Fasser Collection: Reims Cathedral & More

When A. O. Fasser’s collection arrived in Brooklyn some weeks back, one of the boxes contained 8 slides under a note saying “Rheims” (an alternate spelling of “Reims”). I was expecting to find these slides in here, as Doug had sent me some photographs of how the collection was originally packaged when he received it, including this one of the Reims bundle:

How the 8 slides were packaged when Doug got them.

I was expecting a set of stereoviews made by Fasser in Reims – how exciting! But as I quickly discovered, this set was anything but. It is my hypothesis that Fasser was never in Reims, and that these were stereoviews that he (or a collector who owned his set in between his parting with it and Doug’s acquiring it) pieced together from other photographers and commercial sets. The very first slide I scanned positively confirms that this hypothesis is at least partially correct:

(1) A commercial image from the Fasser collection, focused on the equestrian statue of Joan of Arc situated in its original position in front of the Reims Cathedral. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

Clearly not an image shot by our American doctor in 1915 or 1916 – as the lack of blown-out windows, the fact that the statue remains in its original position, and so-on proves that this is a pre-bombardment stereoview! From my own collection here’s a view of the front of the same, after the bombardment & the fire, from quite a ways further back:

Reims Cathedral from the front, post-bombardment and fire. Unknown manufacturer / photographer.

Images like this are common; after the German shelling of the Cathedral with giant guns and howitzers only transportable by rail, designed to demoralize the French early on to lead to a hasty victory in the West, the Cathedral became a symbol of Germany’s willingness to destroy cultural monuments to no particular end. Germany’s goal of reduction in morale was not attained; the indignant people of France were greatly angered by widely circulated images of this needless destruction, and it only strengthened their resolve. But this one in particular is telling – the statue of Joan of Arc is now removed; this happened some time in between the fire which occurred after German occupation and the time at which this photograph was taken.

In any case, Fasser wasn’t in France until late 1915 – so he could not have witnessed the Reims cathedral with glass intact. This was a later purchase, by himself or someone else. Moving on:

(2) The Southern tower of the Reims Cathedral. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

This certainly looks a lot more like a possible Fasser composition. It is barely-stereo, which fits with both of the cameras he used to do his work outside of Paris; it also features unnecessary space on the left, and somewhat clunky composition, but is pretty good amateur-grade work. This is more or less what we’ve come to expect of Fasser. Next:

(3) Indoor scene with a tapestry of the Virgin Mary, some random construction tables, plenty of rubble, and a giant shell. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

Having never personally visited the Cathedral, I can’t speak as to the exact location of this shot. However, it could have been taken by Fasser – or by anybody else with a camera that did not have a pronounced stereoscopic effect. This one merges nicely, is pretty well composed (despite a right-tilt to the camera), and is well lit. Next:

(4*) Reims Cathedral from the front. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

OK, it’s a down-the-street front view of the Cathedral. I have to assume that everybody who visited Reims with a stereo camera made something like this. It’s minimally-stereo, but so is every photograph of this facade taken from this distance – one would have to shoot with two cameras a few feet apart to get any interesting stereo detail out of a facade from this far away. But there’s something fishy about it. It’s obvious when compared to the image from my collection shared above, but take a look at some details in the base scan:

Details from slide 4* of the buildings at “left” (top) and “right” (bottom).

The slide was printed backwards! Or alternately, I scanned it backwards… so I went and found that stack, examined the positive, and sure enough, it was printed backwards. So that rules out two things:

  • It was a diapositive image (with the plate loaded properly).
  • It was an emulsion-to-emulsion contact print from a negative.

No, this was most likely an emulsion-to-emulsion contact print from another positive – a copy positive. A first generation copy positive makes a backwards image such as this; a second generation copy positive again makes a correct image (albeit degraded in quality, as each generation will be – think of the quality loss as similar to that experienced when cloning cassette tapes).

