Lenses project a circular image, in fact hemispherical, in the case of a simple lens – witness the mammal eye – and yet in making two dimensional images the convention is to fit them into the rectangular format that predominates in painted canvases, sheets of paper, walls, and printed books.
Yes, image-makers have experimented with other shapes: the rondo inspired by the medal or coin; for Trajan’s Column the Romans experimented with a spiral on a cylinder; and the latter form, when given a mirrored surface, can be used to design and reconstitute irregularly-shaped anamorphic annular images.
Photographers generally persist with the rectangle, including that with sides of equal length, or with an exaggerated width, as in the panorama which, rendered on a screen at least, may place the viewer inside that aforementioned cylinder. The ubiquitous phone camera does not make it easy to depart from that rectilinear norm.
The ‘rightness’ of ‘Le Rectangle’ occurred to Pierre Adam as the ideal name for a new professional photographers’ organisation.
France, after Germany, was a major publisher of picture magazines including Paris-Soir, Monde-Illustré, Art et Décoration, Art et Médecine, l’Illustration, La Gazette, Jardin des Modes, Candide, Gringoire, Détective, Voilà, Marianne, Faits Divers, Sourire, Photo-Monde, Regards, Ce Soir, Vu, Partout-Paris, Paris-Magazine and Paris Match. Aside from the few salaried staff photographers, an array of photo-agences national and international, and representing many hundreds of freelance photojournalists and photographers, supplied the imagery; Agence ROL, Trampus, Harlingue, Meurisse, Service General de la Presse, Alban, Achay, Buffotot, Mondial Photo Presse, Vereenidge Fotobureaux, Foto Bureau, Giraudon, Stella Presse, France Presse, Arax, Office Internationale de L’illustration, Chevjolon, Actualites Photos, Press-Cliche, Compagnie Aerienne Francaise, Centropress, Ecce Photo, Aral, Dephot, Les Illustres Francais, Photothek, Interphotos, Bulgur, Rapho, Schostal, etc., among them.
On the eve of World War II however, the dominance of photography in the French illustrated press slowed and had once again to compete for publication against drawing.
French photographers were quick to react, with Emmanuel Sougez, taking the lead; in 1937, he founded Le Rectangle to defend the trade against amateurism that plagued its offerings at the great exhibitions of 1936 and 1937, with consequent diminishing public respect, recognising that, in this development, the “country of Niepce,” was most at fault;
“While other nations bestowed on it confidence and credit, in France, which is nevertheless the country of Niépce, photography has been ridiculed for too long by no one knows what absurd judgments. The professional photographer (…), even now in certain circles, is considered a grotesque being, a pretentious failure”. So much so that the favour which Niépce’s invention enjoys today “comes from elsewhere,” from these “Germans and their neighbours in Central Europe now held to be the best photographers in the world”, who “invaded France, suffocating our poor colleagues”.
As founder of Le Rectangle, Emmanuel Sougez was well qualified; after extensive artistic training (at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux, then in Switzerland and across Europe), he had been directing the photographic department of the prestigious magazine l’Illustration since 1926.
Author of numerous texts on its history, he is a champion of “pure photography” for his colleagues the éminence grise; discreet, saying little but always with authority. As he explained in June 1938, a year after the birth of the organisation, in an article in Photo-Illustrations:
“A few isolated people, he writes, meet around the same ideas, a common love of their profession. And a group is formed: three, five, ten, thirteen… Here is the Rectangle. This name, suggested by Pierre Adam during the initial discussions, was adopted for its regularity and harmony, as well as its rigor and discipline. Because the Rectangle is subject to strict laws”.
He asserted that “more than an art form, if it is one at all, photography is above all a craft.” This “Association of French Illustration and Advertising Photographers” is first and foremost an affirmation of the profession of “irreproachable technicians”, because “photography is a complex and delicate profession, which requires knowledge and long experience…could only be practiced honourably after years of practice, with the help of [creative attributes], some of which are innate, precise equipment and a thorough knowledge of its subsequent applications.”
Certainly Le Rectangle evinced a French chauvinism, but by bringing together “the best elements of French photography in all its branches and applications,” it was also assertively business-oriented, though it remained collegial, its meetings held at members homes or favourite restaurants, and eschewed office-bearers.
