452 Dean Street, RIP George Floyd

What a historic sight it was to see the Black Lives Matter demonstrators, wearing masks and carrying signs, marching up Flatbush Avenue by 452 Dean Street in Brooklyn, on June 6,  2020, in this photo that Anna shot and sent me.

In 1860 at the age of 18, our ancestor Pierre Gentieu immigrated from Orthez, France to Brooklyn, staying with his aunt and uncle above their Darrigrand French bakery, at 452 Dean Street.

452 Dean Street, 2004

It took a while to realize that 452 Dean Street was right there on the corner of Flatbush, and, as we lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn and had a photo studio in Soho, we had been passing it every day on the way to work.

452 Dean Street, 2016

After the Civil War broke out, and Pierre had moved to Louisiana, Pierre signed up with the Union, with the 13th Connecticut. Pierre was vehemently opposed to slavery.

France had abolished slavery in 1792, long before Pierre was born. When he was growing up in France, his father read him installments of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

“The story was published as a serial in the daily papers; and I remember how intent we were in the evening to hear our father read each installment, and all the remarks we were making about it—how it was possible that the country boasting of being ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ could legalize such an institution, when in France, which was not then a republic, would not tolerate such a thing; for to us children, all the people before God were equal, and the color of the skin had nothing to do with it; but it was only the degree of instruction and civilization that made the difference in people.” from Pierre Gentieu's 1915 letter to his nephew explaining why he fought for the North in the Civil War
452 Dean Street, 2014 – for a while the storefront went back to being a bakery – a Jamaican bakery. This photo is collaged with an envelope addressed to Ulysee Darrigrand postmarked from Orthez, France, April 14, 1872.
452 Dean Street, 2008
452 Dean Street, 2020

Here we are in 2020, at this historic moment, protesting police brutality and the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. This is a meaningful photo for our family history. It’s an even more meaningful photo for our country’s history. This may be the first time there has ever been a demonstration near the corner of Flatbush and Dean St. This same protest is happening concurrently and in solidarity with hundreds of thousands of like-minded protesters in streets all over the country.

I know that Pierre would be so disheartened about what has gone on that has led to this, 155 years after the end of the Civil War.  The hatred, the violence, the prejudice directed at black people in our nation is unacceptable. Pierre and our collective ancestors fought in the Civil War and sacrificed everything, so that all men women and children would be free. 

Photo credits and my lucky find

My great great grandfather, Pierre Gentieu, was a photographer. He created sharp-focused, sensitive images of the workers and families who worked at the DuPont Powder Company. His photos express the hard life of the workers, many of whom were new immigrants, at the first big industrial company in the United States, which happened to be situated in the most photogenic location there ever could be for a gunpowder corporation, along the banks of the Brandywine River in the rolling hills of northern Delaware.

Barney’s Joy Beach, Padanaram, Mass., 1977

During my last year of college, I took a photography class, and suddenly everything seemed to fall into place, and I got instant recognition for my photographs.

I became a professional photographer in New York. In 1988, I had a show called “Confabulations” at a gallery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and that show was written up in American Photographer magazine.

A few years after that, I received a letter from a distant cousin Norman Gentieu, Pierre’s 77-year old grandson, saying that he found me from that review in American Photographer, and guessed that I was related to Pierre Gentieu. Did I know that he was a photographer, and that the Hagley Museum in Delaware has a complete set of his photographs?

I had NO idea!

It was an extraordinary letter from my cousin, and it explained why I was so drawn to photography and was kind of good at it, Could it be genetic?

The Hagley Museum told me that the Historical Society of Delaware had Pierre’s entire set of 354 glass plate negatives. The Historical Society let me borrow them to make prints, 10 glass negatives at a time, which was amazing.

I made archival prints from them — not the albumin prints of Pierre’s day, but the equally distinctive, and now-vintage gelatin silver prints of the twentieth century. I made a hand-bound album with the prints. And then I set out to find out more about my photographer ancestor.

Pierre was only 18 years old when he immigrated, alone, to America from Orthez, Lower Pyrenees, France. It was 1860, and he stayed with his aunt and uncle in a room above their Darrigrand French bakery in Brooklyn. When it got cold, Pierre moved to New Orleans, where it was warmer and they spoke French. He joined the Orleans Artillery state militia, then the Civil War broke out, and the militia was absorbed into the Confederacy. Pierre was the first in his company to step out of line. 

