Monday, October 24, 2016

Fifty Years of the Gamma Photo Agency

I really like photography.  Good photography.  And few agencies had better photos on a more regular basis than Gamma.
     But now it’s gone.

Abu Dhabi - Jack Burlot - 1973
Gamma was a French photo agency.  It was founded in 1966 by famous photographer Raymond Depardon, who’s perhaps even more famous for his later films.  Depardon had partners:  Hubert Henrotte (who later went on to start his own agency, Sygma.), Hugues Vassal (famous for his photos of Piaf and the Shah of Iran), and Léonard de Raemy (photographer to the stars).  They were joined shortly thereafter by Gilles Caron, illustrious for his coverage of the Six-Day War, the Biafran War, and France’s very own student/worker riots in May-June 1968.  (Caron disappeared in the Khmer-held territory of Cambodia in 1970; he was only 30 years old.)
Vietnam - Jean-Claude Labbé - 1976
     Others whose names you may or may not have heard are Françoise Demulder, Chas Gerretsen, William Karel, Catherine Leroy, François Lochon, Georges Merillon and Emanuele Scorcelletti. The agency soon grew its own crop of famous names:  Abbas, Jean Gaumy, Sebastião Salgado, David Burnett and Gianni Giansanti.  Eventually it represented more than 6,000 photographers in all.
     The agency’s initial aims were to improve the working conditions of photojournalists and implement equitable treatment of all its photographers.  Photo by photo, Gamma became the agency, whether for images of the glitterati or the warfront.

Kabul - Eric Bouvet - 2001

But as with all human undertakings, where egos are involved, conflict and jealousy soon erupted.  In May of 1973, a strike broke out and ultimately most of the photographers followed Henrotte to Sygma.  In 1980, Depardon made a film, “Reporters”, in which he followed several of Gamma’s photographers as they went about chasing images.  And then he left for the rival agency, Magnum.
     As the 20th century drew to a close, Gamma was losing money, perhaps because of its refusal to “go digital”.  In 1999, it was bought up by a division of Hachette Filipacchi Médias and kept functioning.  When rumors circulated that the agency was in financial trouble in March of 2007, the agency changed owners and names several times.  It finally filed for Chapter 11 protection in mid-2009, after a loss of three million euros.
     In April of 2010, it was sold for a mere 100,000 euros to the Eyedea Group, headed by... François Lochon, one of Gamma’s early photographers.  The Group included the Rapho Agency, a legend in the realm of images. Continuing as Gamma-Rapho, it also handled the works of photographers Édouard Boubat, Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, Jean-Louis Swiners, and Sabine Weiss, as well as inheriting the archives of  the Keystone, Explorer, Hoa Qui and Stills agencies.

Corrida, Nîmes - Erik Sampers - 1991

So Gamma, per se, is gone, but its stock of over 500,000 photos still exists. Hard to track down, and all too-brief (Oct. 6-23 only), this exhibit included fifty of them selected from the entire range of its spheres of interest: “beautiful people”, everyday life, wars, humanitarian crises... anything that was news and caught the eye.  (A list of the photographers is given below.)
     All fifty are perfectly framed works of art that tell a story. All fifty were sold on the final Sunday, with the proceeds to benefit Reporters Without Borders (

A 336-page book weighing in at a hearty 2.6 kg (5.7 pounds!) is also available at a mere 59€.  (I hear it’s available via Amazon, although I prefer spending my money in brick-and-mortar stores.)

The exhibit’s photographers:  Jean-Louis Atlan, Patrick Aventurier, Hélène Bamberger, Jean-Pierre Bonnotte, Giancarlo Botti, Eric Bouvet, Henri Bureau, Jack Burlot, David Burnett, Gilles Caron, Patrick Chapuis, Georges De Keerle, Françoise Demulder, Raymond Depardon, Marc Deville, Alexis Duclos, Michel Folco, Jean-Claude Francolon, Raphaël Gaillarde, Yves Gellie, Gianni Giansanti, Chip Hires, Barry Iverson, David Kennerly, Peter Knapp, Kaku Kurita, Jean-Claude Labbé, Jean-Pierre Laffont, Bertrand Laforêt, Jean-Jacques Lapeyronnie, Michel Laurent, François Lochon, Michel Maïofiss, Pascal Maitre, Yves Manciet, Olivier Martel, Georges Mérillon, Pierre Perrin, Jean-Pierre Rey, Sebastiao Salgado, Erik Sampers, Eric Sander, Christian Simonpietri, Laurent Sola, Gilbert Uzan, Laurent Van Der Stockt, Diana Walker, and the unknown photographer of “Trooping the Colour”.

