Musée d'Orsay: Léon Gimpel (1873-1948), the audacious work of a photographer

Léon Gimpel (1873-1948), the audacious work of a photographer


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.

An audacious amateur photographer

Projection plate
Léon GimpelSelf-portrait at the Palais de Glaces in the Universal Exhibition© DR - SFP
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.

Projection plate
Léon Gimpel"Tout va bien" Bar© DR - SFP
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.

Gimpel and colour

Léon Gimpel (1873-1948)Sunday morning on the Place de la Madeleine© DR - SFP
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.


A new style of press photography

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Léon GimpelThe military airship Le Temps© DR - SFP
At the beginning of the 20th century, photography began to be more widely used in the press. It was in this context that Gimpel sent his first images to the magazines La Vie au grand air, La Vie illustrée, and L'Illustration. The original compositions of his photographs guaranteed their publication. His experimental approach can be clearly seen in his press photographs, where he brought into play his boldness and expertise. In 1907, Gimpel's portrait of the Norwegian king and queen was the first colour reportage photograph to be published in the press, just a few days after the first autochrome procedure was brought out by the Lumière brothers.

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Léon GimpelThe crowd in front of Notre-Dame© DR - SFP
From 1909 onwards L'Illustration commissioned photo reports directly from Gimpel. He stood out from other photojournalists by producing unusual images. At the first major air show, held at Béthény in August 1909, he went up in an airship and so was able to photograph the progress of the aircraft, not from the ground like the other photographers, but from the sky. So, thanks to Gimpel, readers of the magazine had a stunning view of the pioneers of aviation.
From this date, the photographer started to exploit this bird's eye view in order to set himself apart from other reporters and to seduce the press.



The photographic series

Léon GimpelDeath cap mushroom (amanita phalloides)© DR - SFP
Gimpel used other means of distributing his images apart from the illustrated press. As photography became more popular and more available, photography clubs would frequently put on public projection shows. It was here that, Gimpel presented many series of photographs, both in black and white and in colour.

Projection shows encouraged picture narratives and demonstration series, which sometimes exceeded their educational objective, and revealed an unexpected aesthetic dimension. This is true of a collection of photographs of mushrooms, totally divorced from their natural context, and photographs produced using a microscope, resulting in abstract shapes. Although destined for popular science, these images nonetheless offered original subjects and photographic options in the "documentary style".

Sometimes, the coherence of the series was simply due to a common theme. From the illumination of the Grand Palais in 1910 to the light shows on the Temple of Angkor in the 1931 Colonial Exhibition, Gimpel recorded the development of neon lighting in Paris at night. Throughout this period, luminescent tubes illuminated Paris in colour, and transformed the face of the capital.

Léon GimpelLight motif installed on the Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville© DR - SFP
In these series of photographs, subjects, techniques and camera angles came together to produce images which took advantage of the vogue for visualisation: projections on to a large screen and into the darkness.

Whether working in black and white or in colour, Leon Gimpel gives a modern vision of his time, making him one of the most important photographers in the history of photography during the Belle Epoque. Whichever area he worked in, his images demonstrate how his perfect mastery of technique brought new life to the medium.