La Plaine Saint-Denis, 1906 © Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg

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“We always go to Old Paris in our dreams — and it’s gone mostly,” said the photography collector Werner Bokelberg. “But sometimes when you visit, you can still see people who look like the people in these pictures.”

He was musing on the phone from his home in Hamburg about the startlingly vivid individuals who stare back at us from the turn-of-the-20th-century cartes postales he has been buying over the past eight years. Examples of a distinctly national genre called “devantures”, or “shopfronts”, the photographs were a popular and inexpensive form of advertising for members of the petite bourgeoisie during the Belle Époque.

© Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg

Employers and employees, whole families or a lonely propriétaire posed in front of their establishments. Some are unsmiling and grave; the postures of others suggest an ease in front of the camera and an awareness of the horizons it can widen. All appear before us now as revenants of a time (not so long ago) when being photographed was rare, and a formal occasion.

These commercial portraits were an opportunity for shops to expose the profusion of goods available in their windows; for the blacksmith to hold up the honourable tools of his trade; for the butcher to proclaim to the neighbours or his rivals that he and his wife ran a tidy operation and also owned a fine piece of livestock; and for everyone to don freshly laundered shirts and dresses.

The owners of these businesses wanted recognition for their social position, for what hard work or foresight or shrewd real-estate dealings or family connections had bought them in French society. A photograph — hung on the wall or preserved in an album — was proof of that success. “It’s a small world but a perfect world,” said Bokelberg. “The people have such dignity and pride.”

As can be seen, the photographers were in many cases no less self-possessed and eager to demonstrate the skills of their trade. Working with medium-format cameras mounted on tripods, and from glass-plate negatives, they made contact prints of eidetic and crystalline detail, qualities often lacking in street portraiture done later in the century.

Competition for work among these itinerant professionals was formidable. It is estimated that in the first decade of the 20th century roughly 100,000 workers in France made their living by making, touching up, editing, publishing or selling photographs.

© Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg

The photographers would move from street to street, sometimes city to city, approaching shop owners in the hopes of coaxing one of them to believe it made financial sense to document his or her place of business in a photograph. Even after a victorious negotiation, there was still the worry of choosing the optimal time and weather for the outdoor session, assembling the employees in front of the shop, positioning them while work inside came to a halt, and capturing a moment in which everyone was motionless and not rendered so unattractive that the customer refused to pay when the prints were delivered.

For his trouble, the reward for the photographer was commonly a few francs, according to Bokelberg’s research. He believes the owner received only one or two prints, ten at most. While cartes postales were designed to be sent through the mail, he has found only a few of the shopfront portraits with any writing on the back. More likely they would have been treated as ceremonial by their recipients, like wedding or confirmation photographs. In his years going to flea markets, searching the internet and talking to dealers, Bokelberg has come upon only two duplicate prints of the same scene.

© Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg

The commercial streets of France in the 19th and early 20th centuries are familiar from the works of celebrated photographers. Charles Marville’s exquisite prints documented the tearing down of medieval Paris in the 1860s and ’70s and the construction of Haussmann and Napoleon III’s vision for the city as the capital of Europe. Eugène Atget’s photographs of department store windows in the 1910s chronicle the same early yearnings of a consumer society found in Bokelberg’s collection.

The photographers of devantures, however, have so far remained anonymous, and perhaps were never self-consciously artistic. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t be highly inventive. In the portrait of the Grande Teinturerie Liègeoise Cansier-Brock, we don’t know whose idea it was — the photographer’s or the owner’s — to point up the blinding whiteness of the clothing in the window by including on the pavement a big black dog. Whoever deserves the credit, though, made a witty picture.

© Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg

Most of Bokelberg’s cartes postales were made c1905-07 — the vast majority in France, with a few in Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. But without much hard information to go on, he has been making up some of his own answers. Confronted by many examples of boucheries, he began to ask himself why butchers were such a popular choice. He decided it was “because they had the money. They were the kings of the street. And the photographers liked them because meat hanging in a window makes good compositions.”

© Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg

The 78-year-old Bokelberg is well known as an enthusiastic collector. Although he was burnt in the 1990s after buying a group of Man Rays from a scaramouche calling himself Benjamin Walter, he more than recouped his losses in 2000 when the New York dealer Hans Kraus sold 136 masterworks from Bokelberg’s collection to Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar for an estimated $15m.

After culling the inferior examples of devantures from his cache, Bokelberg estimates that he now has about 250 “good ones”. They will probably be made into a book and exhibited. He doesn’t know where yet.

The French photography historian and collector André Jammes describes them as “a sort of sociological monument”. Maria Morris Hambourg, the former head of the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and an Atget scholar, sees them as being a “testimony [to] the texture of urban life as it was really lived in that time and place, which is not something I have seen before except in snippets of information caught by Atget and other photographers and cineastes of the period”.

© Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg

The pictures reflect a time of economic transformation, when bicycle shops were also beginning to sell and service the new hand-assembled luxury automobiles — and electricity was being installed in all the better buildings.

© Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg

The French, too, are enamoured of this era in their history. The redevelopment of the Marais in Paris since the 1960s has capitalised on the nostalgia for petit commerce. The boutiques in the third and fourth arrondissements are France’s Disneyland version of this vanished business culture.

Many countries hold photographs in their archives showing what daily life was like on their village greens and along their main thoroughfares a century ago. But nothing found in the local historical societies in Europe or the US compares to the widespread and sympathetic documentation of commercial life that went on in French cities and towns during these years. It is almost as if the merchants and the devanture photographers recognised each other’s uncertain social status and decided to collaborate, both as an act of mutual self-promotion and as a patriotic boast about their country’s lofty position in the capitalist world of the day.

As Bokelberg said about the groups of people who make up the material culture so lovingly captured in these images: “It’s like Impressionism. It could only have happened in France.”

Darnétal, c1910 © Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg
Aubervilliers, 1903 © Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg
Bray-sur-Seine, c1905 © Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg
Paris, 1905 © Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg
Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, 1913 © Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg
Liège, 1911 © Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg
Les Perreux-sur-Marne, c1905 © Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg
Maisons-Laffitte, 1905 © Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg
Paris, 1903 © Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg
France, 1908 © Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg
Nice, c1912 © Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg
© Courtesy of Werner Bokelberg

Photographs: All images courtesy Werner Bokelberg

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