Auguste Pondarre and Pierre

French photographer, Auguste Pondarre, and my great great grandfather, Pierre Gentieu, who emigrated from France in 1860, are two photographers whose work was not recognized until long after they died, but whose contributions to history, both worldly, and on a very personal level, are invaluable.

Auguste Pondarre (1871-1962) is Pierre’s nephew, the son of his sister, Marie. He lived in Orthez, Basses Pyrenees, France. He served in the French military from 1892 to 1895. He married Sarah Bessouat, a milliner, in 1905. They had a daughter, Simone, born in 1907. I met Simone in 1994.

After his service, Auguste worked with his father, Germain at his paint, art and frame shop on Rue de l’Horloge.

From 1901 to 1905, before he was married, Auguste made photographs of Orthez that were published as postcards under the name of his father’s shop, G. Pondarre & Fils.

Today, Auguste Pondarre is known for being the first photographer to create a photographic body of work that documents Orthez.

Could it be that his uncle, Pierre Gentieu, who had been creating photographs of the Brandywine Valley in America since 1880, inspired and influenced Auguste to make photographs? For that matter, who introduced Pierre to photography, was it someone in Orthez before he left for America?

I have some clues.

Pierre visited Orthez in August and September, 1898. He took his camera with him and made, at least, these three photos, that have survived.


The book, Duex Photographs Ortheziens du Debut di Siecle

I found a book that Simone sent to me in 1998, Duex Photographs Ortheziens du Debut di Siecle (Two Orthezien Photographers at the Start of the Century) by Jean Teitgen, about the first two photographers of Orthez that left a body of work, Auguste being the first, and their postcards.

In the book is this photo of the bridge by Auguste Pondarre:

Auguste’s photo of the bridge is nearly identical to Pierre’s photo, taken from the same spot, close to the same time, but perhaps years apart, because of the evidence of grown ivy on the rocks to the right. The lens was the same focal length and it was captured on the same size quarter plate, 4×5 glass negative.


Some Pondarre postcards received by Pierre, dated 1901 to 1905


Some Gentieu photographs of the Brandywine Valley, a body of work that Pierre began in 1880 and worked on for nearly 40 years:


Their cameras

Pierre’s camera is on the left. Auguste’s camera is on the right, which I photographed at Simone’s house. Pierre’s camera can expose a glass negative as large as 8×10. Auguste’s camera appears to be 6.5×8.5, but both cameras accommodate half and quarter glass plate negative sizes.


The equipment Pierre used and would bring with him to Orthez in the summer of 1898:

According to the biographical details in the French book about Auguste’s life, Germain and Marie were living in Bayonne, where Auguste was born. Toward the end of the nineteeth century, the family moved to Orthez to live at the old Gentieu homestead with Marie’s sister, Rachel. Perhaps it was around 1891, when the mother, Anne Celeste Gentieu-Baillan died, who had been living there with Rachel.  The Pondarres remained at the old Gentieu home until 1911, when they bought a building and moved up the street. Auguste served in the military from 1892 to 1895, returning to Orthez at age 24, and going to work as a house painter in his father’s business.

Pierre visited Orthez in 1898, presumably staying with his two sisters, Marie and Rachel, along with Germain and Auguste. Pierre brought along his camera and processing equipment. Could it be that Pierre’s photography interested Auguste? Perhaps Auguste was with him when he photographed the bridge and other scenes.

This postcard shows the backyard of 54 rue Moncade, the address of the ancient Gentieu homestead, and surrounding houses, with the castle ruins Tour Moncade across the street from these buildings. It is Auguste’s card number 2, printed in 1901.


If Pierre influenced Auguste, who influenced Pierre?

It is ironic that a hint comes from a detail about the second photographer subject of the book, Duex Photographs Ortheziens du Debut di Siecle. Joseph Barbe was five years younger than Auguste. At age 20, he opened a portrait studio in Orthez in 1896. In 1903, perhaps at the suggestion of Auguste, Joseph Barbe moved his studio next to the Pondarre art shop on Rue de l’Horloge, and started producing images for postcards, as a complement to his portrait business. Auguste stopped publishing postcards in 1905.  The author of the French book asks the question, where did Joseph Barbe get his inspiration to be a photographer? The suggestion is that it was through Andre Laffitte-Forsans, one of the first persons to own a camera in Orthez.

Laffitte was Pierre Gentieu’s great grandmother’s maiden name

Perhaps the same Laffitte who owned one of the first cameras in Orthez was Pierre’s cousin, who could have inspired Pierre with an interest in photography.

The pre-1860 photograph of the bridge

Which could explain this postcard, published by Barbe nearly 50 years later of the ancient bridge photographed before 1860, the year that Pierre went to New York.  Simone had a mural of the exact photograph in an alcove of a room in her house.  She told me it was taken by my ancestor.   Pierre, I understood her to mean.

This is why I believe that Pierre’s photo experience began in Orthez, and that he brought his love for photography with him to America from France, and back again.

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.

Pierre Gentieu’s painting of his 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry,  Company B encampment at Camp Hubbard in Thibodeaux, La.

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 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.

Pierre Gentieu’s Camp of the 13th Reg’t Conn. Vols.

My great great grandfather, Pierre Gentieu, was a Civil War soldier and a Civil War artist. The surviving works that I have, that he made during the Civil War, are a lithograph of a drawing and a watercolor or gouache painting, both of Camp Hubbard in Thibodeaux, Louisiana. I also have a War photo of the same encampment. I think the photo was used as reference. The photograph (a mounted 8×10 albumen print) shows Pierre actually in his tent, on B Street. (A regiment has about 1000 men, divided into about 10 companies, and Pierre was in Company B.)