We know that Fasser made positives of his own negatives; additionally, we know that he probably purchased at least some commercial slides. Is it possible that he was duping other photographers’ works as well, perhaps in exchange for dupes of his own? It’s certainly possible – he had the equipment, if he was making contact prints of his own works. If he’d had somewhat more advanced equipment, of course, he could have made pass-through copy positives – passing light through the emulsion of the positive, then through the glass onto the unexposed diapositive. But that’s enough technical babble. Let’s fix that slide:

(4) Reims Cathedral from the front. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

Competent enough, but unremarkable, and in terrible shape a century on – unlike the first (commercial) slide, which was in remarkable condition. Next up:

(5) Rubble covering a tomb in the Cathedral, with a support pillar in the extreme foreground. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

Another competent-enough interior, again with a slight right-tilt to the camera, and demonstrating much better stereo effect than (3). Could be Fasser’s work, but again, could be any competent photographer’s work. Next:

(6) Street scene, with ruined buildings dominating the view. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

This could, of course, be any street, in any war-torn city in France – since it’s not the Cathedral, it’s not clearly Reims, at least not to the casual observer who hasn’t yet had a chance to tour France. Note however the rectangular brickwork that comprises the street – it’s definitely a contrast with the square stones in the following scene, which is definitely Reims:

(7) A darkened street scene. The Cathedral engulfed in smoke in the distance, presumably during the night, or at dusk. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

By far the most intriguing of these images, this appears to depict the actual burning of the Cathedral, or at least the smoldering aftermath, in dark or near-dark conditions! Note that the brightest parts of the image are through the Cathedral windows – if it is indeed night-time as it appears in the image, then that light is being provided by fire. Of course, that smoke could just be smoke from the bombardments, but either way, one fundamental question remains:

Who took this stereo photograph? It wasn’t Fasser. He was over 3,000 miles away, in South Dakota, while this scene occurred. While the initial shells hit the Cathedral while the city was still under French control, it was soon captured by the Germans. Anticipating its use as a shelter, the Germans had filled the Cathedral with hay (a catalyst for the fire) before it went up ablaze. Was some French photographer hiding out in the vicinity, and happened to sneak a shot at just the right moment? Was it a German soldier who’d obtained a Verascope camera and quickly learned how to use it? Frustratingly, as with most questions that this collection raises, the answer is most likely: we’ll never know. Because neither Fasser nor anybody else who owned this collection carefully annotated it, we have no idea where this slide came from, besides “not one of Fasser’s cameras”.

Finally, one of the most technically proficient – and un-Fasser-like images of the lot:

(8) Apse of the Reims Cathedral, filled with rubble, photographed through the opened gate (partial, missing bottom left corner of plate). Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

This one has some dramatic left-side camera tilt, but it is not necessarily accidental – the composition of the photograph improved by having the apse windows in the upper-right third mark of the image. The dramatic tilt covers the fact that this could not be shot adequately without a shifting camera back, which didn’t exist for the Verascope stereo cameras that were the primary picture-takers for this format. The gate provides strong stereoscopic effect, and really makes the image pop. This seems unlike most of Fasser’s works, which are more documentary than artistic.

So we have some stereoviews in the “Reims Bundle” that are definitely not Fasser’s work, and the rest could maybe possibly be… except for one thing that doesn’t sit right for me, and in my mind at least clinches the case.

Dr. Fasser loved stereophotography. This much is obvious. He went through plates faster than I go through pots of Barry’s Tea. When he spent a day photographing a river near a forest – we haven’t gotten there yet in the blog, but we will – he really photographed that river. He’d print even his blurriest and worst slides. While I haven’t gone through his negatives yet, and their small quantity as compared to the positives leads me to believe that he likely shot diapositives as well as negatives, I can say that he would take stereoviews of the same subject incessantly. There are about four angles of the same dugout entrance somewhere back in the woods, in a trench still under construction.

Are we to believe that this man went to Reims, and took 6 or less total photographs, and then combined them with at least 2 that were not his own, to remember his trip there by? I can believe that he took the photographs from Belgium because they are characteristic of his style – and because I not only have the box of 16 that I blogged about, but dozens more. The Reims bundle, however, is a different matter. It contains 8 stereoviews, and at least 2 predate his arrival in France. I simply cannot believe that he would have visited Reims and not returned with boxes full of exposed plates.

I think that Dr. Fasser – or perhaps a later collector who added to the Fasser Collection – purchased, traded for, or duplicated these himself. Either way, they’re lovely, and (7) in particular is fascinating.


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