THE KING OF PHOTOGRAPHERS
OF THE BUTTE MONTMARTRE
The early 20th century saw the development of the profession of the strolling or itinerant photographer, in cities, seaside and spa resorts, and tourist sites. At a time when homes still were not equipped with cameras to immortalise a moment of family life, a special occasion (a communion or a wedding), a trip, a thermal cure, these photographers would follow clients on the move (in the street, on the beach, in the mountains); offer portrait sessions in front of a painted studio décor, at their workplace, or in their home; or position themselves in strategic locations (tourist sites, holiday spots, train stations or ship piers). Although these pictures, sometimes ‘while you wait’ jobs made to satisfy demand as quickly as possible, might betray awkward framing and technical flaws, that didn’t prevent clients from buying them; the pictures still testified to their subjects’ presence and a moment of lived experience. These souvenir photographs could personalise correspondence, provide an original image of oneself, a spontaneous image created by a professional. Thus they are essential to the history of photographic practice and the constitution of what came to be called vernacular photography, allowing photographs of oneself to be distributed in contemporary society.
In this perspective, François Gabriel, through his practice, is a worthy representative of his era.
Born in 1883, high on the Montmartre butte, he was the third of four children. After a career as an insurance broker, he decided in 1914 to establish himself as a photographer at 36 rue Muller, at the foot of the Butte, in a former café-restaurant converted into an apartment. He lived there with his widowed mother.
But with the outbreak of war he was obliged to postpone his plans: he left for the Belgian front, as a nurse, on the third of August. He married Blanche Brunet during his leave, on 31 December 1914. A son, Charles, was born 25 August 1917. He would be the father of Hélène Guillon Gabriel, the present holder of what remains of François Gabriel’s work. For, out of the towering stacks of photographs cluttering the studio, his granddaughter kept only those relating to the personal history of the family: those featuring one or several members of the photographer’s entourage. Private collectors contributed to completing the rest of the puzzle.
Although everything was ready before the war, François Gabriel only began to practice his trade after demobilisation.
As Hélène remembers it, he began with portraits taken in his studio, but also photographs of neighbourhood shops – and, already, stairs. In addition, he had some painted backdrops. One represented Sacré-Cœur; in front of it he posed, on his sidewalk frontage, passers-by desiring a personal souvenir of their visit to Montmartre. In the last photograph François Gabriel took of his granddaughter, then eight years old, the backdrop represents an apartment with a window and mouldings. ‘That must have been the fashion,’ she says.
What made François Gabriel unique was the protocol he established on the stairs of the rue Muller. For some thirty years, he operated only a few metres from his studio and home. For this strolling photographer did not stroll far. He chose a set territory, a place that he appropriated over time. That is the secret of his work’s originality: his obsession for the space just outside his door.
His photographic arrangements would not change; his darkroom remained absolutely the same throughout his professional life. He positioned himself at the bottom of the stairs in order to take group photographs of tourists who had come to visit the Butte and were coming back down from it. His clients came to him; he didn’t need to travel to capture them.
But he didn’t merely take people as they came. He staged them, so to speak. He placed them on the steps, arranging them to either side of the handrail. That was the heart of his work. Not being mechanically controlling, making them go up or down the stairs according to a set pattern, but placing them so as to make the picture as expressive as possible. So that all could be seen, with no one hiding anyone else, so they interacted.
This was obviously inspired by the economic factors of his practice: to make each shot profitable, the photographers of that time would put as many individuals as possible in each picture, in order to maximise their chances of selling it. Some clients would buy these shots even if they appeared only as a tiny figure all the way in the back: the important thing was to be there and identifiable! The concepts of individualism and the personalised portrait were still far from predominant. A group portrait satisfactorily fulfilled the period’s criterion of a souvenir picture. What was important was a record of one’s presence.
Remarkably, blurred photographs – or rather, photographs in which one figure is blurred – are rare. In other words, everyone paid attention to the photographer staging the shot. He managed to capture his subjects standing still, but remaining natural – quite an achievement for the period, outside the studio. So the photograph is crisp and clear.
