The Nevers Collection

written for the stereosite by André Ruiter, Netherlands

The sto­ry of 21 stereo glass neg­a­tives from the ear­ly stages of The Great War in Nev­ers, France.

The images in this post are anaglyphs and are best viewed by using 3D glasses.

The finding of a treasure 

Last year, my atten­tion was drawn to a col­lec­tion of stereo neg­a­tives offered on eBay. It con­cerned 24 glass plate neg­a­tives in the for­mat 8 x 18 cm (3.2 x 7.1 inch­es). The neg­a­tives show images of the mobil­i­sa­tion dur­ing the First World War in the city of Nev­ers in France.

The slides were offered indi­vid­u­al­ly, and I man­aged to get 21 out of 24. Unfor­tu­nate­ly I was out­bid on three slides, and that’s a shame because such a col­lec­tion should stay togeth­er. But that’s part of the game. You win some and you loose some on eBay.

Two card­board box­es with descrip­tions were also shown, but these were not part of the auc­tion. After­wards I’ve con­tact­ed the sell­er and asked if I could buy the box­es or pos­si­bly get a high res­o­lu­tion scan, because I sus­pect­ed they con­tained valu­able infor­ma­tion about the neg­a­tives. The sell­er was kind enough to send the box­es for free because I bought most of the negatives.

The boxes

The two box­es are num­bered with the num­bers 30 and 31 in Roman num­bers. Accord­ing to the box­es, the total col­lec­tion con­sist­ed of 34 neg­a­tives, of which 4 slides from box 31 are prob­a­bly not relat­ed to the war, and were added to the box later.

24 glass plates were offered on eBay, so the col­lec­tion was no longer com­plete when it was auctioned.

Of spe­cial note is that each neg­a­tive is num­bered, and the num­ber relates to the descrip­tions on the box. The descrip­tions con­tain the sub­ject, place and the exact date, which makes the col­lec­tion his­tor­i­cal­ly significant. 

Stere­oviews of the First World War were boom­ing after the war, but those that were pub­lished in large vol­umes by pub­lish­ers such as La Stéréo­scopie Uni­verselle or Brentano’s lack this kind of detailed infor­ma­tion, or the infor­ma­tion is sim­ply not accurate.

About Nevers

The pho­tos were tak­en on and around the rail­way sta­tion of Nev­ers. Nev­ers is locat­ed in the cen­tre of France. It has a large rail­way sta­tion and was a logis­ti­cal­ly impor­tant hub for the French army. POW camps and sev­er­al hos­pi­tals were built in and around Nev­ers dur­ing the con­flict, which empha­sis­es the impor­tance of Nevers.

Some historic background

The neg­a­tives show images of the mobil­i­sa­tion of the French army. The First World War start­ed on July 28, 1914. The direct cause was the assas­si­na­tion of arch­duke Frans Fer­di­nand of Aus­tria-Hun­gary, but the real caus­es were lying deep­er. The assas­si­na­tion trig­gered a chain reac­tion, caus­ing all Euro­pean pow­ers to be at war with each oth­er in a short time.

Ger­many had declared war on France on August 3, 1914. The pho­tos of the col­lec­tion were tak­en in August and Octo­ber 1914. The first pho­to dates from August 9, so the war was less than a week old for the French. This makes it very spe­cial because images from the ear­ly stages of the con­flict are rare. Most images date from 1915 to 1918.

In 1914 the war was wel­comed by all par­tic­i­pat­ing coun­tries, and the hor­rors of the trench­es were still far away in those first weeks. Every coun­try thought it would be vic­to­ri­ous, and that all sol­diers would be back home by Christmas.

This sen­ti­ment is clear­ly reflect­ed in the pho­tos. The atmos­phere is patri­ot­ic and relaxed, with smil­ing soldiers.

What about the photographer?

The name of the pho­tog­ra­ph­er is unknown, but I guess it was a pro­fes­sion­al pho­tog­ra­ph­er. Stereo pho­tog­ra­phy in France was dom­i­nat­ed in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry by com­pact stereo cam­eras for the 45 x 107mm and 6 x 13cm for­mats. These for­mats were intro­duced by Jules Richard in 1893. He revived stereo pho­tog­ra­phy in France, and his com­pact for­mats made pho­tog­ra­phy acces­si­ble to amateurs.

