While journalists and publishers are familiar with the Roger-Viollet Agency, a new exhibition now allows everyone to learn that Hélène Roger-Viollet, the woman who founded the agency 83 years ago, was also a photographer. She had set out to document the world.
The property of the City of Paris since 1985, the Roger-Viollet Agency gained a new momentum in 2019, when Photononstop took over the cultural and commercial management. As a testimony to this renewal, a gallery was launched last December at the agency’s historic address — 6 rue de Seine — in the heart of the Saint-Germain district in Paris. On this very spot, in 1938, Hélène Roger-Viollet founded a company that today houses some six million images dating between 1850 and 2000.
“The gallery’s objective is to feature five to six exhibitions a year in order to bring this exceptional collection to the general public, and not just to professionals. We offer unnumbered modern prints, embossed with a certificate of authenticity. The prices are affordable because our goal is to reach as many people as possible,” explains Gilles Taquet, co-founder and co-director of Photononstop, an independent group that owns Biosphoto, an agency specializing in animals and the environment.
Hélène Roger-Viollet was born in 1901 into a bourgeois family. Her father, Henri (1869–1946), an engineer and chemist, was passionate about photography from the age of eleven. Hélène had big shoes to fill: her father’s production was as original as it was inventive. As the eldest of six siblings, including one boy, Hélène accompanied her father from an early age to the darkroom he had set up in the family home. She had first studied journalism, and it was not until the 1930s that photography began to play a major role in her life.
In 1936, while she was vacationing with her husband in the principality of Andorra, the Spanish War broke out. Fearless, the couple decided to cross the border to document the conflict. Their images were among the first to be published across the globe. This historical chance would change Hélène Roger-Viollet’s destiny. As she explained years later, this episode made her aware of the importance of photography: “We had reached this transformative moment when images took on great importance in the world.” This vigorous woman was definitely ahead of her time: still in the 1930s, she campaigned with Louise Weiss for women’s right to vote.
With the help of her husband and a rapidly growing team building the archives and captioning the photos, Hélène thought big. The Roger-Viollet Agency was dedicated mainly to marketing reproduction rights to newspapers and publishers, domains where photography was beginning to take off. The agency expanded from one year to the next, seizing opportunities to acquire a wide range of images: press agency archives, studio collections — including the Lipnitzki brothers’ collection, which covered the world of Parisian entertainment since the 1920s — postcards, as well as the work of recognized photographers, such as Jacques Boyer, Albert Harlingue, and Laure Albin Guillot.
The agency’s ambition was to document the world in images by covering every possible period and geographical area. This insatiable appetite led the couple to turn to the camera to fill in the gaps. “Once a year, we undertook veritable expeditions to take pictures in the most distant locations,” said Hélène Roger-Viollet a few years before she was tragically killed by her husband in 1985.
Poetically titled Les Voyages d’Hélène, and conceived as a tribute to the agency’s founder, the exhibition showcases the diversity of Hélène’s travel destinations between the 1950s and 1970s: South Africa, Sudan, Senegal, Haiti, India, Japan, Cambodia, Mexico, Guadeloupe… The photographer’s approach was above all documentary: she focused on vegetation, famous or ordinary inhabitants, street scenes, monuments, festive events, and religious ceremonies. These black-and-white images are today precious as a testimony to a bygone era as they are for their aesthetic quality. Hélène Roger-Viollet was a true master of her art.
By Sophie Bernard
Sophie Bernard is a journalist specializing in photography, a contributor to La Gazette de Drouot and Le Quotidien de l'Art, a curator and a teacher at EFET in Paris.
"Les Voyages d’Hélène: Une vie à documenter le monde". Galerie Roger-Viollet - 6, rue de Seine, 75006 Paris. Until June 26, 2021. For more information, visit the gallery website.
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