It’s time to collectively put on our best deerstalkers, shine our magnifying glasses, light our pipes, and hit the road – or, as the case may be, trails – to deduce what we can about Box 1 of the Puthon Collection. If you’ve not already done so, I strongly suggest taking a look at the overview page for the collection, as it provides a general guideline to viewing sets from this collection. Of course, who am I to tell you how to go about your day? Perhaps you just want to dive into the unknown head-first. There’s really no wrong way to go about things; the guide might help, but the real work begins here – with the first box of slides from the Puthon Collection.
The first immediate thing to note about this box is that “one of these things is not like the other ones” – of the 21 boxes in the collection, this is the only one that does not share a common Vitra diapositive package. It is a plain brown box, with “Savoie 1928” in the center – and what could potentially be an initial and a surname. If so, that surname (which I cannot decipher) does not read “Puthon”. And if that reflects on the photographer who exposed these plates, then the underlying hypothesis of this investigation – that the photographer is a Monsieur Puthon, likely married to the Mme Puthon who appears in multiple images – fails. Of course, hypotheses fail all the time. This is why we test them.
The box contains 11 glass diapositive stereoviews, of which 9 are dated to 1928, and one each dated to 1929 and 1931. Of the 9 from 1928, I would be willing to wager that the majority of them were taken on the same date. But we’ll get to that in a bit. One of the slides, containing three women along with some men, includes the name “Mme Puthon” on it. The two remaining slides might have been shuffled into this box by mistake, or to help fill it to capacity. Alternately, the majority of the collection may contain random slides that are out of place. Our best sleuthing must be employed if we’re to figure this out. But to do so, we need to have a look under the hood, and thus…
Description: This stereoview features a group of five people, two men and three women, posing on a rocky outcropping a short distance across the water from the photographer. Surrounded by apparently untamed wilderness, the group comfortably poses, creating a mirror image in the still water. This suggests that the photographer was on solid ground or at least not moving if in the water – there are no ripples visible. Note the group of five, particularly the woman at top-right, with the distinctive V-necked diagonally patterned top – we’ll call her “Diagonal Top Lady” for now. The body of water is surely Lac Vert.
Technical: The composition is pretty decent here; it’s a posed portrait, so central composition works, and the reflections are nicely framed. The photographer did not take full advantage of stereo, however – with subjects that far away from the lens, and near enough each other and the background, to create a noticeable – but diminished – stereo effect. It’s hard to judge the exposure, because there was either a light leak at the top of the camera, the plate got fogged ahead of time, or some post-processing damage caused the tops of both images in the stereo pair to get hazy at top. An adequate amateur view.
Description: Five people stand basically in silhouette against a beautiful mountainous backdrop. At left, a pine tree. In the distance, a valley between mountains through which a river passes. Having marked col de Voza on the map, it seems almost certain that the river is the Arve, a tributary of the Rhône. Can we learn anything more about our silhouettes here? Perhaps. But we’ll get to that.
Technical: While again the photographer demonstrates a nice sense of composition, in this case the lack of proper exposure knowledge (or intuition) is quite clear – this was underexposed for capturing the people and foreground detail, and overexposed for the background detail. Harsh, contrasty lighting is not ideal when shooting diapositive (reversal) emulsions, and a seasoned photographer would know this. The grain is similar in structure to that of S01, but this one was developed in such a way that it has a mild purplish tint. Stereo effect is used well here, with the people and pine tree strongly differentiated from the ridge immediately behind them, and again from the far distant mountains and valley.
Addenda: solead has provided a proper reading & translation for this slide!
Description: At least 8 people pose on a wooden walkway through a gorge – quickly identified thanks to the caption as the Gorges du Trient. Almost no detail regarding the subjects is visible.
Technical: Due to either incorrect developing or an awful exposure, this slide is almost unviewable. The composition looks like it might be okay, using the rule of thirds to add interest to the near part of the walkway (which sticks out mightily in 3D) and the contrasty right-hand side of the gorge. But otherwise, it’s hard to evaluate. A strange, dark, almost blood-red color, it has very flat tonal gradients and very little detail throughout. What appears to be a fingerprint stuck permanently into the emulsion on the right-hand exposure distracts and draws most of the attention away from the subjects, and the emulsion is generally in terrible shape. Overall, a very poor quality image.
