One of the main characters from my young adult historical novel, The Art of Rebellion, is Philippe Lucien. He becomes obsessed with miniature “detective” cameras, which were all the rage at the turn of the twentieth century in Paris.
Researching 19th century photography was fun – imagine cameras concealed in top hats, tie pins, revolvers and the heads of walking canes! Although detective cameras became a useful tool for a private detective such as Philippe, interest in the cameras and in the art of photography overtook his interest in investigating.
One of Philippe’s favourite detective cameras was the top hat camera, which he uses on several occasions to photograph Gabrielle (main character) surreptitiously. Another hidden camera he uses is the photo-cravate, hidden behind his cravat (tie), with the aperture appearing as a tie pin. Philippe challenges Gabrielle to find his hidden camera while riding the Ferris wheel at the World Expo in Paris. This clever camera was invented by Edmond Bloch, a Parisian. Philippe claimed his favourite detective camera was one hidden in the base of an innocent-looking whiskey glass.
As I learned more about detective cameras, I discovered that, as luck would have it, many of the innovators in photography were Frenchmen, such as Gaspard Tournachon, aka Nadar. He was a cartoonist, but reinvented himself to become one of Paris’ finest portrait photographers. He photographed mostly men in the elite and upper classes of French society. One woman he photographed was George Sand, journalist, novelist and Chopin’s mistress.
Nadar became famous throughout Europe after he took the first photograph from a balloon (in 1858). He also photographed the catacombs of Paris, pioneering the use of magnesium flares for light.
A well known French explorer, Maxime du Camp was initially contemptuous of photography. However, in 1849 he toured the Middle East with Gustave Flaubert (famed French novelist). He was clearly busy photographing on that trip, because after he returned from the trip, a book containing a hundred and twenty-five of his photographs was published in Paris: Egypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie (1852).
I’d like to think that Philippe would meet the Notmans when he explores Montreal in search of the best place to practice photography. Born in Britain in 1826, William Notman went to Canada and from the mid 1850s took photographs of the country. Notman also photographed famous personalities of the period, including Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull. His work forms a valuable record of Canada’s life, people and customs during the second half of the nineteenth century.
The studio Notman founded, Wm. Notman & Son operated until 1993. By the turn of the century, Charles Notman was gaining praise for his portrait photographs, making Notman’s the leading stuido in Montreal by the end of the 19th century.
If you’re interested in pursuing resources on detective cameras, these will get you started:
*An Age of Cameras, by E. Holmes (1974)
*150 Classic Cameras, from 1839 to the present, by P. van Hasbroeck (1989)
*The Illustrated History of the Camera from 1839 to the Present, by M. Auer (1975)
About the Author:
Brenda Joyce Leahy loves historical fiction and thinks she was born a century too late but can't imagine her life without computers or cell phones. So, perhaps, she arrived in the world at just the right moment to tell this story. She grew up on a farm near Taber, Alberta but now lives with her family near the Rocky Mountains in Calgary, Alberta. After over 20 years practising law, she has returned to her first love of writing fiction. She is a member of several writing organizations, including the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) The Art of Rebellion is also profiled on the Humber School of Writers' website. Brenda is also a member of the Historical Novel Society and leads a YA/MG writers' critique group in Calgary.
Also check out my review of Brenda Joyce Leahy's novel: