1930. The passengers of the Orient-Express had their meals served in elegant dining cars. Every last detail was arranged to create the sense of luxury that brought renown to the train and the company that launched it — the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. The Orient Express offered sophisticated catering, artful table settings, and crockery and silverware specially designed by the company. But above all, friendly onboard staff, the face of the Wagons-Lits, were responsible for the comfort of the passengers, down to the cozy sleeper cars.
Some of the archival photos featured in the book Orient Express & Co., published by Éditions Textuel, reinforce the image of sophistication we associate with the famous train. They include advertising photographs that date back to the 1950s. For example, we come across Sophia Loren asleep in a train car, photographed for Paris Match. Great stars and models were used by the Wagons-Lits to nourish the legend of its flagship train.
The book’s co-authors, Eva Gravayat and Arthur Mettetal, however, want to tell a different story: they want to debunk the myth in order to put the Orient-Express back into its historical, industrial, and economic context. While the train continues to charm our collective imagination thanks to Agatha Christie’s eponymous novel, it was nonetheless fundamentally a part of its era.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Orient-Express was a symbol of technical progress. It encapsulated economic and geopolitical stakes by crossing state and empire borders unhindered. Above all, it inspired an orientalist wave with the promise of its fabulous destination: Constantinople. Other lines would later serve more distant cities, but would never rival in renown the Wagons-Lits’ first international luxury train.
This multiple reality is revealed through the photos culled from the collections assembled over 130 years by Wagons-Lits employees. These precious archives have survived the company’s various restructurings to bring us a multilayered social history. In particular, they tell the story of workers who labored behind the scenes, in laundries and workshops, to keep the train on its tracks. We thus discover the full story behind the myth.
The Orient-Express is a literary and cinematographic icon; photography, however, is the medium that holds the key to understanding its history. The emergence of photography dovetailed with the rise of the railroad: both were symbols of progress and industrial triumph. Official photos of ribbon-cutting, company portraits, staged advertising scenes, as well as riots immortalized by the strikers: the book is a journey through time aboard the Orient Express, but also a reflection on the changing role of photography over the century.
By Joy Majdalani
Joy Majdalani is a Paris-based editor and Lebanese content creator. She specializes in technology, art, culture, and social issues.
Eva Gravayat and Arthur Mettetal, Orient Express & Co.: Archives photographiques d’un train mythique
The book is available here.