Description: Like S03 immediately before it, this shows a group of people on a wooden walkway through the Gorges du Trient. In this one, it seems fairly certain that eight people appear in the image, although further details are hard to discern due to the harsh lighting. As the lighting appears to be very similar to that of the previous slide, and the rocks match the rocks farther back (in the upper right) of that slide, it seems reasonable to assert that these were taken within a short timeframe of each other, no more than a few dozen yards apart.
Technical: While the exposure is slightly better on this image, the composition is poor and the stereo quality is almost entirely flat – this seems altogether more amateurish than the first two slides from this box. Again the image presents as almost a blood red, although slightly lighter than the previous slide. The emulsion is heavily damaged. Overall, there is nothing to recommend this – it is probably (photographically and stereoscopically speaking) the worst image of the lot so far.
Description: Like S01, this is a group of people gathered at Lac Vert, this time out of the shade and into the sun. A group portrait in front of a lovely body of water, with a tree dramatically in the very near foreground. While a somewhat contrasty image, there are smooth gradients throughout – allowing us to make out the figures. Starting from the left, we have:
- The man with the vest holding his coat over his arm, dressed and posturing much as he was in S01. We’ll call him “Posturing Gentleman”.
- An previously unseen man with his face hidden in shadow – let’s call him “Shady Gentleman”.
- The man with the greyish suit, high-brimmed hat, and who appears to be wearing several neckties in S01. He has his arms very familiarly around the next woman in line. We’ll call him “Familiar Gentleman”.
- The woman who stood next to Familiar Gentleman in S01, with her arms reach back and holding him familiarly. She too is wearing the exact same clothes as in the first slide. We’ll call her “Familiar Lady”
- Diagonal Top Lady.
- The woman who was sitting next to Familiar Lady and near where Posturing Gentleman was… well, posturing. We’ll call her “Leftover Lady” for the time being.
Technical: This is almost a reversal of Box01S01 in terms of photographic and stereoscopic quality. The use of stereoscopy is wonderful, with the tree almost coming out of frame towards us, the subjects set in center, and the background falling away far behind. The framing with the tree on the right and the branches at top left is a nice touch. But this was clearly shot off-tripod, and with a level of skill that I could have beat at about age 10 with my Argus A2B – the camera is tilted heavily counterclockwise, to the point that it appears as if the lake should start rushing off to the right, and all of the figures should fall in that direction. And what is interesting is it looks like this all happened in order to get the tree vertically oriented. This is yet another reminder that the photographer is clearly not practiced with his stereographic camera – and that while he seems to have good intuition for this and that now and again, he’s clearly at the beginner stage. The slide is almost a crimson color, and the emulsion is in great shape, similar to S01 and S02.
Description: Here we see a group of people – 3 ladies, 6 gents – posing for a picture at Col de Voza, while two people pass by unaware in the background. They’re posing next to a building – perhaps a way-station or inn; from what little I’ve been able to dig up about this pass in English, it’s a common stopping point for travelers through the region. Utility poles in the rear help round out the feeling that this is the first shot from civilization proper that we’ve seen so far. But let’s focus on the people for a moment. Posturing Gentleman is there, his jacket on and slightly less “super cool” than in the previous two shots we’ve seen him in. The rest of the gents appear to be unknown – the man holding the cigar might be Familiar Man, if he changed hats. But enough about the menfolk; the caption includes… Mme Puthon! So one of the three women in this image is she, if the caption is to be believed. Familiar Lady is there, now with a hat on. Diagonal Top Lady is there too, dressed same as ever. And there’s a woman we haven’t really seen yet (unless we were looking very closely) – the other woman we shall call Flower Dress Lady. And one of the three of them is very probably the wife of our photographer, if our hypotheses so far have been correct!
