Biarritz by Georges Ancely – Photographs 1880–1895

— Nicolas Ceccaldi


“Biarritz by Georges Ancely—Photographs 1880–1895”

Le Bellevue, Biarritz

June 30 – September 29, 2012

Exhibition view of “Biarritz by Georges Ancely Photographs 1880–1895”

Standing at a window of the Casino Bellevue, I gaze at the panorama that stretches over the Grande Plage, the central beach of Biarritz formerly known as “Côte des Fous” in reference to the convalescents who had been prescribed the benefits of the ocean swell and salty breeze. This seaside resort, known for its vigorous waves and tempered climate ideal for treating rheumatisms, still attracts to this day a varied population of pensioners, surf enthusiasts, and other gasoline-sea and oxidized-sky survivors. Entrenched in my lookout post, I notice that the sound of crashing waves blending into children’s laughter does not arise directly from the actual beach, which lays a mere few meters down the hill. The windows are sealed and the summery whisper is in fact a pre-recorded soundtrack; an ambient background that completes a “life-size” reconstitution of a beach scene on the same Grande Plage at the Belle Époque. Spread out over a man-made stretch of sand, mannequins in period clothing and surrounded by antiques such as umbrella-tents compose one of the many playful environments meant to provide a visually-immersive context for the exhibition “Biarritz by Georges Ancely—Photographs 1880-1895” at the former casino Bellevue, now converted into a museum and conference center. An opportune choice to open the new Summer season, this selection of nineteenth century archive photographs of the Basque seaside resort proposes a primer of pedagogic and historical content to the yearly influx of vacationers and, at the same time, manages to secure the museum’s vocation by honoring an author-cum-photographer whose renown has remained mostly confined to the Aquitaine and Midi-Pyrenees regions. Born in Toulouse in 1847, Georges Ancely had been sub lieutenant of mobile artillery in Africa, merchant (his family owned a clock-making business and a townhouse in Toulouse) and of course, an enlightened enthusiast of photography. He is twenty-five when the gelatin silver process is invented; an innovative, “ultra fast” technique which prodded his lifelong passion: until the end of his life, he relentlessly documented his immediate surroundings, immortalizing the members of his own family, the local high-society, or daily life in nearby villages and Pyrenean spas throughout the many outings he shared with his friend Eugène Trutat, founder of Toulouse’s Natural History Museum and Photography Club.

At the time of Ancely, Biarritz had undergone a mutation that began in the mid-nineteenth century; a miraculous resurrection of these arid, desolate soils that had been plagued by two hundred years of oblivion and poverty. From the eleventh century, the area prospered from whaling; the Eubalaena glacialis of the Bay of Biscay was abundantly carved up at the Old Port until the seventeenth century when specimens grew scarcer crippling the formerly thriving industry, forcing the impoverished inhabitants to resort to small-scale fishing in order to survive. About two hundred years later, the isolated hamlet still hadn’t lost a bit of its rugged picturesque charm. Indeed, very little is known of the place’s state of innocence as only a few curious visitors had the privilege to experience it. Father Lagarde from Bayonne is one of them. In a rare opuscule published anonymously in 1859, he fondly recounts his donkey-back trips to neighboring Biarritz before chastising the “inexorable invasion of the industry[1]”: “[. . .] if, during the gentle summer days, the soothing undulations of the sea softly caressed the sandy shores, if the warm sunrays playfully glistened on the edges of the cliffs, it was the indigenous population alone, with the exception of a few lucky neighbors, who would enjoy the favors of such a benevolent sky; alone they would breathe such pure atmosphere; alone they would dive into these salutary waters[2].”