Trooping the Colour - unknown - 1970

Friday, October 21, 2016

Out & About - Exhibits: Hergé

In Paris, there’s always an art exhibit to see, given that the French capital has about 130 museums.  This October, one of them spotlights Belgian cartoonist Hergé.  I went to see it today.  And I hope my children will continue to speak to me, seeing as they feel his drawings are racist.
     It’s true that Herge’s very first Tintin book - Tintin au Congo - depicts the natives of the then-Belgian Congo with thick red lips and speaking pidgin English. Well, pidgin French actually.  I could explain to them that it was 1931 and things were different then, but they wouldn’t buy it.  I could say Hergé hadn’t been to Africa and only got his information from the Royal Museum for Central Africa* in Tervuren, just outside Brussels in his native Belgium, and that he was young and inexperienced.  But that wouldn’t help either.
     Still, I went to the exhibit because Hergé and Tintin are a huge part of the pop culture of 20th century French-speaking Europe, and probably the chief source of the enormous success of today’s comic book business - or graphic novel, as the publishing business prefers to call it nowadays, so that people will take it seriously as a genre.

Hergé’s actual name is Georges Remi, the inverted initials of which (RG) are pronounced air-zhay, or Hergé.  He was born in 1907 in Etterbeek, Belgium, just outside of Brussels, into a middle-class family.  His whole life was spent at the drawing board, most of the time turning out comic strips and albums, but sometimes publicity.
     He was already drawing comic strips when Germany took over Belgium, along with most of Europe.  When the magazines his strip appeared in were shut down by the Nazis, he had to find others in order to make a living.  Unfortunately for him, all the newspapers and magazines authorized by the occupying forces were deemed suspicious after Belgium was freed.  And so, in 1944, Hergé was arrested several times and interrogated, then released, but only officially cleared of collusion with the enemy in May of 1946.
     By then, his most famous creation - Tintin - had been around for almost twenty years.  The first of the Tintin albums - Tintin au pays des Soviets (Tintin in the Land of the Soviets) - came out at the start of 1929.  Although the young reporter is always off on an adventure somewhere around the globe - Switzerland, England, America, the Congo, Peru, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Nepal, Tibet, China - we never see him actually write anything.  His adventures are the story.
     In addition to all these countries, Hergé also stranded his boy reporterin the Sahara (like the pilot in Le Petit Prince) and out on the Atlantic Ocean.  But inspired by the novel of Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon) and the silent movie of Georges Méliès (A Trip to the Moon), Hergé’s love of the future had him land Tintin on the Moon in 1950, long before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot there in 1969.
     Other characters who accompany Tintin in his adventures are his trusty white fox terrier Snowy (Milou) and the irascible Captain Haddock, whose cursing (Mille milliards de mille sabords! or Tonnerre de Brest!) every young French and Belgian child can quote without getting their mouth washed out with soap.  Haddock (Hergé’s personal favorite character) lives in a country home which Hergé closely borrowed from Cheverny, one of the famous châteaux of the Loire Valley.  (One room of the exhibit has a large model of the Captain’s home and behind it, for comparison, a photo of Cheverny that takes up an entire wall.)

     There’s also the wildly inventive but totally scatterbrained and mostly deaf Professor Calculus (Professeur Tournesol) and two bumbling policemen - Thomson and Thompson (Dupont and Dupond) - who echo what each other says with a “To be precise...“ (Je dirais même plus...) and differ only slightly in their respective mustaches.   From time to time, there’s also the opera diva Bianca Castafiore, who terrifies Captain Haddock and sings horribly.
The exhibit includes hundreds, maybe thousands, of drawings of all these characters, plus some models of props from the series - a space module, a racing car, a planetarium...  It’s a very intense resume of an entire career, and perhaps not for everyone.  But lovers of this indisputably talented artist will find a wealth of information.  And the informational panels are in French, English and Spanish.
     And there were people of all ages, from children to very old timers probably reminiscing about their lost youth.