Like many of his colleagues, François Gabriel used the photograph card as the medium for these souvenir pictures. A few clients waited for the photograph to be developed, but most paid in advance and had one or several copies sent to them. At that time, mail service was rapid. A photograph mailed in the morning arrived in Paris or its suburbs that afternoon, out of town the following day. François Gabriel’s wife was responsible for this painstaking task. And not that alone. Blanche had to look after waiting clients; on slow days, make it known that a photographer was waiting to immortalise the moment; then, when the picture was snapped, take orders, ring up purchases, and record addresses for delivery. She seconded him so closely that, in a shot where he himself appears, he can be seen to mime pressing the button of the camera. A gesture clearly addressed to his wife, who was taking his place as photographer. She was always there. We see her in the foreground, on the first step, on the first landing, at the shop door, summer and winter (bundled up and hands in pockets against the cold). She isn’t there to be photographed. Her husband includes her in his field, and it is to be supposed that he sometimes used her to attract clients …
When tourists came down the stairs, they saw this photographer and his model, whose relationship they didn’t necessarily suspect, and that might give them the idea of having their own photographs made. Blanche is often at the very centre of the picture. It is possible that the photographer used her to focus – at least when the figures are not too far apart. In any event, he needed her: at that time, it was impossible to work alone. Nothing was automated. Blanche was responsible for many tasks, changing photographic plates, etc.– all the more so since François produced dozens of photographs at a time.
He targeted tourists, for the most part – although communicants are sometimes to be seen. There are photographs on which are written phrases such as ‘Souvenir of Sacré-Cœur’ or ‘A Prayer Has Been Said for You’. But he didn’t address himself to day-trippers alone: Montmartre residents took an important place. We must not forget that at the time Montmartre was a village where everyone knew everyone else, where children played outside – we see them with their bicycles, their hoops, a fine crew of little rascals – and the place was, above all, where the ‘locals’ led their daily lives. They are generally at the bottom of the picture, while the tourists coming down the stairs are above, on the steps. They aren’t there to be photographed, they live there.
Competition was stiff in the 1930s. The Second World War struck a near-fatal blow to itinerant photographers, including François Gabriel. No Montmartre picture of his from this period exists. Nor were there many studio photographs: clients were few, preoccupied by the conflict, unwilling to pay for ‘trifles’ … And then, although new technology made work easier – his granddaughter found a note in his archives: ‘Our modern equipment allows us to photograph even at night’– the era of amateur photography was beginning, with widescale distribution of cameras affordable to (nearly) all.
When his career ended, in 1959, at the age of 76, the Muller stairs series was long since over, and he produced hardly any studio photographs. The era was long past now when one went to a professional photographer to have an individual or family portrait taken. Only the Studio Harcourt still sold such shots. Neighbourhood photographers were no longer in fashion. If François Gabriel had been younger, he would probably have transformed his studio to serve a professional clientele. But he was no longer of an age to launch a new career, with new equipment and processes. He lived out the rest of his life very modestly.
Nonetheless, François Gabriel is a representative of his generation, an emblematic figure of the itinerant photography of the era. The rigour of his work leaves a unique testimony to the importance of street photography and the souvenir card in the first through the middle years of the 20th century. He addresses better than any other the question of seriality in photography and the documentary image. Who was he, in the final reckoning? An artist or a craftsman? Does this question have any real meaning?
He was certainly an original. So testifies the poster – not devoid of self-mockery – made in 1914 by the artist Marcel Matho, in which his caricature is presented: ‘“Gabriel”, King of the Butte Montmartre Photographers’. A poster he didn’t hesitate to put up on the side wall of his studio – an inviting wink at the passer-by? He was an actor in the life of Montmartre, a pillar of the neighbourhood. And his obsessive practice establishes him as a profoundly singular character in the history of photography.
Helène Guillon-Gabriel, Emmanuelle Fructus
Compiled by Jean-Marie Donat