Portrait of a boy, Paris, early-20th C


I thought this was a magnificent portrait when I found it a few weeks ago at the Librairie Jousseaume in Paris, the latest in a series of vintage studio portraits I’ve collected from India, Egypt, Italy, Peru and elsewhere.  This one comes without context or date, save for a caption:

This reads as “Lucia” to me, though the subject is clearly a boy so perhaps “Lucian” is more likely and the ‘n’ was lost in some way to the comma that followed.  This intrigue led me to do a web search on the address 3, Pl. de la Madeleine.  Today, that is a Patrick Roger chocolate shop but a century ago it was the address of a Swedish photographer named Otto Wegener, who — according to this website, at least — “opened his magnificient studio at the fashionable address 3, Place de la Madeleine in 1883, successfully competing with Nadar and Reutlinger for the elite audience.”  The name OTTO (in highly stylized script) can clearly be seen at the bottom left on this portrait of the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt.  What is curious is that the photographer’s name and city are professionally embossed on the Sarah Bernhardt portrait but on the portrait I found the address is hand-written, with no indication of the photographer at all.  This would seem to suggest that the one I found is not by OTTO and the address, perhaps, refers to the residence of the subject, though the odds that the subject of such a magnificent portrait just happened to live above a famous portraitist but nevertheless went elsewhere to have his photo taken would seem very long indeed.

An interesting side note: The Otto Wegener website above mentions that Edward Steichen — groundbreaking American photographer and influential director of the photography department at MoMA — worked as an assistant for Wegener early in his career during a sojourn in Paris at the start of the 1900s.  Quoting a letter Steichen wrote to Alfred Stieglitz:

“Well – I’ve taken a job as a day laborer. I am working for Otto! ! ! going to put in two days a week with him, for a while at twenty dollars a day “showing him” how to do it [make Steichen prints].

I tell you it is not exactly pleasant but I simply had to do something …There is no use denying it people have more respect in a business way for you if they think you have money enough – Oh I guess I’m talking wash but I can’t see or think straight any more.”

– From Steichen: The master prints 1895-1914, Thames and Hudson 1978).

Was actually Steichen showing Otto new techniques? The book is uncertain if the letter was written in 1902 or 1906. Maybe he exibited in 1902 and wrote the letter in 1906.

Some of Steichen’s better-known photographs can be found at the bottom of his Wikipedia page.


Leave a Reply