Hergé died of leukemia in 1983, leaving Tintin an orphan and his readers bereft.  Luckily for the European comic book world, he left behind a whole family of spiritual sons and daughters to fill the void:  Goscinny and Uderzo with the Astérix series, Morris with his iconic cowboy Lucky Luke, Claire Brétecher with her many frustrated females (including Cellulite), Franquin with his bumbling-but-well-meaning Gaston Lagaffe, Greg and the irrepressible Achille Talon...  not to mention the more realistic graphic novels à la Steve Canyon such as Lieutenant Blueberry, Buck Danny or Lady S.
     Today the comic book genre is still alive and well, not only in Europe but around the world.  And some of that we owe to Hergé.


Grand Palais
3 avenue du Général Eisenhower; 8è
Métro:  Champs-Elysées-Clemenceau

Sept. 28, 2016 - Jan. 15, 2017
10-8 / Closed Tuesdays / Wednesdays open until 10

12-13 € & 9 € (free under 13 years of age)


* For my blog on this museum, see

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Out & About - Magical antique automatons

If we're lucky, when we grow up, we manage to not let go of the ability to be amazed.  And when we discover something fascinating, we just stand and marvel.
     Which is why when a Paris friend told me about an exhibit of automatons, those marvelous tiny machines that come to life, move their eyes and limbs, and sometimes even more, I had to go.

This is not an exhibit in the strictest sense of the word.  Galerie Kugel deals in antiques, and has for five generations.  (Before that they were clockmakers in Germany, which ties in neatly with these automaton clocks.)  In 2004, the Galerie relocated to the building on the Seine River at 25 quai Anatole France, a mansion constructed in 1840 for the Director of the Mint.  The exhibit space takes up three levels:  the ground floor and two more.  The automatons are on the first level.
     In talking with one of the many young people who patrol the exhibition rooms, I learn how far Kugel goes to sell its antiques.  For instance, when I guess that the building dates from the 18th century, based on the wood panels on the walls, the young man explains that the panels have been mounted on the walls underneath and are for sale. He then adds that one wall of that room has been pushed back somehow to accommodate the Persian rug on the parquet floor.  The chandelier overhead is also not “d’origine” in this room - the real original one has been removed for the time of the show - and it's for sale.  Everything in the room is for sale.  What you are seeing is not someone’s study or living room or boudoir. It is, in fact, a theater set, complete with all the props, all of which could be yours for the asking... at the asking price.  All smoke and mirrors.  Lots of mirrors.

But back to the automatons.  Over 30 of them - the largest collection ever assembled - are artistically scattered throughout the room. Exquisitely lighted, they all glitter.  And only some of them are under protective glass.
     None are wound up so you won’t see them move, and signs ask you not to touch them.  But some have little screens on their pedestal running a video of the object in movement.  There’s also a large screen at the far end of the room with a video of all of them doing what talented hands created them to do.  In addition to telling time.
     Almost all of the creatures have eyes that look to one side and then the other, counting off the seconds.  Monkey and lion tails swish back and forth.  Dogs and other animals open and close their jaws.  “Though animals dominate the automaton kingdom, a few humans inhabit it as well, and one may encounter a Turkish horseman swinging his sword, and lion and bear tamers pulling on leashes.”  The fat king - or perhaps Gargantua? - lifts his glass again and again.  The mahout raises his trident and then lowers it to strike the hours.  Men and animals swirl around a tower.  A woman holding a glass of... something floats across the table on invisible wheels.
    Although the mechanics are amazing, even more amazing is the craftsmanship that went into all the engraving.  How many eyes were ruined incising all the tiny features?  The frown lines.  The embroidery on clothing.  The tweed fabric of the pirate’s trousers.  The fur of the camel and curly locks of the sheep’s wool.  Or simply the gilded backgrounds.
     Not to mention that all have working clocks, with all the gears required hidden from view within these golden masterpieces.
     How many hours went into the making of just one of the simple automatons, not to mention the larger, more complex chef d’oeuvres?
     Most of them were made in the 17th century in Augsburg in southern Germany, one of the leading goldsmith centers of its time.  Some were gifts that rich nobles offered to each other... and to themselves.   Still others were diplomatic presents.  "From the middle of the 16th century onward, automaton clocks were regularly sent to the Sultan in Istanbul, as part of the yearly tribute paid by the Empire in order to preserve peace. In the 17th century, Jesuit priests presented automaton clocks - along with other works of art and scientific curiosities - to the Chinese Emperor, hoping these gifts would help spread Christian ideas throughout Asia.”