He joined the 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry because he liked their uniforms. They were dubbed the “Dandy Regiment.”  He fought in nine Civil War battles, and after the war, married Sarah Albina Weed, the sister of his tent mate and friend who taught him English. Pierre and Binie had six childrenfour boys and two girls.

Pierre came from a family of breveted chocolatiers. The family legend was that they made chocolate for the king!  So after the Civil War, Pierre and Binie settled down in New York, where Pierre opened two French bakeries and then a restaurant. But he ran into terrible debt, so he had to sell the restaurant.

It was 1877 and Pierre was 35, with a five-year old boy, a crawling baby, and a pregnant wife. Pierre was in deep trouble! But alas, he found employment at the DuPont Powder Company in Delaware. The company, being French, making gunpowder, and wanting to help out Civil War veterans, gave Pierre his second chance.

O
Four Powdermen. Pierre Gentieu

He started as a powder worker, a very dangerous job. But the du Ponts soon recognized his talent when they saw a goauche painting he made of the Lower Yard, and he was promoted to work in the office. You could say that art saved Pierre’s life from the many explosions that were occurring in the powder yards.

Pierre sometimes brought his camera to work with him, and for a long time was the only person allowed in the yards with a camera.

Gentieu's pictures show a deep sense of comraderie.

To quote from a clipping from the book, Corporate Images: Photography and the Du Pont Company 1865 – 1972, which the Hagley Museum and Library sent me in 1992 as an introduction to Pierre’s photography:

“Gentieu’s photography was very straight forward, with simple camera angles and poses dictated not only by his equipment, but also by his clear minded approach. He was a gifted amateur photographer who desired to show things distinctly in his pictures. For this he was encouraged by the officers of the DuPont Company, and we can be thankful that he has left us the benefit of his vision. His photography was to leave a mark in the history of the company he worked for so faithfully for so long.” 

To have found this connection to my roots has been so profound. If it hadn’t been for a photo credit, if it hadn’t been for Norman looking me up, if it hadn’t been for the Hagley keeping Pierre’s collection with his name on it, I never would have known.

Jeep Administration Building Implosion, Toledo, Ohio  1979

CONNECTEDNESS

Mysteriously retouched by Pierre

Laying of corner stone – Mount Salem Methodist Episcopal Church Addition – March 11, 1917     photo by Pierre Gentieu 1917 / printed by Penny Gentieu 1992
History of Mount Salem Methodist Church, Wilmington Delaware 1847-1947  written  by Frank P. Gentieu 1948
Photos by Penny Gentieu 1992

Digital image by Penny Gentieu 2019

Pierre and the Lafayette Guard

First photo I ever saw of Pierre Gentieu. He was wearing the Lafayette Guard uniform, and I saw it right after I rented my Lafayette St. studio in January 1992, which was right after I found out that he was a photographer. Thank you, Pierre.
Soldiers representing five generations, Penny Gentieu Photography Studio on Lafayette St., New York City. A lot happened in the photo biz during the years I had the studio – it was a war on photographers waged by the Son of Getty. But I was up for it. I bought these toy soldiers in New Orleans in 1999 to put on display. Sometimes they fell down from the vibration of the Six train that went through the basement of the Lafayette Street building, but never Pierre, and never the bullet. Thank you, Pierre.
380 Lafayette St., New York, New York, Spring 2000.  My studio building was under renovation both physically and metaphysically. I had a 2,100 square foot corner space with on the fifth floor with 12 windows, for ten years, then it was renovated and wouldn’t you know, the rent tripled… nothing lasts forever… except…
The Marquis de Lafayette monument. Prospect Park entrance at 9th Street, Brooklyn, New York, just five blocks down the street from our 78 Prospect Park West apartment, 2006. Thank you, Pierre.