Technical: In my opinion, this is a very fine stereoview indeed. The composition is bang-on for a portrait; catching the passersby in the background adds even more of a feeling of “this is civilization” to a box that so far has seen little of it. The framing is quite nice here. The stereo effect is perfect – not too little, not too much – this is one of those scenes that’s just easy to merge and then fall into. It doesn’t hurt that there are plenty of different people and objects at different depths to let one’s eyes dart around and explore. The emulsion is very much intact, aside a little damage on the left image foreground. It has a pleasant orange tonality which retains enough of a gradation to give a range from bright highlights to deep midtones rather seamlessly.
Addenda: Alan provided insight into the “de St Paul” notation on the slide: “part of a fancy surname”.
Description: A view of the Rhône from high atop a peak, bordered by mountains, and surrounded by farmland.
Technical: Perhaps as a still photograph, this would be interesting. It’s not poorly composed. But it fails utterly as a stereograph – because it takes no advantage of the dual lenses of a stereo camera. Since everything is so far away, and there’s nothing in the foreground to contrast it with, it might as well be a still photograph. A beginner’s move to be sure, and hopefully one that we won’t see repeated too many times. The emulsion is orange, and tonally rich.
Addenda: Benjamin provided, in the comments, a proper reading of the French caption, as well as translation into English. Thus, the caption refers to the train at bottom center – a small part of the image, but clearly the photographer’s reason for taking the barely-stereo-photo.
Description: A quaint little lunchtime scene with our new “old friends”. A picnic table in a clearing provides a nice sunny spot for some lunch. Diagonal Top Lady is staring off into space, while Familiar Gentleman pours a beverage for Leftover Lady. By her side is Posturing Gentleman, apparently too busy blocking the sun from his eyes to strike a dashing pose. To his left (our right), Familiar Lady appears ready to take a bite out of something tasty. Finally, back in the shadows, Shady Gentleman is standing there stoically, his face once again shrouded in darkness.
Technical: This is quite a good amateur stereoview. It’s a fairly basic composition, but the shadows on the ground – the foreground shadow between us and the group, the rear shadow behind – nicely concentrate attention on the table, which was shot at an appropriate distance to make the 3D really pop between our festive adventurers. The photographer correctly chose to expose for his subjects, in the pool of light made by the clearing, leaving the forest – which has some great depth to it – shrouded in shadow. This seems to have the same fine-grained emulsion on it as every slide so far except S03 and S04, and like S01 came out nearly straight B&W.
Description: Another lovely scene of our main merry band walking down a path in the beautiful mountainous terrain of the French Alps. Viewed carefully, there are trees at various intervals to their left (our right) – and far behind them on the horizon, a mountain so lovely it looks like it could have been painted into place by Bob Ross himself can be seen through the haze. All six of the gang are here – Shady Gentleman leading the way, flanked by Diagonal Top Lady to his right and, making sure to stand well within the camera’s line of sight, Posturing Gentleman to his left. Leftover Lady and Familiar Lady walk side-by-side behind, and taking up the rear is the towering figure of Familiar Gentleman.
Technical: One of the most competent images by our amateur stereo photographer so far. The composition is great, utilizing the top-left and bottom-right “rule of thirds” points to highlight the travelers and the mountain. The careful placement of the trees at right of frame really emphasizes the stereo effect, which is consistently good throughout the image. There’s a part of me that wishes that our main subjects had a bit more exposure to them – but while one stop more might bring out their facial details more, it would wipe the mountains off entirely. The emulsion is a deep red, but as near to perfect as any other slide in this set besides S06.
Description: A street scene in Salvan. In the foreground, a man is showing off his motorbike (number plate 82634) to a young lad. In the midground, the group of subjects is posing for this photo op. It’s hard to tell who’s there (if anyone we know) – though the tall man on the left looks an awful lot like Familiar Gentleman. Apparently, there are some Americans there – which will be discussed as a part of one of my theories in the Discussion section below. In the background, a few people are just hanging around on the road, which curves out of view left in lovely stereo effect.