You can also tour the other rooms, filled to the brim with antiques, some the very finest you could find anywhere.  I’m not sure what kind of décor they would fit in, but if only for the mastery of the craftsmen, it’s well worth your time to take a look.
     But even if you go only for the automatons, you won’t regret it.  As the gallery says, “Nearly 400 years after their creation, the animals of this mechanical bestiary continue to fill us with awe and wonder.“

Galerie J. Kugel
25 quai Anatole France; Paris 7è
Métro:  Assemblée Nationale or Solférino

September 9 - November 5, 2016

Free exhibition, Monday to Saturday: from 10.30 am to 7 pm

P.S.  The Musée d’Orsay is just a block away, if you’re still hungry for more beauty.

P.P.S.  If you enjoy automatons, there’s a museum of nothing but that in Lyon, France - an hour’s train ride south of Paris.  I covered it here in Sandy's France in 2011.  Here’s the link:

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Soupe de potiron auvergnate

Anjony, Auvergne - lauze roofs

Once again it’s the season of Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving.  And that means a recipe for something with pumpkin.
  In America, “pumpkin...” is almost always followed by “...pie”.  But in France it’s not so much a sweet as a savory, used mainly for soups, and more recently in purée form as a side dish for roasted meats (as are carrots, turnips and celeriac).  The ones you want to use for baking or cooking are smaller and sweeter than jack-o’lantern pumpkins, and are called pie pumpkins, or sugar pumpkins, or sugar pie pumpkins.
  This recipe comes from Auvergne, in the Massif Central where volcanoes - now extinct - once towered above the primal waters that covered most of the Earth.  It is a handsome land in the summer, covered with vegetation made lush by the ancient lava flows, a land where russet cows graze freely.  But in winter, with temperatures often the lowest in all of France, it becomes a hard place to scratch out a living, and yet remains strikingly beautiful with its robust houses of dark basalt walls and lauze stone roofs standing out against the snow.  It is traditionally a poor region, where people survived on lentils, cabbage, chestnuts and pumpkin.  Chef Roland Durand grew up on a farm in the Auvergne, one of seven children, and learned to cook with his mother.  Which may be why he loves these simple recipes, the recettes de terroir.
  So here’s his seasonal soup for that pumpkin you didn’t use for a jack-o’lantern.  It’s more a meal than a soup, thanks to its bread and melted cheese, the Auvergne version of the internationally-known French onion soup.  Perfect for chilly evenings, it’s guaranteed to be filling.  And served in its shell, it’s sure to be a conversation stopper.

  • 1 pie pumpkin, about the size of a basketball
  • 4-6 slices of Cantal cheese
  • 4-6 slices of Poilane bread 
  • 2/3 to 1 qt of milk, cream or half-and-half
  • freshly ground pepper

- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Cut off the top of the pumpkin, saving the cap to use as a lid.  Scrape out the seeds and coarse fibers.
- Place the pumpkin in a rimmed baking dish and fill the inside with alternating layers of cheese and  bread.  Pour the milk/cream over the bread and cheese, filling the pumpkin to the top.  Add freshly ground pepper to taste.  (Cantal cheese is naturally very salty.)  Replace the cap on the pumpkin.
- Bake for 60 minutes.
- Serve by cutting the “bread/cheese melt” into sections and pouring the liquid over it.
Feeds four.

This is an easy recipe to make in France.  In the United States, you can replace the Cantal cheese with a very mild Cheddar.  The Poilane bread can be replaced with any sturdy whole-wheat bread, provided it’s dry enough; or else you can leave the bread out overnight so it dries a bit.  And yes, this is a perfect recycling dish for bread that’s going stale (but not moldy!).