Friday, April 12, 2019

Zola: Photographer

Near the end of his life, Émile Zola became a passionate photographer. He learned the subject from his journalist friends, and along the way he even perfected a shutter release system that allowed him to take a selfie – sorry, the word hasn't even been invented that time :P – I mean to photograph himself. Like his writing, Zola always worked wholeheartedly. This book is a compilation of 208 photos, diary entries, and letters collection, selected and compiled by François Émile Zola (Zola's grandson) and Massin (French art director and book designer). It contains photos taken by Zola, as well as family photos taken by others, divided into seven categories:

Life in Médan
Point of interest: photos of Zola's house. You might be interested to learn that Zola named the left tower "Nana", while the right (square) one was "Germinal" - do you think it's each book's revenue that paid for the tower building?

Zola'h house in Medan
View from Zola's house - no wonder he pictured the trains so vividly in La Bete Humaine, eh?
The little island near Zola's house - Loved the play of lights on the water! Zola would have had a long paragraph describing it in a novel, I bet!

A Second Family
Point of interest: ALL of Jeanne Rozerot's (Zola's mistress) and the children’s. It provides many detailed aspects of Zola's triangle marriage with Alexandrine (first wife) and Jeanne Rozerot (ex Madame Zola's seamstress). I have always wondered, at what stage of their household lives it was, when Jeanne "entered the scene". This book provides the answer: it was a couple of months after the family's holiday in Royan, of which Jeanne was taken along by Alexandrine (Madame Zola). Alexandrine's health (she was often “indisposed”) prevented her to accompany Zola on his outgoing walks, and so she arranged Jeanne to walk with him. That was, I think, how it all began.

From the photographs, I assumed that Jeanne was tender and caring, the exact opposite of the strong, businesslike Alexandrine. But maybe, most importantly, Jeanne has given Zola the children, of which Alexandrine has failed, despite her great household management. Zola adored children, and I guess family gave Zola the peaceful mind he needed to produce his masterpieces.

Tea Time a Verneuil house

I loved especially these three "Teatime" photographs; you can feel the peaceful and calm atmosphere when the family gathered around a small table out in the garden, under the shades of a tree, enjoying a cup of hot tea and biscuits. These were taken from the Zolas' garden in Verneuil, to where Zola would walk from his house in Médan (where he stayed with Alexandrine) every afternoon to have tea with his second family.

Another tea time - I love Jeanne's natural pose!

By the way, they were three different photos of different occasions – do you notice the piles of biscuits on two plates in the second photo, which was different in the first (it looks like cakes?), and they wore different clothes too. I loved Denise's dress and hat in #2. And the Zolas have a cat too! Is it the real inspiration of Minouche-the cat in The Bright Side of Life? :) What I love most of all of these photos, is their natural pose. I believe 19th century people didn't use to capture their daily lives with camera; it only showed that Jeanne and the children were so used to it that they could act that normal – thanks to Zola's passion in photography.

See the abandoned teacup with teaspoon in it in Tea Time #1? It must have been Jeanne's. As if, after serving tea, maybe after one or two sips, Jeanne would get up and say: "Wait, a couple of photos first!", just like what we do nowadays, the difference is only that we would instantly post it in Instagram, while theirs would have stayed in the film, to be professed later by Zola in his darkroom.

Tea time under the trees

I can look at these photos forever, devouring every little details, such as the teapot (I liked its 'twirling' shape), the floral tablecloth with fringes, and the way the little family sipped the hot tea from their teaspoons; exactly my habit of drinking tea. By the way, what's your habit – do you sip directly from your cup, sip it from teaspoon, or from the saucer? (My dad used to do the later to drink his coffee.) Do you see the chair cushion lying on the stool on the left in photo #3? Who do you think have abandoned it - Zola, perhaps? And who took this photo? Could it possibly be Jacques (Zola's youngest boy)? Do you think Zola has taught him to use the camera at very young age? Well... I can go on and on with my imagination, but these photos really made me feel like I was there too with the Zolas! One more thing, I loved how, maybe after tea, the Zolas stayed there to relax; Denise would be reading, Jacques doing homework under guidance of Zola? – loved Zola's chequered bowtie, by the way! ;), while Jeanne was crocheting. So peaceful...It's indeed a family goal!

Relaxing after tea?

The Trip to Italy
Zola made a trip to Italy on 1894, staying for six weeks. As you might have guessed, he was preparing materials for his second installment of Three Cities: Rome. It was during this visit that Alfred Dreyfus was arrested as a German spy.
Point of interest: none, as there's only several random photos.

Exile in England
Point of interest: almost everything, especially views from his hotel rooms, and a street scene near Crystal Palace. He took tons of wonderful pictures here, perhaps because he was alone, boring, distressed; and needed some action to focus his energy upon.

View outside Zola's hotel in London

A street in London

Zola's Paris
You could feel Zola's love for Paris from pictures he took, which are all gorgeous, every single one of them. I loved especially some of the place Clichy, and the swan lake in Bois the Boulogne (with Denise and Jacques feeding the swans).

Place Clichy after rain

Denise & Jacques feeding swans, supervised by Jeanne

The World's Fair of 1900
Point of interest: although perhaps not the best pictures he had taken, I admired Zola’s night shots, especially on Eiffel. People didn’t risk taking night photos at that time due to bad results, but Zola, of course, took no heed on it, and did his best to capture these:

A night photo in the turn of the century

Eiffel during 1900 World's Fair

Portraits and Still Lives
The last part consisted personal, as well as group, photos of the Zolas. Most of them were Jeanne’s (she’s quite photogenic for a 19th century woman!) One of it shows Jeanne smiled and tilted her head, which I think is quite unusual pose one took at that time for photograph. The point of interest of this collection is perhaps Zola’s portraits sans glasses – which is a rare sight. He looks a little different, don’t you think? I think his vigorous look comes from his glasses… :) And from this collection, you can also get a rare clear picture of Alexandrine.


Like I said, I have enjoyed very much reading through this book. If you want to get to know Zola as the man behind his pen, this book is a treasure! On the other hand, I think we readers would always be indebted to both Alexandrine and Jeanne, for without them, we might never read masterpieces from Zola. Alexandrine, particularly, has suffered the most from the triangular love; making peace with Zola and Jeanne and putting up with their peculiar relationships, and even going as far as ensuring Zola’s children got what they deserved after their mother’s death. It only proved her to be a great woman of strong courage and generous heart. And I was a bit relieved that Zola at least has never left or abndoned Alexandrine. 

Score: 5 / 5


  1. What an incredible post—I learned so much about Zola from his photographs and your commentary. What a gift he left us—his novels and his photographs provide a cohesive perspective.

    1. Indeed, Jane, this is a precious book. I'm grateful to have stumbled upon it. There are a lot of interesting facts in this book about Zola I have never heard before.

  2. Your enthusiasm for all things Zola is infectious Fanda - I am forever in your debt for introducing me to his work.

    Lovely post by the way :-)

    1. Thanks Brona! It's because there are so many interesting/intriguing things in Zola's books as well as life.


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