Technical: Our amateur stereo photographer has grown by leaps and bounds in a single year, if this photograph is any indication. In many of the 1929 photographs, he struggled with composition to the point that his verticals were not… vertical. His exposures were often way off the mark, and his developing methodology led to weird colored slides. Here, we see full stereo – from near foreground to far background – with near-perfect verticals and great attention to detail. These seem to be better plates as well – a bit grainier, a little bit sepia, but with WAY more lattitude. This scene is clearly very contrasty, but the plates are picking up much more detail – from the shadows of the little boy’s feet to the buildings at rear, behind the haze of sunshine pouring in. If this is what we have to look forward to in 1929’s photos, I can’t wait to see 1933!
Description: Past what seems like an insurmountable pile of boulders, three travelers (unidentifiable at that distance) pose heroically on the ice of a mountain glacier. In the far distance, nothing but rock is visible – giving this the look of a still from an unmade Tarkovsky sci-fi film.
Technical: Clearly, our amateur photographer has learned a lot in the three years since the first batch of stereoviews were made. While still relying heavily on central composition, he has willfully broken the rule of thirds in order to make the rock pile more imposing and to place the group above the center line. This achieves the grandiosity that the portrait seems to be aiming for. The use of stereo technique is vastly improved over the older works, with the rocks taking a front-and-center in-your-face position in the field of vision, and with the “heroes” still given enough breathing room to stand out from the background on their conquered glacier. It works very well as a stereoview. Additionally, the emulsion is much more fine-grained than that of the 1928 views – and has a near-perfect black-and-white tonality.
Addenda: Alan provided the translation for the month, which was previously unreadable by myself.
Since we’ve studied but one 11-view box so far, it might seem as if we’ve learned very little. But then again, we’ve learned quite a lot – at least about one group of people in 1928, one of whom is a part of the family for whom this collection is named. But before we move on to discuss that, I want to return to S02 for a moment. At the end of my Puthon Collection Overview, I noted that I would not sell the physical slides even after I have maximum resolution scans. This is because I prefer viewing the media as it was meant to be viewed – with full field of vision through a scope. But while that is certainly the most aesthetically pleasing way to appreciate these views, there are some things that can be done with a scanner than cannot be done with a Unis scope, a Verascope, a Taxiphote, or any other method of display – namely, the digitization of a positive image can sometimes allow one to pull detail out of a scene where there seems to be none. This is exactly what I did with the silhouettes in S02. And guess who I found?
It’s four of the six members of the “Lac Vert Crew”: Diagonal Top Lady, Familiar Lady, Posturing Gentleman, and Familiar Gentleman. And they’re joined by Flower Dress Lady from Col de Voza, shown on S06. Which means that Mme Puthon was among those that ventured out that day – perhaps not to the lake, but certainly to the Col de Voza overlook where S02 was taken.
I was fascinated with this collection from the get-go, but with no documentation, no provenance, no real idea what exactly it was I was holding, I didn’t think I’d solve the mystery of who took these photos. But I got that one on my own. Hopefully, with the help of this blog’s readers, as this investigation proceeds, we can solve several more mysteries. Of course, the next mystery that needs solving is the identity of Mme Puthon. We currently have three candidates:
Without evaluating various theories as to who the Puthons were, there’s nothing to speak in favor of any of the candidates, and only one thing to speak against one of them – Familiar Lady got her name due to the fact that in S05, she seemed mighty… familiar… with Familiar Gentleman. That photograph was probably taken in the summer of 1928 – so over 90 years ago, when that much physical contact was practically the equivalent in modern terms of “getting to third base”. If we accept the assumption that photographer M Puthon was the husband of Mme Puthon, then Familiar Lady is right out.
But can we accept that assumption? What if M Puthon is the son of Mme Puthon – and what if Mme Puthon and Familiar Lady are one and the same? That makes Familiar Gentleman a likely candidate for being the photographer’s father.
