Geneviève Élisabeth Disdéri (1817 – 1878)
Geneviève Élisabeth Disdéri, born in 1817, was one of the earliest women photographers – shortly active after Bertha Wehnert-Beckmann and Brita Sofia Hesselius – and the first French woman photographer. She is well known for her photography of the French town of Brest, Brest et ses environ (28 views of Brest), from 1856 to 1858.
Not much is known of Geneviève’s early life or how she learned photography. Most of what is known begins in 1848, after her marriage to the photographer, André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, when they opened a daguerreotype studio in Brest at 65 rue de Siam, France in 1848. André-Adolphe-Eugène would leave for Paris in 1852, amid financial and political difficulties, yet Geneviève would remain in Brest, continuing to run the studio into the late 1860s.
During the 1850s France had become hooked on documenting its national architecture and historical sites. Geneviève’s Brest et ses environ would document this cultural fervent; from the hallowed halls of Intérieur de St. Mathieu, or the opulence of Calvaire de Plougastel, to the imposing gothic ruins of Chateau de Trémarzan d’après une étude peinte.
Standing upon the cliff edge, this gothic chateau looms over the working-class figures in the foreground, as their activity produces smoke and dust, rising towards the ruins in the distance. Capturing movement within the scene was impossible with early cameras, suggesting Geneviève doctored the image, displaying her artistic proficiency, innate creativity, and control of the camera; the piece exudes a painterly, evanescent quality.
In 1872, Geneviève moved to Paris, opening her own studio at 146 rue du Bac, which she operated until her death in 1878 at the age of 61. Since her death, her work has only been exhibited once – at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a 1969 show called French Primitive Photographers. The word ‘primitive’ denigrates her work to that of a novice, belying her admirable proficiency.
Geneviève has remained largely overlooked in favour of her husband. However, her astuteness for business, operating the studio in Brest for 20 years before opening her own in Paris, alongside being a wife and mother, in addition to her artistic eye and knowledge of photographic technique, display her success and depth as a photographer in her own right. She deserves to be remembered as an integral part of 19th century French photography, and celebrated as a pioneer during photography’s infancy.