Only one of those 13 members — Pierre Adam, Marcel Arthaud, Serge Boiron, Louis Caillaud, André Garban, Pierre Jahan, Henri Lacheroy, Gaston Paris, Philippe Pottier, Jean Roubier, Emmanuel Sougez and René Servant — was a woman; Yvonne Chevalier, 38 years old and ten years younger than Sougez when she joined as a founder of Le Rectangle.
Her early photographs showed promise, as is evident in the above, which she made at age 10 while on holiday at St Valéry en Caux, a small fishing port on the northern coast of Normandy. Her image of a small fishing boat in high seas is evidently made from another boat, not from a wharf or pier. Though underexposed on a small 7.3 x 8.6 cm plate, it is a vivid representation of a young girl’s determination to spurn fear and wild weather.
Though she had taken up painting, in 1925 she saw the photographs of David Octavius Hill (who also portrayed fishing villages) and from 1929 devoted herself to photography. The following year, she set up her own studio in tiny Impasse Nansouty in the 14th arrondissement opposite the southwest entrance to Montsouris Park.
She had married a doctor in 1920 with whom she had a daughter who was nine by the time Yvonne had started her business. A probable self-portrait, collected with much of her work by Christian Bouqueret (1950-2013) who also rediscovered other photographers of the interwar period, including Lucien Lorelle, Aurel Bauh, Pierre Boucher, Roger Catherineau, Laure Albin Guillot, Pierre Jahan, Francois Kollar, Eli Lotar, Daniel Masclet, Jean Moral, Roger Parry, Andre Steiner and Maurice Tabard — shows the couple resting peacefully against a haystack in the autumn sun.
A striking portrait of her was made only a couple of years later by the German Marianne Breslauer, herself a bohemian, cross-dressing tomboy, and it represents Chevalier in gender-neutral clothing; a generous open-necked linen shirt. Her hair cut even shorter than it is in the autumn self-portrait, she appears broodingly watchful through dark brown eyes under expressive eyebrows, and as single-minded as she must have been as that girl in the wind-tossed boat.
No doubt because husband Chevalier was a doctor, the couple appears in an article “The masters of photography” in La Revue du Médecin n°8 of May 1930, by her contemporary the Russian emigré writer Pierre Tugal who describes the couple so that it is clear they are business partners.
“Doctor Chevalier is a young doctor who deeply loves his profession and his hobbies, he devotes them to photography.
“Do you like to photograph subjects related to your profession? we ask.
Not at all. Or rather, I haven’t tried yet. If the landscape interests me, it is above all the human body and the figure that attract me.
What is your technique?
All my photos are taken with artificial light, because it allows me to bring volumes and lights to life as I please.
Ms. Yvonne Chevalier, who is becoming a photographer of the highest order, pursues her research quite independently of her husband. It is less the human figure that attracts her than the picturesque aspects of life, be it rocks, machinery or a market corner. The science of lighting is innate to her and she takes objects from such an angle that it seems that she extracts the life of things to infuse them with a new one according to her wishes.
All accompanying pictures in the article however, apart from the nudes and male portrait, are by Yvonne, and her style is modern, strategically cropped so that dominant forms are emphasised; pipes of a church organ in decrescendo; tree trunks on the embankment of the Seine outlining a female torso that towers over a street lamp; the undercarriage of a biplane dwarfs a line of human figures; fishing nets extend a linear perspective, while of their catch is made a doubled graphic figure of conjoined ovals. Her querulous portrait of an unknown woman is much more a study in expression and character than the doctor’s lighting exercises.
The couple were part of a circle of personalities in literature, the visual arts and music, of which Yvonne took full advantage to record portraits of Honegger, Gide, Collett, Lydis, Claudel, Mauriac, Saint-Exupéry, Max Jacob, Teilhard de Chardin, the bookseller Adrienne Monnier and her friends, as well as writer and Resistance fighter Jean Prévost (1901 – 1944), about whom Yvonne’s friend Marcelle Auclair (Prévost’s first wife) writes;
“Jean… could be the most attractive of men but suddenly enjoy displeasing, shocking, playing the badass. I have a photo of him taken by Yvonne Chevalier: we see him from behind, sitting on the floor, leaning on a couch. There were people there who displeased him, so he left the table and began to read. The Chevaliers’ guests rightly thought him rude, but it was for those things that his friends forgave him. When we knew him well, we gave him everything. If he attracted the hatred of many people, he enjoyed the extraordinary indulgence of others, thanks to the art which was his to make up for his blunders with great wit and sensitivity; Dr. Chevalier and his wife were among them.” Marcelle Auclair; Françoise Prévost Mémoires à deux voix, 1978
Her photographs of Prévost, who died fighting the Germans in mountainous Vercours, and only hours after his friend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry fatally ditched his Lockheed P-38, are revealing of her insightful characterisation of her subjects. Even from the back, in his towelled hair, crumpled linen shirt (hers?) and world of books, we sense his intensity who in his ‘Last Poems’ wrote to his children and second wife;
Claude, if the war is uncertain
And one beautiful morning takes me
Don’t write my name in stone.
I want my dust
To fly in the wind
She shows him [above] in a similar pose, and in that same shirt, face-on and, presciently, naked with eyes closed as Portrait of a Man.
For years, she was the official photographer for the painter Georges Rouault and contributed to numerous French and foreign magazines including Arts et Métiers Graphiques, Photo Graphie, Le Cinegraph, Musica and Photo Illustration.
Her work, beside that of Denise Bellon, Florence Henri, Nora Dumas and Ergy Landau, typifies the ‘New Photography’ of the period between the two world wars known, as with painting of the time, as the ‘School of Paris’ which produced modernist mannerisms ranging across cubism to surrealism. For Chevalier, using the rectangle as a guillotine and shooting from oblique angles of view with extremes of lighting — seen in this proof sheet of a series of portraits of Max Jacob — were means by which she applied modernist principles for expressive effects, sometimes surreal.
In an extraordinary series made in 1951 she animates, as she had done for Rodin’s sculptures, the death mask of the writer André Gide, a friend whom she had photographed reading at his desk in 1933.
These relate to other imagery of a death mask of l’Inconnue de la Seine — the drowned girl whose face bears a beatific expression — she has been recorded to have made, just as did Albert Rudomine in 1927 and Man Ray in 1966. However these supposed works are either unobtainable, or had joined the majority of her archive which was destroyed when her studio burned in WW2 bombing raids, or are confused with this 1935 image she entitled Ophélie, in which the model imitates the same deathly smile. Exhibited in the Second Salon of Photography in 1948 it was declared “mystérieuse” by photographer Jean-Marie Auradon, but “perhaps not dramatic enough” by journalist Germain Paterne, in a criticism less valid had the picture retained its original association with the death mask.
Other works, particularly photographs the artists at the Pavilion de la Danse, and at Les Ambassadeurs theatre, Paris also exercise a surrealist sensibility.
By the end of the War, Le Rectangle had disbanded. The enthusiasm of two young photographers, Marcel Amson and Lucien Lorelle, his brother-in-law, persuaded André Garban to found a new association and on March 8, 1946, fourteen photographers created the Groupe des XV. Members were first of all former members of Le Rectangle, Yvonne Chevalier, Marcel Bovis, Henri Lacheroy, Philippe Pottier, René Jacques, Emmanuel Sougez and François Tuefferd. The new ones were Marcel Amson and Lucien Lorelle, Jean-Marie Auradon, Jean Michaud and Jean Séerberger; admissions made on the proposal of the members of the group, not on official candidacy, and after a secret ballot. André Garban notes the camaraderie; “Each member formally undertakes to respect the spirit of loyalty and frankness which is the very basis of the group’
In 1949 Yvonne joined her old friend Marcelle Auclair in an assignment on Carmelite nuns for the Foundation of Sainte Therese d’ Avila.
Was this a return to her unrecorded family roots and its religion and a renunciation of her worldly career? Certainly by 1970 she had discontinued her photography, but not before working on illustrations for novels; the tumultuous Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain Fournier, Balzac’s Le Lys dans la Vallee, and Marc Chadourne’s Cecile de la Folie.
The poetry of her childhood imagery remains, bound now in the rectangular form of the book, and to her love of literature and its authors.