As soon as photography on paper was invented, experiments in distorting the image appeared. Consequently, assembling several photographs in a collage became a regular practice from the end of the 1850s, mainly by the English for their family albums.
This photo-collage is unusual, mainly because of its subject that is tinged with violence and the brutality of its production. Originally it was part of an album of about fifty pages that is today divided up, and of which the Musée d'Orsay has managed to gather together six plates in its collections.
Here, in sadomasochistic vein, the subject is a scene of execution. Paintings of martyrs or of executions might have influenced the author. The inspiration also seems to have come from the theatre: the composition, layout and attitude of the models highlight this theatrical style. There is both playfulness and humour in it: the same figure in different poses, seen from behind, from the front, naked and clothed and the almost total detachment of the characters involved create a tableau vivant, a genuine "living picture".
The pictorial inspiration seems to be more direct. The execution block, present in several photographs in the album, is identical to the one painted by Paul Delaroche in The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, a work that was widely distributed through engravings and photographs. It is therefore possible that the author had cut out this element from a published image.
There are actually few precise facts known about the origin of this work. Was the author the male model - both executioner and martyr? Was the kneeling woman a professional model? Or, as her disenchanted and morose look of submission might suggest, is she complying with the strange demands of a member of her family? Many questions remain unanswered.
Whatever the case, the rarity of an image like this, its subject, its links to painting and the theatre, the distorting of works of art and of classical poses all emphasise the creativity of its author and demonstrate the variety of photographic practices in the mid 19th century outside of commercial and official circles.