15 December 2019

Photographers of the French Army

The story of La Section Photographique de l’Armée

Category: History   Tags: Autochrome / LSU / SPA / WWI
Photographers of the French Army - Black & White Photography and Stereoscopy Blog

The First World War was the first major conflict where photography played an important role. Germany recognised its potential and used photographs for propaganda from 1914. The images were used to influence the public opinion in neutral countries. France realized that it could not stay behind and decided to set up its own photography unit to oppose German propaganda.

La Section Photographique de l'Armée

Following the creation of the film-unit Section Cinématographique des Armées (SCA), the Section Photographique de l'Armée (SPA) was created on 9 May 1915 by the signing of an order by General Joffre, commander-in-chief of the French Army. The photographers of the SPA were expected to take pictures:

"From a historical point of view, from a point of view of image propaganda in neutral countries, from a point of view of military operations, for the compilation of documentary archives of the Ministry of War".

The SPA had to deal with three different ministries. The unit was under the direct control of the Ministry of War. The Ministry of Art was responsible for the development and archiving of the photographs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs distributed the images for propaganda purposes.

The SPA was led by Lieutenant Pierre Marcel Lévi and its headquarter was located on Rue de la Valois in Paris. The unit had a laboratory for the development of photographs, an archive and administration section. The photographers of the SPA were called opérateurs. They were recruited within the army, but could only join the unit if they were unfit for combat. The SPA employed 27 photographers at the end of 1917. Some of their names are still remembered because they made autochromes, like Paul Castelnau, Fernand Cuville, Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud and Albert Samama Chikli.

La Section Photographique de l'Armée (SPA)
Operator at work
6x13 glass stereoview by LSU

A photography mission to the battlefields was closely coordinated. The photographer was sent out on the initiative of the Ministry of War. Local commanders were informed about the arrival of the photographer and the army took care of the transport. On location the photographer was accompanied by an officer and was given detailed instructions on what to photograph. There was no free interpretation, which must have been hard for the photographers who were all professional photographers before the war.

After the mission the photographer had to return to headquarters immediately. After developing the photographs, they determined if they were suitable for publication. The photographers were expected to keep notes of the scene and shooting date so this information could be archived with the photograph.

Autochrome by Fernand Cuville. A photo of his fellow photographer Paul Castelnau.
Autochrome by Fernand Cuville. A photo of his fellow photographer Paul Castelnau
Reims, March 1917 - Source: Wikimedia Commons

The SPA used different types of cameras, but which brands or models are unknown. Most negatives in the archives are 6x13cm glass plates. Because the archives contain both panoramic photos and stereo photos, Lucien Leroy's Stéréo-Panoramique must have been a useful camera for the SPA. This high-quality and relatively light camera could take both stereo and panoramic photos, so the photographer had to carry only one camera.

The SPA took about 120,000 photos during the war, including 20,000 stereo photos. Images of destroyed cathedrals were made for documentary purposes, but also had to show how the "German barbarians" destroyed the French cultural heritage. In addition, it showed the military operations and living conditions of the soldiers. It was important to sketch a positive picture in order to keep the morale high. The real horrors of the war were barely recorded. Images with the bodies of fallen German soldiers reached the public, but those of French soldiers were blocked by censorship.

Albums with photographs of the SPA were published during the war and exhibitions were held where the public could view stereoviews through the lenses of Gaumont's Stéréodrome stereoscope.

Album with photographs of the SPA published during the war
Album with photographs of the SPA published during the war

In 1917, the SPA merged with the SCA to form the Section Photographique et Cinématographique des Armées (SPCA). The unit was disbanded after the war on 10 September 1919. Today, the image archive is managed by the Etablissement de Communication et de Production Audiovisuelle de la Défense (ECPAD). The majority of the archive is digitized and made available online.

References: