Albert Gervais, a French military doctor, originally compiled this archive. He was born in Marseille (France) in 31 December 1891 but his birth was officially declared the next day to gain a year. He died in Nice (France) the night of 25-26 November 1979. Taken between 1919 and 1925, the photographs of this archive document chiefly Sichuan province in Western China. Gervais (called Jen-I-Kouan in Chinese) was based in Chengdu, where he worked in a hospital managed by French missionaries while teaching Western Medicine to Chinese students. Back in France, he published several novels and journal articles (see references below) about his personal experience in China.
7 October 1888: Birth of Georges André Bontemp in Château-Porcien, son of Jean Baptiste Achille Bontemps and Amélie Fournier.
10 April 1917 : Mariage in Paris 15th arrondissement with Berthe Thérèse Dessailly, born in Paris 17th arrondissement on 29 January 1893, daughter of Joseph Louis Dessailly et de Mathilde Binkert.
André and Berthe had two children: Jean born in 1918 and Jacqueline born in 1922.
First wheelwright like his father in Château-Porcien, André Bontemps enlisted in the 11th artillery regiment as gunner on February 27, 1907 at the age of nineteen. In 1913, he entered the Ecole d’administration de Vincennes. During the First World War, he was not a fighter, but a second lieutenant in the maintenance service. Three albums kept at the Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) of the Château de Vincennes attest to his early passion for photography, which was combined with a concern for testimony and passing on history.
Between 1921 and 1925, he was assigned to the Occupation Division in Tunisia. From 1927 to 1928, he took evening classes at Vincennes and completed a law degree. He became a military justice officer on December 4, 1928. He worked at the military court of Constantine as a deputy army judge. He was then appointed to Tianjin Military Court where he worked from 1931 to 1935. From 1931 to 1935 he lived in the French Concession in Tianjin at the following address: 181A St. Louis (the contemporary name is: Yingkou dao 营口 道 street). Throughout his career, Bontemps kept on photographing his environment and he consequently left a significant visual archive notably regarding China.
Dominique Darbois (1925-2014) was the daughter of a major specialist of Asian arts and a novelist. She participated in the Free French Forces during the Second World War in 1941. Being a member of the resistance and Jewish, she was arrested and imprisoned at the Drancy camp for two years. In 1944, she continued to fight against the occupiers and received the Resistance Medal. In 1945 France was liberated and Darbois left for Indochina via Shanghai. Although she was only twenty, she had already lived several lives. After the war ended, she came back to France and became the assistant of the French photographer Pierre Jahan, which prompted her career as a photographer.
In 1951, she organized an expedition to Amazonia and Guyana with Francis Mazière and Wladimir Ivanov, from which originated four publications: “Parana le petit Indien” (1952), “Les Indiens d’Amazonie” (1954), “Mission Tumuc-Humac” (1954), “Yanamalé village of the Amazon”. The first publication was translated into eight languages. She then began the collection "Enfants du monde” [Children of the world], a series of twenty volumes containing images and texts by Darbois herself. This collection offered a world tour not from an ethnographic standpoint but rather as a photographer committed to meet children in a world where not everyone was born equal. She surveyed over fifty countries.
If she spent only a few days in Mongolia in 1957, she actually stayed much longer in China during the Hundred Flowers period [during which the Communist Party encouraged its citizens to openly express their opinions of the communist regime]. Thanks to the French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson – who photographed the last days of the political party Kuomintang in 1949 – she obtained a visa only a few people would get at that time. She accompanied an archaeological expedition that led her to photograph the Maijishan Grottoes in Gansu province as well as the Gobi Desert. She captured daily life in both cities and the countryside, while seizing traditions: acrobatics, games of chance, operas, puppets shows… and the new oil refineries around Lanzhou, oil wells around Yumen, political posters, and even the lives of prisoners in labour camps.
In 1960 she published “Les Algériens en guerre” [Algerian at war]. She completed reportage on the maquis and the training camps of the National Liberation Front [the socialist political party in Algeria] in Tunisia. This reportage was forbidden in France. Darbois was interested in the moving world and in ancient civilizations. She published “Kaboul, le passé confisqué. Trésors du musée de Kaboul, 1931-1965” [Kabul, the confiscated past. Treasures of the Kabul Museum, 1931-1965] (2002).
While she could have put aside her cameras, started to manage her archives, once again she committed herself to women in France and in Africa. She published then “Afrique, terre de femmes” [Africa, land of women] (2004) and “Terre d’enfants” [Children's Land] (2004), with a text written by Pierre Amrouche. This was her ultimate work.
