The above picture littled “Henri Le Secq et La Stryge“* was by Charles Nègre (1820–1880), a pioneering French photographer. Le Secq himself was a photographer and both of them made photos as large as 20 by 29 inches called ‘calotypes’, and recorded the cathedrals of Notre-Dame (Paris), Chartres, and Amiens and other ancient architectural masterpieces. Nègre, was trained as a painter under Delaroche, Ingres and Drolling before deciding to use photography as research for painting.
In Gargoyle of Notre Dame (1851) as it came to be known as, the gargoyle seems more alive, more animate, than his human companion Le Secq. The gargoyle’s features are large and invisible, but they overpower smaller, shadow-obscured features of Le Secq and convey more forcefully a sense of life. In this shadow, one can clearly see Le Secq’s enormous beard–an obvious political statement; in 1848, the Ministry of Public Instruction banned college professors from wearing beards because they were ‘the symbols of anarchy”. The photo was also a Hugolian propaganda, in the honor of Victor Hugo who fled Paris for the fear of his life a year before.
The gargoyle, under the light of this Hugolâtre leanings, seems to have dual significance. On one hand, it is the symbol of weight and oppression of un unchangable past curved in stone; on the other, it stood watch over Paris, a homely demon secured against all the horrors of the new regime under Napoleon III. In the heavily censored police state of France in the 1850s, the photo was a surreptitous jab at the authorities.
Winslow Homer transformed this photo in his painting Gargoyles at the Notre Dame, reversing roles and postures of man and beast in the picture. In Negre’s photo, the gargoyle muses and the man looks; in the painting, the man muses and the gargoyle looks. Poised, confidant dandy of the world in Negre’s photo, Homer’s Le Secq was a plain, retrospective man–almost a self-portrait of Homer.
‘Stryge‘ is a kind of night spirit from oriental legends, a mix between a woman and a bird.