In those days, the beaches of Biarritz still remained the well-kept secret of a few in-the-know bourgeois from the nearby town of Bayonne, lest we forget a certain Countess of Montijo, the future Empress Eugénie. In her younger years, she had spent many summer holidays in very much the same Biarritz described above by Lagarde. She undoubtedly had kept fond memories of these childhood retreats since a few decades later the imperial couple chose the former fishing village as their main holiday resort: in 1854—which marks a turning point in the history of Biarritz—Napoleon III orders the construction of the Villa Eugénie (the current hôtel du Palais) on the edge of the beach; an E-shaped palace in honor of his august spouse. At this point, Biarritz became the number one favored seaside destination of the European nobility: monarchs and aristocrats could gather there and mingle in peace, far from the social pressures of their local scenes. The absence of real-estate restrictions allowed them to build the most extravagant summer houses wherever they pleased yet never too far away from the gravitational pull of the Imperial Palace.

Drawing from the archives of both the Ancely family and the Paul-Dupuy museum in Toulouse, the exhibition retained pictures taken in Biarritz with a strong emphasis on some of its classic postcard motifs such as the three main beaches or the Rocher de la Vierge (an oddly-shaped rock adorned by a statue of the Virgin Mary). Nevertheless, Georges Ancely always proceeded from his own inner desire, chaste of any artistic or commercial ambition, as a simple hobbyist. He therefore put down his tripod where others before him had put their easels, taken by the wealth of scenic views that abound along the littoral. The tectonic motion of the Iberian peninsula that shaped the Gulf of Gascony (the pivot axis of which Salvador Dalí located precisely inside Perpignan’s train station, thus making it the center of the universe) left on the coast such a fortunate geomorphology that the inexorable course of urban development initiated in 1854 by the imperial couple will always remain redundant when it comes to aesthetics of the place. But despite the exponential increase of construction sites over the years, the seafront in Biarritz remains relatively not so disfigured. This is why upon visiting the exhibition, the dilettante historian will find enjoyment in comparing familiar places to the way they looked 130 years prior, a time when Biarritz had already firmly established its reputation as a trendy resort. Surely, an acute observer will be able to identify here, a worker and his family bathing in a tank top or there, Eugène Trutat waving at us while sitting on a boat between two fishermen. But at the end of the day, for every donut-peddler rambling across the beach, there is a swarm of Victorian children in sailor uniforms; and for every photogenic Prince of Wales exiting a car, entering the casino or strolling down the promenade, there is a faceless multitude concealed beneath just as many high-tops and lace umbrellas. Surrounded by the vapors of his youthful memories, Father Lagarde makes sense of all this: “Ah! There is an abyss of at least ten centuries between the demands of yesteryear and those of today. Between the frank and modest abandon of times past (pre–1854) and the modern diktats of arrogant fashion wherein nowadays, one shall not go swimming without wearing silk dresses, lace mantles and satin shoes[3].”

First came the “indigenous” population, the sick, then the imperial couple and the nobility, followed by the bourgeoisie, and finally the middle-classes (surfers, etc.). Starting from the origins, the dominant demographics who chose Biarritz as their holiday destination could be classified along a chronological thread, with each category corresponding to the following consumer profiles; innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards, according to the principle of diffusion of innovations proposed by Everett Rogers. In his 1957 study, Rogers described the way new technologies are gradually adopted in a rural environment in relation to these psychological and demographical profiles; from the innovators, usually more educated and risk-prone, down to the laggards usually less educated, more conservative or risk-averse, and owning smaller farms. Here, the first technology through which we will discern such profiles would be the seaside resort—both as a consumer good and a productive device: the act of consumption, which begins with travel and just enjoying oneself on holiday, concurrently mass-produces tourists-subjectivities, who in return help maintaining the aura that surrounds the holiday destination. As users of the “summer resort” technology, Georges Ancely and his friend Eugène Trutat belong to an early or perhaps late majority. But in the field of photography they are innovators, counted amongst the firsts to use the gelatin silver plate even if it was a pastime. This private, even occult usage of photography (restricted to the family circle) is quintessential of the late-nineteenth century bourgeois figure with its Baudelairean ethos: prone to idle adventurism and curious about an outside world upon which it will ultimately prevail by holding up against it a deeper, sovereign interiority. This pro-active inquisitiveness, which makes Ancely’s tourism “literate,” is also what makes his practice of photography “illiterate”. First in comparison to the self-awareness that will later characterize the modernist developments of the medium, but also next to the specialized daguerreotypes technicians who came before him, and who inherited from portrait painting the mandate of promoting the aura permanence and stability upon which the depicted ruling class had laid its foundations. These circumstances make of Ancely the embodiment of a node, a point of convergence between the two technologies that would become responsible for the incoming new world order: the seaside resort as a circulation-enhancer and photography as a tool of census and control. By venturing out in the wild equipped with his camera and pointing it at his brethrens as they bask in their natural environment like hippos in a pond, nodal Ancely inoculates the seed of decline, heralding the imminent dawn of a golden age of which he is the very product.

