Jacques-Henri Lartigue and Eugène Atget are usually cited as the key photographers of the Belle Epoque. But to fully appreciate the rich inventiveness of this period, the name Léon Gimpel should be included.
Gimpel took his first photographs in 1897 with a Kodak detective camera. He soon swapped this camera, with its pre-determined technical settings, for a Spido Gaumont, which was more complex to use but which gave him more freedom. During the 1900 Universal Exhibition, Gimpel took several photographs of his reflection in distorting mirrors. These amusing self-portraits have a strange quality about them, as there is no visible sign of trick photography. In a similar vein, Gimpel produced several spirit photographs. By superimposing or using a halo phenomenon, he created disturbingly supernatural images.
Gimpel also upset all the classic rules of perspective, and was always searching out exciting camera angles. He photographed Paris from the top of the city's monuments, and went up in airships to photograph the crowd on the ground alongside the shadow of the aircraft. Finally, Gimpel's passionate interest in the technical side of photography led him to alter the chemistry of the light-sensitive plates, and accelerate their receptiveness to light. This meant he could then photograph the nightlife of Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. By pushing aside technical constraints in this way, Gimpel produced some very experimental images.
In 1904, Gimpel met in Lyon Auguste and Louis Lumière, who had just presented their research on colour photography to the Académie des Sciences. Their invention, the autochrome, required a long exposure time, limiting its use to static subjects. Gimpel took this process and went back to the classic genres of landscape and still life. Assisted by Fernand Monpillard, one of his colleagues at the Société française de photographie, he modified the commercial plates, and succeeded in producing instant colour pictures. Gimpel was thus the only photographer who succeeded in capturing, in colour, scenes of everyday life during the Belle Epoque. Holidays at the seaside, Parisian street scenes, and above all the monuments of the capital, lit up at night, were frequent subjects in his work.