Now, in April, the overwhelming wonder of cherry blossom heralds the season of spring. Over one hundred years ago, Julien Géradin documented the spectacular beauty of cherry orchards in flower in a series of autochromes taken at the gardens at Jarville, near Nancy, eastern France, and in the surrounding countryside.
Enormous, established trees tower above the women posed next to them, speaking of a time before the mass industrialisation of agriculture, and before smaller, more compact trees were introduced for ease of pruning and harvesting. Between the widely spaced trees, the grass is unmown and filled with wild flowers.
It’s all too easy to over expose images of white flowers in bright light, and Gérardin avoids this, both by choosing slightly overcast conditions, and by making use of the shade cast by the canopy of the trees. The clusters of white flowers, almost luminous in places, fade and darken towards the edge of the image, seeming to melt into the thick, black border of the photograph.
Photographs of women posed in outdoor locations, typically with parasols, or coloured shawls, was a convention started by the Lumière brothers, inventors of the autochrome, as a device to demonstrate, and market, their colour photographic process. Gérardin continues this convention in his work, and the shawls worn by his models in peach, apricot and terracotta shades provide a point of focus amongst the cool textures and tones of the blossom and meadow.
Géradin’s use of colour is always considered, and occasionally he rejects coloured props altogether. In one image, a simple white blouse worn by a young woman seems to amplify both the clouds of pale blossom above her head, and the fallen petals beneath her feet; while the inky black of her coat and long skirt echoes the dark trunks of the trees. Occasionally, however, the formality of the women’s clothes, especially the elaborate hats worn by some of his models, creates a curious tension with the naturalistic, rural setting.
Géradin frequently included local agricultural workers in his photographs, sometimes posed on their own, or in groups with baskets, rakes and other gardening paraphernalia. Instead of shawls, they wear coloured aprons. The young woman in a light blue blouse who features in a number of these images was a servant in the household at Jarville.
The flowering trees hardly ever appear in their entirety in Géradin’s photographs. By presenting them cropped in this way, he suggests an even greater abundance of blossom beyond the confines of the frame, and creates a sense that the memory of this spectacle, whilst powerful, is always fragmentary.
Julien Gérardin (1860 – 1924) worked as a notary in the French town of Nancy, where he also lived. As an amateur photographer, and member of the prestigious Société Lorraine de Photographie, he produced hundreds of autochromes in the early years of the 20th century which are now part of the collection of the École Supérieure d’art et de design de Nancy (ÉNSAD) and include many images of plants, parks and gardens. With great generosity, ÉNSAD has digitised all Géradin’s work, which is available on their website for all to enjoy – links as usual below.
Autochromes at ÉNSAD here
Julien Gérardin’s Wikipedia entry here
Science and Media Museum’s History of the Autochrome here