When we talk about early twentieth-century photographs, chances are you imagine portraits of stuffy grandfathers gathering dust in the back of a closet: a world in shades of gray or sepia, where his fob chain stands out against the dark fabric of an uptight suit, while a long dress, pinned at the collar with a cameo brooch, tightly wraps around her waist. Although Antonin Personnaz’s (1857–1937) images date back to that same period, they conjure up a world of soft tones, with hilly landscapes, snowy countryside, and rural scenery composed of thousands of dabs of color. These autochrome photographs are now showcased at the Pissarro Museum in Pontoise. Some forty pictures, all taken in the Oise valley, have been selected for this exhibition (and twice as many are included in the catalog). From one room to the next, one can’t help noting the affinity between Antonin Personnaz’s autochromes and his collection of impressionist works: 142 paintings and drawings which were bequeathed to the national museums at his death.
Personnaz’s taste in, and knowledge of, impressionist painting nourished his vision and helped train his eye, just as his family’s activity, the fabric trade, must have contributed to his sensitivity to color. “Antonin Personnaz used autochrome in a way that was quite original at the time,” explains Christophe Duvivier, director of the museums of Pontoise. “Most of those who, from 1907 onwards, used this new technique, took advantage of being able to capture color to make portraits or still lifes that were very chromatic, that ‘popped.’ But Personnaz preferred to photograph landscapes at typically impressionist moments, when colors lack contrast: early morning, dusk, during frost, morning fog, floods, or after a snowfall.”
The photographer himself asserted this link with painting. As early as 1907, the year the Lumière brothers marketed the glass plates that made direct color photography available to everyone, Antonin Personnaz wrote in the Bulletin of the Société française de photographie (SFP), of which he had been a member since 1896: “Messieurs Lumière have given us a marvelous technique that allows us to automatically create pictorial works. […] Let us not limit ourselves to using it to produce bright tones; let us look to master landscape painters: the Cazins, the Monets, the divine Corot who, in order to exalt the tender greens and harmonious grays of his landscapes, was content with the red headdress of a peasant girl. Let us be inspired by their example and seek to render nature’s softest, most delicate hues, and we will thus create a work of art.”
It is therefore not surprising to see Personnaz’s life partner pose with a red umbrella in her hand in photos that deploy Camille Corot’s well-tested technique. His sensibility and his mastery of the autochrome earned Antonin Personnaz considerable reputation among amateur photographers. At the time, autochromes were unique images impossible to print on paper or duplicate, and were shared only at amateur club gatherings. “When we read SFP minutes, we understand that [Personnaz] was considered to be one of the masters of the autochrome: his opinion was often solicited, he was asked to organize competitions and participate in juries,” points out Christophe Duvivier.
However, after World War I, Antonin Personnaz definitively abandoned this technique. His archive, including about a thousand autochrome plates, as well as black-and-white photographs and stereoscopic views, was entrusted by his widow to the SFP. “After a long period of oblivion, some of these photographs were shown to the public in the late 1970s, but the first personal exhibition devoted to the photographic activity of this unassuming artist took place only in 2020 at the initiative of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen,” notes photography historian Virginie Chardin in the exhibition catalog. We can only rejoice at this rediscovery.
By Laure Etienne
Laure Etienne is a Paris-based journalist and former member of the editorial team at Polka and ARTE.
“The Oise Valley in Color: Antonin Personnaz, Autochromes 1907–1914,” exhibition at the Pissarro Museum in Pontoise, France until October 17, 2021.
Antonin Personnaz, Autochromes 1907–1914. Exhibition catalog. Selena editions, in French, €22.