Abbesses, Paris, France. Down the hill from 13 Rue Durantin in the neighborhood of Montmartre, Paris, France. I browsed Brocante des Abbesses, a Parisian antiques market. Sifting through old jewelry, art and furniture from what looks to be estate sales from the last 50 years or so. An eclectic mix of the extremely bizarre and the all too common household treasures. Meandering through the kiosks we saw everything from old silverware, to turn of the century tools, a bed pan with an eye ball painted on it and chairs made from the hair and horns of a bull.
Where I often gravitate is to the photographs and postcards. I never seem to tire of the written and visual memories of a time period I am not from. Perhaps I am a victim of the term “golden age thinking”. For me, Paris in the 1920’s would be the best time period to live in. Flipping through the stacks of photographs, faded, bent and torn. I carefully handle each one as if they were the works of Cartier-Bresson. Mostly the pictures are of churches and farms, black, white and sepia toned vistas of the early 1920’s. But nothing at this point is catching my eye. Then amongst the stacks I see a a small book, about 11×7 inches in size, with a cardboard cover, and leather string hinge. I open the first page and see 5 small 3×2 inch photographs with lace cut boarders framing 5 stunning portraits of a man and a woman on the French Riviera. The Paris Photo Album, a collection of vintage photographs of a family. As a portrait photographer myself I can feel a light inside me start to glow. I quickly flip through all the pages of the album, and page after page includes little pieces of photographic art, and little pieces of the lives of a mysterious couple, their friends and their child.
Immediately I know I have found something special. Brilliant captures of a couple on their honeymoon, vacations across France, weekends at the cape, mini explorations up mountains, sightseeing at castles and palaces. To me, I feel like I’ve found the next great photographer. Hidden for years in a storage container, or a dusky box in an ancient attic. The find, to me, echoes the long drawn out tale of Vivian Maier. But in this case I’m not out to make the photographer a star or seek art community accolades. For me these photos hold intrinsic value that could never be equated through dollars and cents. In looking through these photos I see a lot of myself in them. It’s like looking at ourselves in another time. A couple from nearly a century ago, doing things we still do today, taking well thought out vacation photographs. Like a good patron I paid the 25 euros list price for this book even when the dealer told me it wasn’t worth 20 and at the same time felt I was still getting the better deal.
Mostly what I think draws me to this photo album is the quality and care of the photographer. I actually have a hunch that the couple shares in the taking of the photos throughout the album and over the years. They printed their images with a local print house, but chose good quality finishing, and a style that was prevalent throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. The book starts in the summer of 1928 with the couples honeymoon adventure not unlike my own, a road trip through the south of France. All the while documenting their lifestyle in a way that rings true to my own photography style, capturing images of our travels and a mix of well planned portraits in interesting locations around the world. Even with the 50 or so photographs and well documented notes underneath each one, I am stumped as to who these people are and why this treasure trove of wonderful photography was so readily available to us at a flea market. The youngest person in the photographs looks to be about 7 or 8 years old at the end of the photo album in the year 1932 and there is a chance that she is still alive today. Her father is listed as Camille throughout the book with no other reference to the other family members or friends. Each location they visited, even the names of the bed and breakfasts they stayed at are listed.
That was the extent of what I really knew about this family, until I came home from Paris. I began scanning images and reviewing them in larger formats on my computer one by one, and finally a clue, well a speculative clue. If correct, it is a so obvious to anyone of that time period, but so oblivious to me. On a sunny day in the summer of 1932 a photograph of Camille his, wife and little daughter at Soulac Sur-Mer near Royan, France, standing and holding hands in the lake. On the chest of her swim suit, a star of David. Immediately my heart sunk. The fate of French Jews at the beginning of the 1940’s is a tragic one. Most of whom never returned to Paris or to their families. What was the fate of this family? Something inside me wants to believe that the reason I have this book is because it was simply misplaced during a recent estate sale. After a long and happy life serving as a piece of this families legacy, and that this was just the first album from a shelf full of many more memories.
Since I have nothing more to go on than the locations this family visited, the dates, and the name of the patriarch, who may also be the photographer; Camille. I want to share what little information I have, in hopes that someone in the family is looking for this collection of images, and looking for The Paris Photo Album, or if they don’t know anything about this part of their families history that they get the chance to feel the way I do every time I look at it; grateful. During the years 1928-1936 a family traveled around France and visited the following locations.
Orange, Isle Adam, Le Chateau des Papes, Le Rhone d’Avignon, Nimes, Provence: Maillanes: Le Bombeau de Mishal, French Riviera: Napoules Cottages, Cannes, Nice, Menton, Varenne-Jarcy: Moulin de Jarcy, Au Cap Martin, Cote d’or Quincey, Quiberon, Au Port Les Sardinniers, Ile en Mer, Maison de Sarah Bernhardt ,Rochers de Poulains, Lourdes, Le Chateau d’Henri IV, Le Maison de Louis XIV, Biarritz, Royan, Rochefort, Versailles, Pierrefonds, Grenoble, Chateau de Vizelle, Chateau d’Uriage, Chantilly, St. Malo, Parame, Monastery St. Michel, Dinan, Batz, Geneva, Switzerland.
This album is so inspiring to me, it not only shows a great collection of travel and family photography from a time period where candid and journalistic style of portraiture was uncommon. It also proves that making photographs (notice that I said making, which implies printing, and not the word taking) still matters. Photography is our link to the past from which we can connect to the future. I’m more inspired to travel, document our life and make photo albums now that I have seen this collection of images. It also proves that after all these years, nothing has changed the way we feel about photographs but that everything has changed at the same time about the way we preserve photography. We are still holding on to the same values and still interested in the lives of others. I love that, and I want to give it back. So I have chosen a few of my favorite images to share with you all from this incredible find. I hope you feel inspired and driven to capture your own families life, print the pictures, make the album, and review often. If you recognize anyone in the photos, or have seen these images before, please feel free to connect with me at firstname.lastname@example.org
You deserve a legacy as lovely as this one.