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Maison de la Recherche de l’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle : Émile Zola, artist-photographer


In 2017, the Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine acquired during a public sale more than 2000 original negatives of the photographs taken by the writer Émile Zola. This work was already partially known to the general public, thanks to the publication, in 1979, of the book by François-Émile Zola – the writer’s grandson – and the graphic designer Massin. The negatives that have joined the MAP collections form a set of great thematic and artistic interest that enriches and renews our approach to the personality of the writer-photographer and the perception of his work.

Some of these negatives, which suffered from detachment of the image layer, were restored following a crowdfunding campaign. The collection is now fully digitized, and can be consulted entirely on the POP platform (memory database).

Émile Zola’s photographs challenge us and captivate us, not only because they allow us to discover an unknown facet of an immense author through his romantic work and his commitment to Dreyfus, but by virtue of their own qualities. The exhibition “Émile Zola, artist-photographer”, designed by the Zola Center of ITEM (Institute of Modern Texts and Manuscripts) and the Media Library of Architecture and Heritage, consists of around thirty modern prints, made from the original negatives. It proposes to highlight some of the characteristics of Zola’s photographic art, his personal aesthetic signature.

The images selected are representative of the main themes of his photographic work: the intimate scenes at Verneuil-sur-Seine – portraits of Jeanne, his mistress, and their two children, Denise and Jacques; life in Médan with his wife Alexandrine and his friends; animals and flowers; the streets of Paris; the trip to Italy; exile in England; the Universal Exhibition of 1900.

Standing out from the banal ritual of appropriation of the world, which characterizes the production of so many amateur photographers, the images composed by Zola captivate by their formal composition, their daring off-centerings, the symmetries and oppositions they draw, the naturalness and the expressiveness of the portraits, their way of capturing the flow of life.

Through this selection of photographs where the intimate alternates with the monumental, the visitor is led to better understand what Zola himself called, “the mechanism of my eye”.

Bruno Martin, exhibition curator, March 2022


Émile Zola, artiste-photographe
from March 15 to May 20, 2022
Maison de la Recherche de l’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle
4 rue des Irlandais, 75005 Paris–3029.kjsp

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