The emergence of school photographs in France or why your school pics are important visual documents

Cécile J. Esther Guigui, Queen Mary University of London

We all have these childhood photographs somewhere in boxes or photo albums, these school photographs that we dare not to show to our friends because we had a giant smile with braces, or the most awkward hairstyle. School photographs are common and ordinary objects of our everyday day life; they share a strict format, they spread worldwide. Yet, they are more than that and here is why. 

In this article, I explore the emergence of the school photographs in France during the Third Republic (1870-1940). By teasing out the meaning and value of school photographs, I seek to demonstrate how even the most common documents of our quotidian— in this case, the school photograph— are important historical sources for historians that offer an alternative perspective into histories of education as well as into social and cultural terrains. 

The school photograph emerged in France in the 1860s. Under the technical constraints of the medium, the group picture took on strict conventions, in which individuals had to stand straight and still. First adopted in elite and bourgeois schools, by the early twentieth century, it had resolved into a ritual in most schools including in remote areas and in the French colonies. Until today, Tourte and Petitin and David and Valois were the two major houses that specialized in this kind of group portraiture.  

School photographs were mobilized in the late nineteenth century to advertise free public schools and the values of Republican instruction. Engaged in a battle against the Church to secularize the state, Jules Ferry, the leader of the Republicans sought to implement secular public education, grounded on values of individual achievements and equality. In 1881, he instituted primary school as mandatory, free, and universal, especially allowing girls to receive a similar basic education than boys. 

School pictures should first be understood as an institutional and ideological object. As Emile Durkheim has explained school resolved into an institution thought by the state to conform individuals to collective values and norms. Along these lines, Michel Foucault has explained that schools were as much a space of control and discipline as hospitals or the workplace.  

School photographs take us into the school courtyard, where children posed in rows holding similar bodily attitudes and serious facial expressions. The rigid format of this type of image, and the ways in which the sitters are told to sit and behave, leads to the suppression of the individual for the sake of the group. By doing so, the school picture not only purports to promote the community as a whole, but also emphasizes the integration of each individual in this group, by making sure that there is cohesion and order in the picture. 

Paramount to the Republican’s was building a system which modeled an autonomous, self-guided individual and a citizen with civic duties and a national consciousness. Accordingly, school functioned as a space to build a tight community with a firm sense of solidarity and united by a sense of collective belonging to the nation as citizens. To this effect, integration of each member was key to honing to these aspirations. As we can identify these elements in the school photograph, the very format of the picture developed and perpetuated as it provided a visual space to materialize these aspirations.

While school photographs document the history of an institution, focusing on the individuals in the picture, they also record trends and allow for the identification of the socio-cultural identities of collective groups. As they attempted to homogenize differences, these images undergird similarities between individuals, such as their similar hairstyle or fashion. In this sense, they provide valuable insights into ideas of performance, body norms and gender identities of a specific group at a certain age, time and space. 

Nevertheless, school pictures are not deprived of “forms of resistance” or elements that break the conformity of the image and allow for the individuality of sitters to re-emerge. Sitters could transgress the format of the picture, by wearing something different, by smiling for example by expressing signs of affections, crossing their arms or standing very close to the person next to them. 

In fact, school pictures were also conceived for individuals and their families, they are meant to be consumed within the family sphere. Even so, the ways they are kept, stored and discussed by individuals and families also constitute valuable sources of information for historians of material culture. The photograph is not only a visual proof that an individual attended this institution and integrated this community, but it is also a valuable support for narrating stories on what happened within the school walls. Accordingly, school photographs merge into the visual life story of individuals and take part in the cultural practice of family photography. 

School photographs are lieux de mémoires that help trace ideologies, identify trends and allow for stories on school experiences to be told. Far from being transparent and common objects, this article invites you to look differently at your school photographs. 

Sources and Additional Reading:

Batchen, Geoffrey. « Vernacular photographies ». History of photography 24, no 3 (2000).

Burke, Catherine, et Helena Ribeiro de Castro. « The School Photograph: Portraiture and the Art of Assembling the Body of the Schoolchild ». History of Education 36, no 2 (1 mars 2007).

Charpentier-Boude, Christine. La photo de classe: Palimpseste contemporain de l’institution scolaire. Editions L’Harmattan, 2009.

Deloye, Yves. École et citoyenneté: l’individualisme républicain de Jules Ferry à Vichy : controverses. Paris]: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. Surveiller et punir. Paris: Gallimard, 1975

Hirsch, Marianne, et Leo Spitzer. School Photos in Liquid Time: Reframing Difference. University of Washington Press, 2019.

Nora, Pierre. Les Lieux de mémoire: les France. Vol. 3. Gallimard, 1992.

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