This exhibition of portraits features works taken from three Parisian collections. Photographs from the Maison de Victor Hugo collection evoke the early years of photography and the history of portraiture between 1850 and 1885, while journalistic reportage and studio portraits from the first half of the 20th century are represented by a selection from the Roger-Viollet collections. Lastly the show focuses on great photographers of the second half of the 20th century, with works borrowed from the collections of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. The 200 photographs selected illustrate how original these collections are and how they complement each other not only chronologically but also aesthetically and thematically, bringing together the notions of “portrait” and “masterpiece” thanks to often unexpected comparisons and parallels.
The photographic collection at the Maison de Victor Hugo mainly features portraits of Victor Hugo, his family, his homes and his entourage, including writers such as Alexandre Dumas and George Sand who were his friends. The fifty or so portraits presented here emphasize the unique relationship the banned writer had with photography from the beginning. Some reveal links with photographers of the time such as Julia Margaret Cameron, while contemporary photographs taken by Olivier Mériel at Hauteville House, Guernesey, where the poet lived in exile, echo his absence.
The Roger-Viollet collections include a very large number of portraits, in particular portraits of 20th century French writers, a favourite subject since the agency was founded in 1938. These sets of pictures reflect both the activities of Roger-Viollet as a press agency, and the impeccable taste of its founders, Hélène Roger and Jean Fischer, who collected works by Albert Harlingue, Maurice-Louis Branger, Bernard and Boris Lipnitzki, Henri Martinie, Henri Manuel, Laure Albin-Guillot and Pierre Choumoff. About a hundred prints are on show; some were taken as reportage work at literary prize-givings or during visits to authors or publishing houses, while others are half- or full-length studio portraits. Certain portraits are presented as diptychs or triptychs, and there are also sets of pictures chosen and printed by the authors themselves.
The Maison Européenne de la Photographie collection is representative of the history of world photography from the 1950s to the present. Here, the MEP presents sixty portraits of literary figures, some of whom also in the Roger-Viollet collections (e.g. Colette, Marguerite Duras, André Malraux, Marguerite Yourcenar, Antonin Artaud, Philippe Soupault). Most of them have become key works in the history of photography, and were made by some of the greatest portrait photographers of the last century, for example Gisèle Freund, Denise Colomb, Edouard Boubat, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Robert Mapplethorpe, Carlos Freire, Keiichi Tahara and Marc Trivier. These portraits reflect the intense bonds that often linked major 20th century writers and photographers, as well as the mutual admiration that grew up between them. Portraits of Allen Ginsberg and Hervé Guibert reveal profound and often intimate links between photography and literature.