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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Pierre Lou˙s

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Dates:  1870, 10 December - 1925, 6 June
Born:  Belgium, Ghent
Active:  France
French writer and taker of erotic photography.

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A photographic amateur Pierre Louys was even closer to the heart of the Belle Époque than either Holland Day or de Meyer. Yet his snapshot-like informalism was diametrically opposed to Day's carefully posed outdoor tableaux or de Meyer's elaborate studio theatricality. Louys' photographs, made with available lighting in his own house, possess a seemingly casual directness which is prescient of much later developments in photography. Indeed some of his images seem to anticipate Diane Arbus - an Arbus without the technical sophistication.
Louys' mounted a lot of his work into albums in 1896. If he was unsophisticated in the technical sense some of his images lose nothing by this. Indeed, their stark, grainy quality now appears strikingly modern in many ways and is part of their appeal. Louys' technical naivety was something he had in common with other French artists-turned-cameramen, notably degas, Vuillard and Bonnard. Ironically, the work of all four shares a spontaneity and graphic strength (the latter due partly to the "risks" they took with using available daylight) that is rarely evident in the photographs taken by their more self-conscious professional contemporaries.
Pierre Louys is chiefly remembered today as a Parisian dandy, one of the leading poets and writers of the French Symbolist movement. Much of his output was erotic, most significantly the prose poems Chansons de Bilitis, published in 1894. Louys claimed they were translations from the Greek of a poetess contemporary with Sappho, which turned out to be a very effective hoax, like Ossian deceiving many eminent scholars. A group of German antiquarians even took an expedition to the Greek East, seeking physical evidence of the fair Bilitis. In the context of his photographs "La Femme et le Pantin" (1898) also deserves to be mentioned, since it chronicled the gradual breakdown of a man who became enslaved to a worthless woman.
The Symbolist circle with which Louys inhabited included among his intimates Oscar Wilde, Mallarmé, Valéry, André Gide and Debussy. He frequently collaborated with Debussy (Louys has been described as the director of his literary conscience), who set Chansons de Bilitis to music in 1897. Debussy used to compose and play for his friends on Louys' melodeon - described by J.E. Blanche as a "wretched instrument" - which dominates the background of the domestic nude.
Socially, geographically and intellectually far apart, there is nevertheless a certain correspondence in the appearance of Louys' nudes and those of the New Orleans photographer E.J. Bellocq.
[Contributed by Ms Nicky Akehurst, Akehurst Creative Management Ltd, March 2008]  

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Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Pierre Lou˙s.] 
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