A snapshot. Popularly defined as a photograph that is shot spontaneously and quickly without any specific intent. A phenomenon, which started in 1888 when George Eastman introduced the first handy Kodak camera. The camera was warmly welcomed by 7 artists, collectively known as the Nabis group, who believed that every work of art was a transposition, a caricature and the impassioned equivalent of a sensation experienced. This was reflected in the composition of their canvas; figures looming in the foreground radically foreshortened in the background and cropped unexpectedly with skilled light and dark manipulation. Something like the content of a photograph.
The painter, lithographer, set designer and book illustrator also explored photography. As a member of the Nabis group, Maurice Denis was renowned for his daring compositions, off-centre framing, close-ups, radical cropping and inventive perspectives within his paintings, but also for pushing the boundaries of amateur photography. Denis was considered the forerunner of avant garde photographers of the 1920s and 1930s.
During the discovery of Denis’ work, it becomes apparent that his paintings, like Sur La Plage (Fillettes à Contre-Jour) reflect the style of snapshot photography. The vague outlines of the large figures in his painting resemble the blurry, and somewhat unclear characteristics of the snapshot, although, interestingly, this particular painted composition was created four years prior to Maurice Denis' discovery of photography.
Denis' photographs were unveiled to the public in 2006. The collection consisted of 2689 prints and 1250 negatives, of which some were nitrocellulose film and others were glass negatives from 1897. His photographic oeuvre stretches from 1896, when he captured his first memory using a lens, to 1919 and the death of his first wife, Marthe, During the time that he frequently practised photography, three different cameras were used, namely; the Pocket Kodak, No. 2 Bullet and the Folding Pocket Kodak. Although none of the actual cameras survived, the different sized negatives reveal this, otherwise unknown, information.
Maurice Denis saw photography as a medium to capture and preserve memories. In a way, his style was a response to the Kodak advertisements, which spread the message of purchasing a camera in order to stop us from forgetting things and of creating an actual box filled with memorable moments caught on film. Denis enjoyed capturing movement, backlighting and chiaroscuro (technique of using light and shade in pictorial representation). He explored the ins and outs of photography through close-ups and tightly framed images of his intimate circle. His wife, children, travels and close friends provided ample subject material for his experimentations with perspective and unusual spatial compositions.
Three distinct styles of photography
His photographs can be categorised into three: those in which he relates to his paintings as preliminary studies, photographic sketches (which he eventually drew upon for his paintings) and simple snapshots which evoked and depicted the atmosphere and style of his painted works. Although he never referred to his photography in his diary, and did not seem to discuss it very often, he was critical of painters who merely copied their paintings into photographs without tweaking the composition. The Nabis were very reticent about photographic work, possibly because art critics remained extremely sceptical of this practice.
Throughout the years that Maurice Denis practiced photography, the multiple cameras he owned acted as a mere aid for capturing moments he thought he would otherwise forget. Carrying around his Pocket Kodak was one of his favourite past-times during his holidays in Brittany and Italy. Photography was a hobby he took light-heartedly, an enjoyable activity allowing him to capture, and later paint, spontaneity.