Chris and Andrew and Pierre’s bullet

I’m descended from two Civil War Yankee soldiers. Well, that is, one Yankee soldier, Pierre Gentieu, and Binie Weed, the sister of Yankee soldier Frank Weed, who was Pierre’s closest comrade in the 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry and his tent mate.  Had it not been for a split second decision made by my great great grandfather, enroute to Vicksburg as a Confederate soldier in April 1862, Pierre and Frank would never have met on such agreeable terms, Pierre would not have been introduced to Binie after the war, and there wouldn’t be me! I suppose that’s why I felt compelled to find out all I could about the inspiring story of courage that he left for us.

While researching my great great grandfather’s Civil War story in Louisiana, March, 2000,  I met two very special Civil War historians, Chris Pena and Andrew Capone, who lived in the area of Pierre’s first battle, an hour up the river from New Orleans in Donaldsonville and Thibodeaux.

They gave us a tour of the area, showing us where Pierre’s camp was, where his first battle was. Later, they treated us to a delicious Louisana home cooked dinner of sauce piquant at Andrew and Judy’s house in Donaldsonville, the town where Pierre Gentieu took his stand.

Site of Pierre Gentieu’s first battle at Georgia Landing, between Donaldsonville and Thibodeaux. The road here separates the two plantations where the battle lines were drawn in the Fall of 1862.

I told them the story of  how in 1861, Pierre initially signed up with a Louisiana militia, but ended up fighting in the 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry.

It was April 1862, and Colonel Theard of the New Orleans Guards was leading the militia to Vicksburg from Fort Livingston. Half way to Vicksburg, in the very town of Donaldsonville, he lined up his men and gave them a speech.

Colonel Theard told them of his orders to go to Vicksburg, but explained that he had no right to take them outside the state without their consent. He hoped they would go, but he didn’t want to force anyone. The Colonel then offered any man an opportunity to declare if they were against the cause of the Confederacy. If any man had any scruples about it, that man was free to step out of the ranks.

In Pierre’s own words, as he recalled the moment 50 years later in a letter to his nephew, Frank Weed’s son:

Then came the time for me when I had to decide at once.  My conscience and pride were struggling; one was saying you ought not accept the cause of slavery; and the shame to appear before my comrades, as if I were afraid because we would have to fight, was a struggle indeed; but I made up my mind now or never whatever happens—I stepped out the first one in my company with cries of coward from the rear.

There I stood for a few long moments until Albert Fest stepped out from the right of the company. A very tall man compared to me, he said, “Pierre, I am with you on this!” Then 30 German men stepped out soon after that. As we were the butt of all insults from behind, the Colonel put a stop to that very quickly, saying “None of that, men, it takes more moral courage for those men to step out as they have done than to stay in the ranks;” and closing the few of us near him he spoke kindly, but sadly, saying to leave all our equipments, taking only our personal property—-that New Orleans was so many miles off, in such a direction—-we could get there the best way possible—-that we were free;  and so we left worrying whether or not some of the hot headed ones might shoot at us; but the Colonel kept them in line until we disappeared in the woods.

Back in New Orleans, the trip of which was not without adventure, Pierre signed up with the 13th Connecticut. One reason he chose that regiment was that the great looking uniforms appealed to his sense of style, with the dark blue trousers and polished brass buttons. He survived nine battles.

Pierre Gentieu in his uniform of the 13th Connecticut Infantry Volunteers. This regiment featured dark blue pants, as opposed to the common light blue of most of the rest of the Yankees. Because the 13th Connecticut was so well dressed and polished, they were called the “dandy regiment.”

After dinner, Andrew took us into his workroom. He excavated battle grounds, including the site of Pierre’s first battle as a Union soldier. Andrew looked through the baggies of bullets, then handed me a bullet covered in white rust and dust, saying, it was Pierre’s bullet. Pierre dropped it during his first battle. The bullet never hurt anyone, Andrew pointed out, and it was mine now because Pierre wanted me to have it.

I gladly accepted the bullet for all of its poetry and brought it back up north. I arranged it in my studio along with some toy soldiers that I bought in New Orleans, one to represent each of five generations, and a broken brick Chris and Andrew gave me from the ruins of Fort Butler, and some Spanish moss.

The soldiers were slightly precarious on the brick, because some mornings I would come in to find that the soldiers had fallen on the floor or into the Spanish moss, from the vibrations of the Six train that ran through the basement of the Lafayette St. building. But never Pierre, and never the bullet.