The French call the hour between sunset and darkness l'heure bleue (the blue hour). An evanescent state when the sky is illuminated by reflected light from the upper atmosphere. Jules Garvais-Courtellemeont underlined the poetic intent of this photograph when he named it L'heure violette. We can almost imagine the air over Damascus scented with almonds, jasmine and Bulgarian rose, the components of L'Heure Bleue, the perfume introduced by the House of Guerlain in 1912, around the time when Gervais-Courtellemont was in Syria.
The tranquility seems a far cry from current travails. But, as with all photographs, it tells the story of one moment. We cannot see the fighting between supporters and opponents of the Ottoman Revolution or the intellectuals who were hanged in the streets. Damascus, mentioned in both Old and New testaments of the Christian Bible, is of such ancient origin that its age is best measured by carbon-dating, not written history. The city and its inhabitants have experienced much.
I chose these images from among the 1,500 glass plates made by the French photographer Jules Gervais-Courtellemont who worked for the weekly magazine L'Illustration from 1893 to 1924. He was an immediate convert to color when the autochrome was introduced in 1907. Gervais-Courtellemont made his first trip to Istanbul and the Middle East for the magazine in 1893. An early war photographer, he publsihed two books of color photographs on the battles of the Marne and Verdun. He worked for National Geographic from 1924 until his death in 1931.
Jules Gervais-Courtellemont (1866-1931) was born near Paris but grew up in Algeria. He attributed his fascination with Islamic and Byzantine cultures to his peripatetic childhood. His friendship with the globe-trotting Orientalist Pierre Loti inspired an interest art photography, but Gervais-Courtellemont attempted to move beyond the exoticism of the imaginary east to portray ordinary reality in his extremely successful Visions of the East. He had a "A head full of dreams and two feet on the ground" according to a friend.
His ability to fix fleeting atmospherics with grains of starch looks like alchemy but was grounded in the rigors of classical composition. I can imagine his delight at discovering the blue cloths drying on the rooftops, like remnants of the blue sky of midday left at twilight. The same spirit that led Gervais-Courtellemont to scale hills and ladders of new places impelled him through the blasted fields and towns of war.
Autochrome photographs by Jules Gervais-Courtellemont are in the collection of Musee de la Ville de Paris.
Dates are likely circa 1907-1920.
1. Crepuscule in Damascus (L'Heure violette).
2. Terrace in Damascus.
3. Mausoleum of the Whirling Dervishes. Konya (Turkey).