Our pho­tog­ra­pher’s large 8 x 18cm neg­a­tives required a large, expen­sive cam­era and the skills to oper­ate it, which is less obvi­ous to an ama­teur. In addi­tion, all neg­a­tives are accu­rate­ly indexed and pre­served, which indi­cates the work of a professional.

More neg­a­tives from the same pho­tog­ra­ph­er were offered by the sell­er on eBay. These did not con­tain images of the war, but were all num­bered and indexed in the same way.

I sus­pect the pho­tog­ra­ph­er was from Nev­ers or the sur­round­ing area, as the pho­tos were tak­en on dif­fer­ent days in August and Octo­ber. A local pho­tog­ra­ph­er could be on site quickly.

My conclusion

I think the pho­tog­ra­ph­er was hired by the French army. Most of the pho­tos are staged, which indi­cates that the pho­tog­ra­ph­er had per­mis­sion to shoot, as pho­tog­ra­phy was cen­sored by the army dur­ing the war.

The First World War was the first major con­flict in which pho­tog­ra­phy played an impor­tant role. In May 1915 the French army found­ed its own pho­tog­ra­phy sec­tion,  It was called La Sec­tion Pho­tog­ra­phy de l’Armée. This sec­tion pro­duced 120,000 pho­tos dur­ing the con­flict, includ­ing 20,000 stereo pho­tos and a large col­lec­tion of autochrome col­or images.

Before the cre­ation of the SPA, the French Army sim­ply hired pro­fes­sion­al pho­tog­ra­phers. This prob­a­bly includ­ed our pho­tog­ra­ph­er, who had to cap­ture the mobil­i­sa­tion for doc­u­men­ta­tion, pro­pa­gan­da pur­pos­es, or to inform the pub­lic by news­pa­pers. This also explains the accu­rate descriptions.

Why stereos?

Why did the pho­tog­ra­ph­er use a stereo cam­era? Stere­os were pri­mar­i­ly intend­ed for enter­tain­ment and not nec­es­sar­i­ly for pub­li­ca­tion in albums or news­pa­pers. My best guess is that this was just the only cam­era the pho­tog­ra­ph­er had, and the size of the neg­a­tives made it pos­si­ble to use half stere­os for print­ing with­out any problems. 

Special images

This image shows stretch car­ri­ers of the Tirailleurs unit. This unit was part of the colo­nial troops of the French army. The Tirailleurs was an infantry unit and the sol­diers were recruit­ed from the French colonies in West­ern Africa. You can see the red cross flag on the wag­on, indi­cat­ing that these sol­diers belonged to a med­ical unit.
Anoth­er image of colo­nial troops. As you can see these pho­tos are clear­ly staged, which means that the pho­tog­ra­ph­er had per­mis­sion to shoot. You may also notice that sol­diers were trans­port­ed in freight wag­ons. This was com­mon prac­tice in World War I, but also in World War II. Pas­sen­ger wag­ons were only used by officers.
My last image shows Ger­man pris­on­ers of war in a wag­on, guard­ed by two French sol­diers, and rail­way work­ers on the fore­ground. The pho­to is made on Octo­ber 5.

In Sep­tem­ber 1914, the Ger­man advance in France had come to a halt dur­ing the Bat­tle of the Marne. From that moment, the West­ern Front turned into a hor­ri­ble trench war­fare that would last until Novem­ber 1918. So no sol­dier would be at home for Christmas…

André Ruiter (Putten, The Netherlands)

I’m a Dutch pho­tog­ra­ph­er who spe­cial­izes in con­cep­tu­al black & white pho­tog­ra­phy. My pho­to projects are based on his­toric themes.
While work­ing on a project about the First World War bat­tle­field of Ver­dun in France, I dis­cov­ered French glass stere­oviews. This result­ed in my great inter­est in stereo pho­tog­ra­phy and I am now a pas­sion­ate col­lec­tor of French and Ger­man stere­oscopy antiques from 1850 to 1930.
On my web­site I share my black & white pho­tog­ra­phy and blogs about stere­oscopy his­to­ry and my col­lec­tion.

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