Century-Old Photos Put Emile Zola in Focus


MARCQ-EN-BAROEUL, France — He was a prolific novelist with a social conscience, the fiery defender of falsely accused Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus. And in his final years, Emile Zola became a photographer.

Taking pictures is not exactly what readers might expect from the author of "J'Accuse"--the impassioned letter published in a Paris newspaper in which Zola accused the French military of framing Dreyfus because he was Jewish.

"But in 1895, he put down his pen and picked up a camera, and never wrote again," says Michel Taekens, curator of a show of Zola's photographs on display at the Prouvost Foundation in this small suburb near the northern French city of Lille.

In the seven years before his death in 1902, Zola became obsessed with recording the world around him, snapping some 7,000 pictures of friends, family, Paris sites and himself.

The show features about 70 photos--most never displayed in public--and reveals a man enthralled with modern technology.

Gone is his obsession with the bowels of Paris, with its miserable poverty, prostitutes and disease.

From the Eiffel Tower and trains to a moving sidewalk and the ornate pavilions built for the 1900 World's Fair in Paris, Zola trained his eye on sites of the future.

"By the time he discovered photography, Zola had finished his saga about the Rougon Macquart family, which said pretty much what he had to say about the bitter realities of 19th century, working-class Paris," Taekens says in an interview.

"For Zola, photography was another form of writing; he took pictures the way some writers take notes."

Zola was given a camera in 1888 but didn't use it until 1895. He eventually owned 10 different cameras, and kept up with the latest inventions.

He had his own darkroom, developed his own photos, experimented with different kinds of paper and refused touch-ups. If he appears in dozens of family portraits, it is because of his own invention of the remote-controlled shutter release.

The show's most compelling photos document life at home.

There's Alexandrine, Zola's wife, sticking her tongue out at her husband, their servants in poker-face "American Gothic" style, and their friends looking on.

Then there's Jeanne Rozerot, the voluptuous family washerwoman who became Zola's mistress and mother of his only children. Their relationship invigorated Zola, who was 27 years older than Jeanne.

Zola later set up Jeanne and the children, Denise and Jacques, in Verneuil outside Paris, within biking distance of his home with Alexandrine in Medan, and began the double life he led until his mysterious death by asphyxiation in his Paris apartment.

And then there's Zola himself, elegant and pensive, in one self-portrait so clearly in focus that visitors can count the hairs on his hand.

"Zola's photography was quite a discovery, even to photographers themselves," Taekens says.

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