Pierre, 18 years old, came to Brooklyn, New York from France in 1860, where he lived for a year. When the next winter came, he moved to New Orleans, where the climate was closer to what he was used to in his homeland of Orthez in the Lower Pyrenees, France. He made some friends who were in the New Orleans Artillery, a state militia, and so he joined for the fun of it. They were learning heavy artillery drill at Fort Livingston, at Baratiara Bay, when the war broke out and when Farrugut came up the Mississippi. The order soon came to the colonel for them to spike their guns and go to Vicksburg, and so they left.

At the first stopping point, in Donaldsonville, up the Mississippi, Colonel Theard lined up his men in dress parade, and gave a speech. He told them of his orders, but that he had no right to take them across the state line without their consent because they were enlisted as militia for the state of Louisiana only. The Colonel said, of course he himself would go to the uttermost, and he hoped his men would too, but if any man was against the cause of the Confederacy, and if he had any scruples about it, that he was free at that time to step out of the ranks.

In regard to this moment of decision, here are Pierre’s own words, written in a letter to his nephew, Willie Weed, in 1915:

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 in my rear.

So I stood for a few seconds when Albert Fest, whom you know, stepped out from the right of the company, as he was a tall man, and turning towards me, said, “Pierre, I am with you on this.” Then three more came out, and several Germans in the company next to us. 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, then to stay in the ranks,” and closing the few of us near him he spoke kindly, but sadly, saying to leave all of 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.

What I think is really interesting about what has survived of Pierre’s Civil War artwork is that it was all created in Thibodeaux, the location of Camp Hubbard, which was only a few miles down the bayou from Donaldsonville, the stopping place where Colonel Theard lined up his men and gave them the opportunity to step out of the ranks. The camp was the home-base of the 13th Connecticut for several months, while the regiment swept down the Bayou Lafourche, liberating hundreds, maybe thousands of slaves from plantations.

Here’s the poster that was made to sell the lithograph edition of Pierre’s Camp of the 13th Reg’t Conn. Vols., in 1870, issued by Francis Weed:

Here’s a picture of Pierre’s friend, Albert Fest, who was the first to step out of line with him in Donaldsonville. It is from around the turn of the century and Fest is posing on his stoop with his family in Brooklyn, a large American flag flying above them. Perhaps it was Memorial Day.

Here’s a picture of my first get-together with newly-discovered cousins, at my New York City, Lafayette Street studio in 1994, cousins I met through my discovery of Pierre’s photography: Elizabeth is holding a photo of Pierre, Vivian is holding a photo of Francis Weed, Jeanne Duff is holding a mural of the Pyrenees; all these cousins were/are keepers of Pierre’s family memories; I’m holding a hand-made album I just completed of 50 silver gelatin prints I had just printed from Pierre’s original glass plate negatives, and my daughter, Anna Friemoth, age 4, is holding a French postcard of a French cousin.

Happy Memorial Day, cousins!

Curiosity and Inspiration — a dedication to Norman Gentieu

I really ought to dedicate this Pierrepenny blog to Norman Gentieu (1915-2009). Norman totally changed my life. He was a distant cousin I had never known about, until December, 1991, when I received a letter from him. Norman was searching the Gentieu name at the Philadelphia Library when he found a review of a show of my photos in American Photographer. The photos that were featured were the old found slides from the 50’s — the series called “Confabulations.”

Norman wrote to me that he thought I was related to his grandfather Pierre Gentieu, who came to the United States from France in 1860 at the age of 18, and did I know he was a photographer, and that his photos are in the collection of a museum in Wilmington, Delaware?  What?? WOW! I knew Pierre was my great great grandfather and that he came to America, and I thought he was an artist, but nobody ever told me he was a photographer, and here I was many years into my photography career.

I could go on about this forever. It meant a lot to find out that my ancestor was a photographer. I became a believer, of some sort, as if knowing, even more so, that I truly was on the right path in pursuit of my destiny.

At that time, I had been sharing a studio with another photographer for three years. I wanted to get my own studio, but wasn’t sure I could make it. After reading that letter, I went out looking for my own place. On January 13, 1992, I moved into the corner space of the fifth floor of 380 Lafayette St., corner of Great Jones St., New York City, a beautiful 19th century industrial building. The loft was 2,000 open square feet and had 12 windows with sun streaming in all morning and until 3 in the afternoon.

A month after moving into the studio, Tom and I drove to Philadelphia to meet Norman. This is when the photos were taken with Norman, shown above. Norman had Pierre’s banjo, his camera (which he generously gave me two years later) and a lot of Pierre’s documents and photos. He showed me a photo of Pierre, the first one I ever saw. Pierre was wearing some sort of uniform with a big LG on the front. Norman said it stood for “Lafayette Guard,” a Civil War veteran’s group of Pierre’s.

That’s when I realized that Pierre was my guardian angel. At least that’s what I want to believe. My career really took off after that. My Lafayette Street studio was very special, and I kept it for 10 years, until the rent went sky high, after which I rented studio space by the day.

Curiosity, Norman’s wife said about Norman contacting me — curiosity and taking a chance, she said were two of his most distinctive attributes. Through Norman’s search of the Gentieu name, and through my use of the old found photos of an anonymous family, I found my own family, and so much inspiration. Thank you Norman — say hello to Pierre for me.