Little is known about Auguste François' childhood. Only child of a humble draper, the young François grew up in the city of Lunéville in the eastern French region of Lorraine. He became orphan at the age of sixteen when his grandparents and parents all passed away due to lethal diseases. Left alone, he completed his military service in 1877 at Commercy; then decided to study Law at Nancy. Between 1880 and 1885, he worked at the departmental administration in Arras, Nancy and eventually Paris. The year 1885 marked a watershed in his life: his application for a position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs allowed him to join the Mission to Tonkin led by the French physiologist and politician Paul Bert (1833-1886). He embarked upon a journey in 1886 that took him to the Far East. Henceforth, he kept on moving back and forth between France and the Middle Kingdom, while travelling to other countries like Paraguay where he worked in the mid-1890s. His duty as a Consul in China spanned the period from 1896 to 1904. First appointed in Guangxi, he spent most of his career in the southern Chinese city of Yunnanfu [present day Kunming].
His diplomatic occupation was hardly restful, especially from the turn of the twentieth century onwards as he had to endure the turmoil of the Boxer Uprising of 1900. This indigenous xenophobic resentment prompted violent attacks on foreign diplomats and missionaries; his consulate was then besieged and sacked. Around the same period, he became Delegate to the Yunnan railway Commission in charge of negotiating the construction of the Laokay-Yunnanfu railway with the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Strategic position for French colonial expansion, this railway linked Southern China and North Indochina and was amongst the earliest to be negotiated with Qing authorities. Throughout his career, he strove for maintaining regional peace and stability and promoting French cultural and humanitarian actions, such as the launching of schools, hospitals, postal services, the preservation of monuments and artworks.
Firmin Laribe (1855-1942) was a French amateur photographer and military officer, a guard commander of the French Legation active in Beijing around the years 1904 and 1910. He also published postcards in the French city of Carjac in the 1930s also known as "Éditions F. L.".
John Thomson was a Scottish photographer who pioneered photojournalism in the 1870s. Thanks to his extensive travels through all over China and South-East Asia he brought the culture and people of the Far East closer to Western audiences. His subjects ranged from ethnography to antiquities, beggars and street people through to Princes, from Imperial Palaces to remote monasteries, and from rural villages to the grandeur of the Gorges. His style is distinguished by the quality and the directness with which he represented landscapes and social practices.
Charles Nouette was originally a self-taught photographer who only later became familiar with archaeological methods. Biographical information regarding Nouette is rather scarce, except from the obituary Pelliot wrote on his memory in 1910. Thanks to this we know that Nouette was originally an electrician and that an illness had prevented him from continuing in this profession. He then dedicated his life to photography and this combined with his scientific knowledge and natural ingenuity attracted the attention of various contemporaries, notably Pelliot.
According to L’Annuaire du Commerce et de l’Industrie Photographiques of 1902, Nouette had a studio located at 22 rue Henri Barbusse (former rue Denfert-Rochereau) in the fifth arrondissement in Paris. His studio’s presentation says: “Agrandissement et réduction de plans, machines, architecture, bijoux, étoffes, en un mot toutes photographies ayant pour objet les catalogues et les épreuves à conserver ou à graver. (…) Tous formats. – Prix suivant format et difficulté. »
Nouette contracted tuberculosis during his trip in China, and died six months after he returned to Paris, while he was still developing Pelliot’s expedition photographs. Nouette was forty-one. He is buried at the Monthléry cemetery.
Information concerning the initial encounter between Pelliot and Nouette remains unknown. Primary sources only mention that Pelliot contacted Nouette during an early stage of his preparations for the expedition and asked him to serve as its main operator. Letters exchanged between 1905 and 1906 also revealed that the two men discussed in detail the photographic equipment that would be suitable for the expedition. The particular attention paid to photography from the preparation phase was related to the new methodological emphasis and value ascribed to photography in the archaeological field, which I will discuss later. In the same way that these kinds of expeditions were multidisciplinary, Nouette had multiple duties. Pelliot’s notebooks describe that amongst other duties he also checked on the workers that excavated the sites, drew schematic plans of grottoes, took some rubbings and managed the bulk of mails to be delivered. Yet his role as the operator of the mission appeared to be his most prominent position.
Louis-Philippe Messelier was born in Lille in 1901, a city in Northern France. He left his hometown at 18 years old and travelled to Shanghai. He settled down in the French concession and was first involved in the business of wool in the 1930s. He juggled his business career with taking photographs as a journalist for the French newspaper “Journal de Shanghai”. Based on the content of his photographs, we can surmise that he visited Beijing and areas surrounding it (such as the Great Wall and the Ming tombs).
