Did he even know? And if he did, did it prey on his mind that his photographs led to executions?
Now I knew about the Franco-Prussian War, the monumental defeat at Sedan and the capture of Emperor Napoleon III. The victorious Germans were ready to lay siege to Paris. I had no knowledge of what went on in the City of Light during this period though. When a lecturer, during my university years, launched into an account of the events in that city during those troubled times, it was a revelation. During my formative years it was off the curriculum in France – it was the darkness of the Cold War and it had the stench of ‘Reds under the bed’ and all that malarky, even if it had occurred eighty years previously. What, a society where everyone is equal? We can’t have that.
So I quickly became fascinated with the Paris Commune – perhaps the first example in modern history of ‘people power’. We’ve had the Arab Spring in recent times and mostly that has ended badly – so history repeats. The Commune was an attempt at government from the bottom up, so unlike the top down inflicted on most of the world. And for a while, it looked promising for the Communards. In a nutshell, here’s what happened.
The French government were very eager to take control of the various cannons that defended Paris before the Hun arrived, but the people of the city and their home guard had other ideas. Barricades were built to prevent this occurring – the people, you see, weren’t too rapt with the ineptitude of recent months from the Emperor’s people and most had republican ideals. When the army duly arrived the motley defenders called on the soldiers to join them. Many did – some even shooting their hapless officers. Of course, all this did not go down well with the high command, already smarting from the indignities foisted on them by the Prussians. They weren’t going to stand for a rag-tag rabble taking over the capital and started to plot the demise of the uprising. The Communards themselves were a real mixture – union officials, members of the local National Guard, hangers-on and a few fiery anarchists just to make the mix more volatile. They elected leaders who issued the declaration that from henceforth Paris was an independent commune and called on all other French municipalities to join in the cause. This was beyond the pale for the authorities who gathered their forces to crush the rebellion. The revolutionary councils in Paris set up then lost the plot – they spent all their time and energy bickering amongst themselves instead of preparing for the threat that was on their doorstep. They were, consequently, smashed. After they had control, the army went on the rampage, joined by members of the privileged classes acting as vigilantes. They killed at will. In the end 30,000 Communards – and many who weren’t – gave their lives for the cause. Eventually the excesses were reigned in, only for the authorities to commence with the executions of those involved who survived the initial carnage. Unfortunately, a quickly put together booklet of 109 photographs of those troubled few weeks, entitled ‘Paris During the Commune’, became a means of identifying the rebels. The soul who compiled the publication was only out to make a few centimes from his prescience of making a record of it, lugging his cumbersome apparatus to get those images of the Commune and its aftermath. Bruno Braquehais’ life went downhill pretty quickly after this attempt to turn a profit for his efforts.
Prior to that life had been pretty sweet for Bruno. He’d married the boss’ daughter and made a satisfactory living for engaging in what many a male would give their eye tooth to – photographing nude models – and doing so very artistically, you understand. The results of his labours proved, understandably, quite popular in exhibitions around the city on the Seine. Many members of Parisian society also sought him out to capture their features for posterity.
Now back in my uni days I remember sitting in the Morris Miller Library on campus, amongst the stacks, pouring over his images of the Commune in dusty books. Back then my main attention was affixed on the causes, course and results of the upheaval, rather than the fellow responsible for recording it. My fascination with the pioneers of photography came much later. The Commune is also noted as a template for the events of ’68 in the same city, as well as all over Europe, when students tried to replicate its aims. This had happened only a few years prior to me being spellbound in that library. Braquehais’ most famous image was of the toppling of the Vendôme column, but he took many others during his days wandering amidst the barricades, as well as the effects on the city once the powers to be were back in charge. It was only after I recently rediscovered his handiwork on-line that finding out more about the person responsible for the pictorial account piqued my interest.
Braquehais was born in Dieppe in 1823. He was profoundly deaf from a young age. Initially he displayed a talent for lithography but, when he met prominent camera-smith Alexis Gouin in 1850, he found his calling. He soon joined the ageing Gouin who specialised in hand-coloured daguerreotypes and the amazingly popular stereoscopic plates. The person who did the hard yards with the colouring-in was Gouin’s step-daughter, Laure. In 1852 Bruno B set up his own studio on the Rue de Richelieu. Gouin died in 1855, so Braquehais returned to the fold, assisting his old friend’s widow to run the place. When she too passed he branched out on his own again, this time setting up on the Rue des Italiens. By now he was heavily into nudes, hand-tinted by Laure, his dutiful good wife. Whether he made a killing with them in the saucy postcard trade, conducted all around the city, is unknown – but I suspect it’s likely.
All was progressing quite well for him when, pushing fifty, he made his momentous decision to go out onto the streets controlled by the Communards with his gear. And, unknowingly, along with the great American Civil War camera-men, he became am early instigator of photojournalism.
After his death in 1874 Bruno was largely forgotten with his treasure trove from the Commume languished in the dusty corners of museums. It was in 1971, on the hundredth anniversary of those earth-shattering events he snapped, that his work came back into vogue. His images graced many a commemorative exhibition on those heady times.
Those who delved through the archives found that the years1871 to 1875 were not kind to our hero-of-sorts. Bruno’s work dried up – perhaps it was thought he was sympathetic to the revolutionaries’ cause. He was declared bankrupt in ’74, leading to a prison stretch. He only lasted after few days after his release.
Of course, he was never to know the esteem in which his work is held today. The nudes have gone by the wayside, in terms of significance, for he was the man who gave us the real Commune for posterity. It is sobering to think that many of those featured, if they survived the holocaust after the surrender, may have met the same demise by posing in group portraits for Bruno. Did that, in turn, weigh heavily on our man? The answer to that the ether did not deliver.