten inscription on the inside cover, "Paris, 1896". The size of the prints, 1½ x 2 inches, indicates they were taken with a Pocket Kodak Camera, first released the year before. There are 92 photographs in all.
So much for the technical information; the real value of this album is that it represents the work of an amateur street photographer during the very earliest years of snapshot photography. More than that, the composition of a lot of the images is enigmatic. It anticipates an aesthetic that didn’t become popular until the introduction of the SLR camera some thirty years later and it leads us to wonder whether some of the photographs are the accidents they first appear to be.
The photographer has left a few, spare clues about his identity. The shadow cast in one photograph indicates it is a man and from two images it appears he may have been wandering the streets in the company of a friend. The inscriptions written in faint pencil on the album pages are in French although we can’t assume that was his native language. Tourists often give the local names for landmarks. One thing seems certain; though he may have been an amateur by inclination, his eye for photography is sophisticated, suggesting previous experience, a background in visual arts or at the least, a natural affinity.
A sizeable number of photographs in the album have to do with motion; bicyclists, horse drawn buggies and pedestrians hurrying through the streets. In December the previous year the Lumiére brothers had given the first public exhibition of their cinematograph and Etienne Jules Marey was still perfecting chronophotographic cameras. Capturing motion was constantly discussed in photographic journals and in newspapers and though no capable high speed cameras were commercially available in 1896, they were an inevitability. The new Pocket Kodak had a shutter speed of 1 1/25 of a second, still not fast enough to eliminate blur but it was small and light enough to exert some control over the image. As the photographer strolled through the Bois de Boulogne and snapped at bicyclists, he was as interested in experimenting with the possibilities of his new camera as he was in documenting city life.
Most amateur photo albums contain at least one image with an exact and revelatory composition that holds our attention. Generally we put that down to coincidence, but with this album the composition in so many images is carefully considered. Take, for example No. 14, a woman pushing a pram. The balance and pattern of the image, with the baby’s head placed under the dome and the woman at the centre is very neat. It appears as though the photographer saw the image materializing, perhaps as she was a few metres away, and positioned himself, steadying the camera against his chest and watching for the moment through the viewfinder.
With other images he intrudes, pushing his camera as close as possible without attracting obvious attention. In one of the most mysterious images (No. 19), a woman’s face is cropped neatly in half, the Pont Royal in the background. We could accept this as a lucky accident but the same apparent haphazardness is found in other images and on closer view they all reveal a harmony in the composition that begins to look deliberate. In the photograph of several men sitting on park benches (No. 25), the man in the right foreground is cropped, again, in half. The whole shape of the photograph leads towards the top hatted figure at the rear but it’s the hand on the silver topped cane that draws us back. In No. 24, another photographer (his friend?) is shot adjusting his camera. His head is cut off. Had a photographer like Andre Kertesz taken this in the 1930s we’d get the pun immediately and talk about it in terms of vision and identity. Only the date and this photographer’s anonymity prevent us from thinking he may have been making the same point.
Other photographs evoke Walker Evans’ streetscapes and (not surprisingly) J. H Lartigue’s juvenile snapshots. Looking at the album in its entirety, it’s clear that although he has photographed many landmarks, the photographer is less interested in Paris as a subject than in the possibilities it offers for exploring something more intangible. If not an artist by profession, he was by disposition.
John Toohey (August 2009) 



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