It is no coincidence if Harajuku’s gothic lolis forage unabashedly through their Victorian great-grandmothers’ wardrobes, eventually developing steampunk outgrowths: by all means, the end is near. The disintegration of the classical world can already be read on the holyday-goers’ blurred faces, their cheerful grins hardly concealed the fearful prescience of looming peril while waiting for bath-time, whether from drowning or skin cancer. Today, from the first days of June we spread evenly across the whole surface of the beach, setting up camp to maximize each other’s perimeter of privacy (partial or full nudity is common) whereas the vacationers of 1880, on the other hand, tended to huddle together fully clothed, even inside the water. This disparity between our two eras is the dull punctum that thumps beneath the soles of our feet and steers our visit to its ultimate vanishing point: the last room of the exhibition, brightly lit by a row of windows which literally open up on present times. Windows in exhibition rooms are generally a constraint to work around. In some cases, they impose a deeper sensitization to the problems of the real, of the present moment at the expenses of what happens to be on view on the inside. In that regards, the exhibition at the Casino Bellevue exemplifies a straightforward yet successful integration of this constraint: all along the main wall, a series of enlarged snapshots of the Grande Plage dated 1886 are hung in a line, interspersed with windows of exactly the same dimensions. Most importantly, they offer a breathtaking panoramic view over the very same beach. On no other occasion has the empathic identification towards lived-experience been so palpable. The basic strategy being that whatever amount of authorial and authoritative gravity is lost will be recovered in emotional tenor, in the same way that the aura of the museum, once defused, foregrounds a festive tendency to harpoon viewers with realness. The resulting emotive magnetism however, (such as the ability to identify closely with the nameless subjects in Ancely’s pictures) does not proceed directly from the pedagogic or documentary effort; it comes instead as the consequence of a built-in, convulsive reflex of distantiation: as the exhibition apparatus is about to evaporate into the air-conditioned networked hallucination, it becomes the responsibility of the viewer to “save face” by holding it tightly at arm’s length, at a safe distance of observation. Looking through these sealed windows, the superficial movement that draws me nearer to the 2012 beach of Biarritz belies a deeper one that brings me closer to the ill-fated specters of Ancely’s photographs. As a gateway through which these divergent movements of the soul pass back and forth, the window enables the eruption of this classical bourgeois super-ego whose origins ark back at least to the Second French Empire (1852–1870) and who ends up reincarnated in full potential inside this final room. It is the ideal location to proclaim from above one’s inexorable foreignness to this world while searching the horizon with resentment—the resentment of the misunderstood dreamer, condemned to his own lucidity and who has to face the inevitable decline of the world into cybernetic barbarism. It is the ideal vantage point from which to seek safety by migrating inside one’s inner conscience or by turning around 180 degrees to a life-size reconstitution of a sea-bathing scene set in 1880. What started with a metaphorical leap through the window precipitates into soaring introspection: Who am I? An eagle (a vulture?) with a penetrating eye flying above the battlefield? A fifth generation clone kept alive by steam-engine technology? Is it still possible to capture again an authentic experience of the present?

  1. [1] Abbé Lagarde, “Une saison  d’été à Biarritz,” Atalaya, no. 24 (June 2009), 8.
  2. [2] Ibid., 5.
  3. [3] Ibid., 6.