Emile Zola - Photographer

Review Published in #140

Writer and reporter Emile Zola escaped from France to England after the sensational Dreyfus case and stayed at The Queen’s Hotel, Church Road, Upper Norwood, for about eleven months from 1898-1899. It was while he was there that he photographed local street scenes. The book ‘Emile Zola Photographer’ published by the Norwood Society, courtesy of the Zola family, has selected about eighty prints out of this collection.

Victorian London has had its commentators and has been illustrated by professional photographers but the suburbs have only been covered by picture books compiled from picture postcards and photographs drawn from various sources. Good as these books are, this book is unique in that it is a view of a well-to-do suburb of London with all its idiosyncrasies seen through the eyes and lens of the camera of a well-known writer.

In fact in those days Upper Norwood was not a Greater London suburb but a district divided into the parishes of Lambeth, Croydon, Bromley (ancient Penge), Camberwell (now Southwark), making it a very complex administrative area. It is not easy to convey its history in a few short sentences.

The captions have to do this, but also have to be readily understood in the idiom of both French and English readers. The captions have been carefully researched and written by a team of the local history group including our founder member Joan Warwick, now sadly deceased, and nicely translated by Chantal Morel of the French Institute.

Without going into technical details, it is possible that Zola used the wooden box type camera set on a tripod with a cloth thrown over the camera and the viewer’s head. If this is the case then it is remarkable how he has managed to take pictures of moving objects, such as cyclists, without any blurring, and often also in close-up. (Also remarkable is how the women cyclists managed to propel themselves along without getting those long skirts tangled up in the spokes of the wheel!).

He has captured scenes of horses and cars patiently waiting, loading or unloading, or plodding along the streets, some in appealing close-ups. The little donkey-cart and the flower seller, the stuffed donkey standing in the road, have all been ‘snapped’. Imagine the difficulty of photographing pedestrians, flocks of farm animals in a still semi-rural locality, and other animals in a constant state of change, with such a camera.

Then he has covered the ‘still’ photographs of stately Victorian houses, humble cottages, and buildings in new developments in the hills and dales of Norwood around the Crystal Palace, which he must have visited many times. These pictures, even when taken in difficult lighting conditions, have a beautiful quality. It is a commentary on Victorian Upper Norwood life, a gentle stroll with Zola on hot sunny days and cold winter ones.

Betty Griffin

The book of Zola’s Norwood, featuring 96 photographs of Upper Norwood, is available from the Publications Officer at 38 South Vale, London SE19 3BA telephone 020 8653 8768, price £10 plus postage and packing.

© The Norwood Society, Registered Charity 285547
https://www.norwoodsociety.co.uk/

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