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A photograph

"Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still."

Dorothea Lange

My Art desk calendar, today turned up this photograph. Something about it captured my attention, which is a little bit rare with this particular desk calendar. It has been a bit disappointing, the occasional masterpiece, but mostly disappointing art by artists unknown. By me anyway.


Not that unknown is really the problem. After all I had not heard of the photographer here - Paul Emile Théodore Ducos who lived from 1849 to 1913, and here I am, attempting to write something interesting about this.


The photograph has a long title: Portrait of a Couple of the Bourgeoisie Taking the Aperitif in the Abbey of Septfontaine. Taken in 1886 the year in which Georges Seurat painted his masterpiece La Grande Jatte. A painting that we probably all know.

The painting portrays a Sunday afternoon on the banks of the Seine. Such an interesting time, with the world teetering on the brink of modern times. You can tell by the pose of the young woman in the photograph that she is not entirely captive to the charms of the somewhat self-satisfied and proprietorial young man. Her husband, her lover, maybe even a brother or just a friend or acquaintance, although the proprietorial hand would suggest not. Women are not quite the subservient damsels they used to be. Which is not to say they were not indeed oppressed. Perhaps beginning to realise that they were though. Our photographed young lady almost looks somewhat fed up.


I remember once Alan Davies, on QI commenting on how young men in Victorian photographs had a tendency to look 'louche'. Such a glorious word for such a rather wonderful look don't you think? It's a French word too. I just looked up the translation into English - although we do actually use the French word - and apparently it translates as fishy, shady, suspicious, which is not quite how I think of it. I think if we want to say fishy ... we would.


The young man in this photograph by the way - not by anyone famous - is my paternal great-grandfather who also had a superior sounding name - William Henri Colchester Mollett - a touch of French there too. They believed they were descended from Huguenots - not true I think., but I guess they were members of the bourgeoisie. I show it here because I think it also is a somewhat 'louche' pose. Well louche as I think of it. I suppose those perjoratives come into it, but it's more a kind of insouciance - another French word, devil may care, kind of confidence. And the young man in my desk-top photograph has that. William Henri perhaps not quite as much - a bit more bored and fed up.


As I said, he looks proprietorial but she looks anything but owned.


This is a self-portrait of the photographer. The editor on a website called Media Storehouse, which sells such things describes it thus:


"With his distinguished moustache, he gazes directly into the camera lens, exuding an air of confidence and artistic flair. Ducos adorns himself with a stylish necktie and dons a fashionable hat that adds to his sophisticated aura. A jewel delicately rests on his chest, adding a touch of elegance to this timeless portrait. The attention to detail in capturing every nuance is evident in this remarkable piece. The composition highlights Ducos' mastery as both subject and creator. Through this self-portrait, he invites us into his world as a photographer during the late 19th century in France. His passion for photography shines through as he captures not only images but also emotions frozen in time."


It was actually taken the same year as the photo of the couple, and the same comments about 'emotions frozen in time' could apply to that. Even more so. Interesting that Dorothea Lange adds to the frozen in time by saying that life is altered by being held still. There is lots to think on there. I wonder if that young couple's lives were altered by that photograph - or the photographers. In a more general sense was that moment in historical time a way of perhaps pointing to the future and a changed world?


As I investigated further I discovered that not only did Ducos take photographs at the Abbey - he owned it. Well his father did. The family anyway. So it's interesting to wonder how much money one had to have to be a member of the bourgeoisie - and my ancestor was one too. Not quite as wealthy though.


The Abbey was founded in 1123, moved location in 1125 when it was taken over by the Premonstratensian order of monks. I confess this is a new one on me. In the 14th century with all those wars with the English - Joan of Arc's birthplace is nearby - it was damaged and partially destroyed. There were a couple of reconstructions in the fifteenth century and again in the 17th and 18th century by the same monks. Then came the Revolution and the new owners made it into a farm divided into three lots and again it fell into decay.


In 1886 - the year of the photographs, it was bought by Count Théodore Paul Emile Ducos - who was a shipowner and minister in Napoleon IIIs government - so probably our photographer's father, and he restored it again. On his death it was given back to the state, became a museum which fell into decay, until it was returned to the family's heirs - the Grand-niece - and she and her family have restored it to its former glory with all sorts of money-making ventures from conferences, exhibitions, tours, bed and breakfast etc. etc.


None of which has anything to do with food and which is probably not really all that interesting. However, I was indeed rather taken by the emotions that were frozen in the time of that photograph. What were they drinking I wonder? Who are they? Are they friends, family ...? We are in the champagne area again, but they are not drinking champagne. A Pernod perhaps for him - it's a bit cloudy. And the clothes are gorgeous - her little peaked hat, and ribbed jacket. His amazing necktie/collar whatever you call it.


And it's such a beautiful looking place. I don't know how expensive it is to book it. Or you could do a tour - I think that's one of their offerings. I am always struck when watching the Tour de France, how many of these wonderful places there are in France. Well anywhere in Europe probably, and that includes England. They sometimes hide behind long fences and/or walls. Sometimes they front the village square or perch on a hill above it. Beautiful and really we should be grateful to the rich who can restore them to their full glory, for prosperity and for our enjoyment too. If we pay.


POSTSCRIPT

This is yesterday's dinner - and the bubbly we drank with it. I said I would occasionally present a meal and wonder what we could learn about life, the universe and everything from it. No detail - just pointers. And apologies for the not very wonderfully plated and photographed food.

Well the first thing to say is that this is not particularly healthy because the fish goujons are deep fried, the vegetables are also sautéed in butter - as are the potatoes. When did people start putting breadcrumbs on things and deep frying them? The potatoes were an attempt at the trendy crushed or smashed potatoes. Not quite crunchy enough but very tasty. You can deconstruct all those ingredients and their history. The fish was frozen whiting from Coles - from New Zealand but packed in China - lots to wonder about there. Panko breadcrumbs - trendy and Japanese - I have written about them in the past. The fennel was from my garden - why doesn't my fennel grow into bulbs of fennel? Fennel is basically a weed. The sauce is a mix of horseradish, cream and Dijon mustard. Have I ever looked into Dijon mustard? The wine is interesting in that it is an Aldi house wine and embarrassingly cheap but has prestigious medals and is really, really nice. Have I ever really looked into Aldi, the vineyard or how it comes to be so cheap? And what about those medals? You can also just see the table mat - I've never talked about table mats, and the cutlery - from Ikea. What about Ikea? I'm sure there is more. And all on one plate. Oh - the plate - just a cheap basic white from Maxwell Williams. The history of porcelain is fascinating. And who are Maxwell Williams anyway? I'm not sure where our glasses came from.

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