I’m a big fan of tourist information centres, and always head for the nearest one on holiday. Not that I’m interested in theme parks or opportunities for white-water rafting; I’m on the lookout for quirky little museums, unknown artists, local musical soirées – and who knows, maybe even dames.
And I hit the jackpot a few weeks ago in south west France. On walking into the small tourist office in St Antonin Noble Val, I was confronted with an array of fantastic photos from the turn of the last century, taken by a local woman, Amélie Galup.
She documented life in a small rural community on the Tarn river with irresistible charm and immediacy, turning her lens equally on the bourgeoisie in their best, labourers, children, craftswomen… It’s no wonder her images have been used to illustrate much of the general historical information about the town.
So who was the woman behind the lens? Amélie Faure was born in 1856, the youngest of nine children, to a Bordeaux wine merchant. When her father died, only eight years later, the whole family relocated to Paris, to the home of her eldest brother. Four years after that, her mother died, an event that hit the 12-year-old Amélie hard.
She is likely to have spent the tempestuous period of the Paris Commune in the safety of Bordeaux, but we know that in 1874 she returned to Paris, again to the house of her older brother.
He now took it upon himself to get her married off, just as he had done with her four older sisters. But Amélie was having none of it. Not that she protested, resisted or argued. No – by the simple expedient of turning up to her engagement dinner with her hair cropped short she effectively scuppered her brother’s mission. Three years later, after some discreet enquiries and introductions orchestrated by her sister in Nantes, she found a suitor more to her liking and married Albert Galup, a judge in Cahors.
When he was appointed to the court in Albi, the family (they had a son and a daughter by now) moved to the area and she set herself up with a darkroom. In the six years that followed, from 1895 to 1901, she took over 1,300 photos.
After the death of her husband she returned to Paris and from then on her photography was confined to family portraits. She also made the switch from glass plates to celluloid, and these later images have been lost. It was only in 1984, over forty years after her death in 1943, that there was a public exhibition of her photos, in the town hall at St Antonin Noble Val.
But what a range she covered in her years in south west France! Some photos are artless shots of the passing scene, of people engrossed in their activities, where she seems to have managed to fade into the background. Others are obviously staged, such as the one of the three little chefs with attitude, skillets at the ready for Pancake Day. One Claude Harmelle has written a very perceptive essay on her output in the booklet of her work on sale in the tourist office, and in the course of his research back in the 1980s managed to talk to some her of sitters. These very senior citizens recalled that, as fidgety children, they had found her lengthy setting up of such tableaux rather trying.
Harmelle also notes that, quite unconsciously, she was capturing a rapidly vanishing way of life. People were leaving the St Antonin Noble Val area for the city in droves, tired of struggling to make ends meet through crafts and trades whose output had been superseded by the cheaper fruits of industrialisation.
At least, thanks to Amélie Galup, their lives, their work and their leisure have not been forgotten.