Base too much deduction off of an assumption, and it falls like a house of cards if that assumption turns out wrong. On the other hand, with such little information, making no assumptions, we’re unlikely to go far. So let’s go through some assumptions and conclusions that I think we have to take as given so far:
- The photographs in the Puthon Collection are the work of a single photographer, who may have upgraded their camera gear over time, and almost certainly started using better quality diapositives after 1928.
- The photographer was one M Puthon, whose name appears on the front of one of the Vitra boxes. He is likely – but not certainly – the husband of Mme Puthon.
- In Box 1, slides 1, 2, 5, 6, 8 and 9 were all taken on the same day. Unless people in the French Alps wore the same clothes every day – changing only hats on occasion – this is borne out by the fact that at least four people appear in each of those slides wearing the exact same kit.
- Likewise, slides 3 and 4 were taken on the same day within a short distance within a few dozen yards of each other. This is borne out by the uniform lighting, emulsion problems, exposure problems, and number of group members.
- Therefore, at most, the 1928 slides contained in Box 1 were taken on three days.
- If M Puthon (photographer) and Mme Puthon (subject) are married, then Familiar Lady is not Mme Puthon.
- If Familiar Lady is Mme Puthon, then M Puthon is likely her son, and therefore Familiar Gentleman is likely his father.
But of course, interpreting all of this will take more photos, more captions, and more reasoning. Thank goodness I have 20 more boxes to scan and analyze! I have three working theories as to what the Puthons’ roles might be, and why the subject matter might be such as it is:
- The Puthons were a wealthy family from the Chamonix region, and simply galavanted around with other wealthy people. This is one viable explanation for the variety of people who show up (the friends in the “Lac Vert crew”, whoever was there in Gorges du Trient in slides 3 and 4, the American group that appeared in slide 10 from 1929, the “heroes” of slide 11). This theory would also explain the expensive hobby – boxes of unexposed glass diapositives, and the cameras that took them, weren’t exactly chump change in the late 1920s.
- The Puthons were indeed a married couple, possibly wealthy, and M Puthon practiced photography as they traveled all over the world. Unless we start seeing some winter pictures in a box in the near future, this seems like an explanation for the lack of the same. Additionally, if he was getting that much experience as a photographer and stereographer, it would explain the rather rapid improvement in the quality of photos over short periods of time. At the time of his death, all of his positives were divided by category, and I wound up with the set from various visits to the Alps. This would also explain why they seem to have primarily been taken on a couple of days.
- The Puthons were a family that ran an inn, or a travel agency, or another sort of tourism business. M Puthon found a side business in selling stereoviews to tourists – he could take the diapositives while he led various expeditions, and the Puthon Collection represents his collected rejects or un-purchased views. This would explain why the individuals in the views vary by location / date, as well as why they’re all from the same region. If Puthon was developing these himself, it would also explain the color inconsistency in the emulsions on the slides.
2 is the only option that mandates marriage, and even then, mothers and sons can travel the world together – Suddenly, Last Summer anyone? Personally, right now, I’m leaning towards 3 – but I’m not going to look for evidence that fits my theory. Rather, I’ll let the evidence lead me where it will, and see where that takes me. And meanwhile, if anybody out there has any additional theories, contact me and I’ll add them to the list!
After one box, we’ve only seen 11 slides, and we’ve learned a lot. Hell, we’ve narrowed the Mme Puthon candidate list down to 3 – not bad for 11 slides, eh? Now it’s your turn. Contact me, or leave a comment, and let me know your thoughts. Let’s work this out together!
Speaking of which, some notes on Lac Vert, courtesy of Alan:
Lac Vert is well known spot close to Chamonix at Plaine-Joux (the Tour de France climbs there often).
Here’s a description in English with a map and a 360° panorama view.
But meanwhile, pop on your red/cyan glasses, and get ready to see this box in fully merged 3D – just click any image to start, and use the backwards and forwards keys to navigate – or click “pop out” for full 1600×1600 images, in the form of…
- Benjamin, for interpretation & translation on Box01s07
- solead, for providing a proper reading & translation on Box01s02
- Alan, for providing better captioning information for Box01s06 & Box01s11, as well as information on Lac Vert