Silver Salts: Realism and Materiality in a French photograph c.1900

Document Type

Book Chapter


Book chapter in Transatlantic Photographic Practices over the Long Nineteenth Century (ISBN 9789462702684).

Identifier Data



Leuven University Press


When Paul Géniaux took this photograph in 1900, there must have been something oddly satisfying about the image of a young woman harvesting salt from the surface of a shallow pool in Billiers, France, on the south coast of Brittany (fig. 1.1). It belongs to a larger series of images (by Paul and his brother Charles Géniaux) that archives traditional trades or métiers in their native Brittany such as the splitting of slate, the carving of wood clogs, the processing of sardines and the making and selling of salt (fig. 1.2) (Boulouch, 2019: 41-46; Coughlin, 2021). Despite the documentary qualities of this image, its from and narrative are rooted in (and conversant with) French realist and regional imagery at the turn of the century. The young woman's pose, costume and the site of her labor mark her as a Breton paludiere, or salt-worker. A breeze ripples the surface of the pools behind her but hers appears frozen, as she shaves white salt from the grassy surface. A material transformation, occurring at this moment, was registered by the light-sensitive silver salts. This Image, in turn, unleashes a series of associations: like the crystals of fleur de sel that she draws from the water, Géniaux's photographic gathered up the world around him.