The pioneering humanist by Michel Cresp

For 12 years, from 1850 to 1861, Charles Negro lived at 21 quai Bourbon in Paris. At the time, Île Saint-Louis was not today’s upscale neighborhood. The 17th century mansions are certainly present there, but also craftsmen, artists’ studios – Honoré Daumier is next to 9 quai d’Anjou – and even factories, a laundromat …

From 1851 Charles Nègre photographs the small trades of his entourage: the organ player, the coconut merchant, the chimney sweeps, the stonemason, the street musicians, the little ragpicker, the mason, the market. He pays special attention to these humble people. He seeks the poetry of the world in simple things, everyday situations, life. The technical conditions of the time often required posed positions, but these street scenes being particularly sensitive, one would speak today of the premises of “street photography”.

“It is Nègre’s training as a painter that explains his taste for the genre scene, his first attempts in this area, it should not be forgotten, were conceived as studies for his paintings. If he is not a precursor, Nègre can be considered as the master of genre photography because while bringing it to its point of perfection, he sought and found for photography a language of his own, that of the natural.

(…) While seeking the translation of the snapshot, Nègre was the first to sense the very essence of photography, and by this he prefigures (…) certain images of Atget, and even more of Lartigue, Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau . “ [Françoise Heilbrun in “Charles Nègre photographer, 1820-1880”]

The imperial sanctuary of Vincennes, near Paris, is a special chapter in the work of Charles Nègre, and it is one of the first reports. This hospital-like sanctuary today is Napoleon III’s desire to welcome convalescents and injured workers on government sites or in factories. The town planning of Baron Haussmann increased the number of works in Paris, and therefore accidents. The sanctuary was built from 1855 and Charles Nègre produced his first photographs in 1857. The album which came out in 1860 is a folio of 11 plates 48 cm x 62 cm each comprising either a single oval photograph or two photographs in tondo. For the emperor it is a communication operation on his social work. For Charles Nègre this State commission is the opportunity to deploy all his sensitivity in a complete story.

He photographs architecture and gardens, but above all the functioning of a community. With plays of chiaroscuro, Charles Nègre brings the marvelous to a place which is nothing but pain and silence: bedrooms, library, games room, refectory, kitchens, medical examination… Other views of the laundresses, of the pharmacy , as well as the portrait of the Mother Superior, do not appear in the album but in separate plates.

The technique has evolved and these are short poses here, practically snapshots, and we can really speak of reportage, in spirit and in form. Charles Nègre, beyond his mastery of the means, brings a great humanity with his gaze and opens the way to social photography.

Michel cresp

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