Itier was born in a family of customs officers. His mother - Zoé Dubois – and his father Joseph-Paul Itier gave birth to give children; Jules Itier was the fourth child. In 1809, he began his studies in Paris, graduated in 1819 in Marseille (South of France), and entered the customs administration under the protection of his uncle Dubois-Aymé, who was a former école polytechnique student and member of the 1799–1801 Egyptian expedition. Due to his function, Jules Itier travelled a lot across France. This period marked his growing curiosity towards the Sciences. He joined several “societies savants”, which allowed his research in Geology, Agronomy, Natural sciences to be rewarded.
In 1842, he embarked on several missions leading to Senegal, Guyana and the West Indies so as to promote French commercial and colonial expansion. A year later, in Saint-Louis of Senegal, he noted in his logbook: "I received my daguerreotype." From that moment onwards, Itier pursued his activities of daguerreotypist-traveller visualizing his explorations.
From 1843 to 1846, Itier accompanied the diplomat Théodore-Marie de Lagrené’s Embassy to China (1844-1846). Similarly to other embassies, Lagrené’s goals were not only to reinforce economic and political ties, preserve French religious and moral interests with China and promote France’s prestige vis-à-vis the power relationship with Britain, but also to gather drawings (notably commissioned to local Chinese artisans) and photographs by Itier.
Upon his return, he published his “Journal of a trip to China” in three volumes, in which he recorded his studies and observations, while contextualized his own shots. From his various trips, he brought back little-known products, such as rubber, gutta-percha or sorghum. He donated a fair amount of porcelain from China to the Sèvres factory, as well as valuable information about the manufacturing processes.
He entered the Legion of Honour at the class of Chevalier (Knight) in 1843, then was appointed Officer in 1846. He married that same year to Henriette de Brémond in Grenoble, and had two children: Henriette and Paul-Jules. Itier was appointed director of customs in 1848, moved to Montpellier, and pursued his career until 1857. The same year he moved to Marseille. Involved in politics from 1848 to the late 1860s, he retired in 1866 and moved back to Montpellier. He died in Montpellier on October 13, 1877; he was 75 years old.
Passet – was a mounted police officer, and her mother – Jeanne Mondiere – was a housewife. Biographical elements remain quite meagre. What is known is that he volunteered in the French Army on 1st October 1895, in which he stayed fifteen years. He had a variety of duties, including driver, corporal, sergeant, and sergeant major. He left the military for the civilian sector on 15th November 1910 and moved to Ivry-sur-Seine in the suburbs of Paris. Two years later in 1912, he started to work for Kahn’s Archives de la Planète. The circumstances of his previous training as a photographer and cameraman, as well as his recruitment, remain unknown.
The visual archive left to us today reveal that two trips in China were organised in 1912 (between May and August) and 1913 (between the end of May and the end of June). Passet and his team travelled across China, visiting and recording places such as Beijing (which composes a large part of the archive in China) and northern sites (Great Wall and Ming Tombs), Shenyang, Zhangjiakou, Qufu, Shanghai, places along the Yangtze River, and Mount Tai (hereinafter referred to as Taishan).
Similar to the other operators working on behalf of Kahn, Passet received special training in Paris beforehand by the appointed the geographer Jean Brunhes (1869-1930), head of the project. Brunhes handled the necessary paperwork to obtain funding and authorisation to travel in the countries, while organising ‘preparatory meetings’ that consisted of intensive courses in Kahn’s own private mansion. Passet died on 7 July 1941 in his home in Evian.
In 1965, Solange Brand was hired as a secretary at the French Embassy in Beijing after finishing high school in Paris, a year after the two countries established diplomatic relations. Over the next three years in Beijing, she took her first photographs. Equipped with a Pentax camera and Agfacolor slides bought in Hong Kong, she witnessed the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. This stay would prove to be a seminal experience in her personal and professional life.
Brand left Beijing in December 1968, journeying to France by way of New Caledonia, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, India, Nepal, Afghanistan and Iran, many of which would soon be ravaged by war. Upon her return to Paris in 1969, she became secretary of the international bureau of Le Monde before rising to copy editor of the daily edition in 1971.
In 1980, she joined the monthly magazine « Le Monde Diplomatique », where she served until 2004 as art director, developing a visual style combining text with classical and contemporary work by painters and photographers. This innovative approach has been the subject of several books and academic publications.
In the early 2000s, Brand felt the need to digitize her photographs—unseen for nearly forty years—as a testament to a bygone era. This archive contains hundreds of photographs and some sound recordings. A slideshow exhibited at the 2002 Pingyao Festival – followed by the publication, in 2005, of the book Pékin, petites histoires de la Révolution culturelle by Kate Fletcher and the Editions de l’Oeil Electrique – set in motion an ongoing project that has evolved through further exhibitions and books in France and abroad. This project was born of Brand’s desire to preserve and pass down to the Chinese a record of this crucial period in their history.