The names of the photographers remain unknown for almost all stereoviews from the war. Sometimes, research can bring a photographer’s name out of obscurity. The archives of La Section Photographique de l’Armée contain 539 albums with photos categorised by location or theme. The collection is known today as Albums Valois, named after the location of the SPA archive on Rue de Valois in Paris. The albums show part of the total number of photos taken by the SPA. The albums titled Meuse contain a series of photos of the Battle of Verdun. At the top left of each photo is the name of the photographer visible: Lieutenant Charbonnier. Was this lieutenant a photographer for the SPA, and did he take these photos during a mission?
It is remarkable that the same photo was sold as a stereoview after the war by publisher La Stéréoscopie Universelle. Both images are identical and show the same blemishes, proving that they were printed from the same negative. How is it possible that photos from the SPA archive were sold by commercial publishers?
45 x 107 mm glass stereoview, La Stéréoscopie Universelle
The website nosmilitaires.com was created by the descendants of Lieutenant Charbonnier. It turns out that Alfred Charbonnier (1884–1957) was part of the machine gun section of the 53rd Infantry Regiment of the French Army during the First World War. He was wounded twice but survived the war and retired as a captain in 19371. Charbonnier was not a photographer of the SPA, but how did his photos end up in the Albums Valois?
The SPA also collected photos of military personnel and even civilians to complete their archive. This was initially intended to fill the gap between the outbreak of the war in 1914 and the establishment of the SPA in May 1915. Donated photos were also added to Albums Valois afterwards. The donations registered totalled 1,777 with 28,000 photos in 1918. Most of the photos were taken by officers at the front. Charbonnier made prints of his stereo negatives and sent them to the SPA. His photos of the Battle of Verdun from June 1916 were apparently a welcome addition to the archive.
The Albums Valois collection contains 26 photos of Charbonnier in seven albums with the title Meuse. Of the 26 photos, 24 are dated June 19162. Charbonnier sold his negatives or the publishing rights to La Stéréoscopie Universelle after the war, and this publisher sold the images as 45 x 107 mm and 6 x 13 cm stereoviews. The two sizes indicate that Charbonnier was shooting with a 6 x 13 cm stereo camera, as the 45 x 107 mm views were cropped versions of the larger negatives.