One of the earliest photographers to be seduced by the mountains of Chamonix was Auguste-Rosalie Bisson. He made it his goal to take the first photograph from the summit of Mont Blanc and claimed to have succeeded in July 1861. Unfortunately, the photographic proof does not now seem to exist.
Auguste-Rosalie was the younger of the Bisson frêres (brothers). He founded a photographic partnership with his brother Louis-Auguste in 1852 and they rapidly gained notoriety for the quality and huge format of their images. Rich industrialist Daniel Dollfus-Ausset had a passionate scientific interest in mountains and glaciers and invited Auguste-Rosalie to aid his studies of the Alps. In 1855, Auguste-Rosalie used a hut built by Dollfus-Ausset to take a series of views overlooking the Aar glacier in the Bernese Oberland. Three were combined to form a vast (1.86m long) panoramic view, which astounded a meeting of the French Academy of Science. Dollfus-Ausset was sufficiently impressed to invest in the Bissons’ business, allowing them to set up studio in the posh and expensive Boulevard des Capucines. This rapidly became, according to another famous Parisian photographer, Nadar, the meeting place of the intellectual elite of Paris.
Bisson first visited the Chamonix valley in 1858 and took many views from vantage points over the Mont Blanc massif, such as Flégère, le Jardin de Talefre (2882m) and Mont Buet (3096m). In the 1850s, the challenges of taking photographs in sub-zero temperatures at altitude were not inconsequential. The glass plates used by Bisson were up to 30x50cm in size and had to be kept scrupulously clean. A dark room needed to be set up in situ, first to coat the plates with collodion, then sensitise them with silver salt solution, before placing them in the camera. The photograph had to be taken while the plates were still wet and then immediately developed, fixed and washed in the dark room. Keeping the various solutions from freezing proved to be a major challenge at the summit of Mont Blanc.
Bisson appears to have been satisfied that he had solved the technical problems and therefore set his mind on climbing Mont Blanc the following year. During his first attempt in 1859 he was driven back from the Grand Plateau by poor weather. Despite this setback, he was able to boost his portfolio with several stunning images of the climbing party traversing glaciated terrain. An attempt in 1860 was even less successful, only reaching the Grands Mulets hut.
Around this time, Bisson Frêres established a studio in Chamonix in the Place de l’Eglise, to sell their photographs.
1860 was the year that Savoie became part of France and, as part of the celebrations, the emperor Napoleon III and his imperatrice Eugénie visited Chamonix. They were accompanied by Auguste-Rosalie Bisson in his capacity as imperial photographer and he captured images of the royal entourage on the Mer de Glace.
Eventually, Bisson was successful in reaching the top of Europe on 26 July 1861. This was only the 77th party to ever have reached the summit. According to contemporary reports, he was able to take two good and one passable view from the summit. It has been estimated that up to 250kg of equipment and materials and 25 guides and porters were required for the ascension!
Unfortunately, no evidence of these photographs now exists. Contemporary reports claimed that they would be exhibited at the 1862 London International Exhibition, however Bisson did not exhibit here. It seems unlikely that Bisson would not have capitalised on this famous success, so it is perplexing why no photographs have survived to this day. Perhaps the results were not up to Bisson’s exacting standards. Possibly the freezing conditions had upset the complex wet chemical processes of coating the plates and then developing and fixing them. Maybe the plates were broken during the descent. The truth seems destined to remain a mystery.
The Bisson brothers were excellent photographers, but poor businessmen. They went bankrupt in 1863 and the business was dissolved. One factor was the huge expense of the Mont Blanc expeditions, but another was their failure to embrace stereoscopy. There was only a limited market for their huge, expensive photographs, while there was enormous demand for the relatively cheap stereoviews which became by far the best-selling format of topographical image.
Auguste-Rosalie continued to take photographs, working for Leon & Levy in the mid-late 1860s and in the 1870s for Adolphe Braun. He returned to the Mont Blanc massif in 1868 and produced a wonderful series of stereoviews, which were published in glass by Leon & Levy, some of which are shown above.
Photographier le Mont Blanc. Sylvaine de Decker Heftler, Guerin, 2002, ISBN 2911755626
Il Monte Bianco dei Fratelli Bisson, Michele Falzone del Barbaro, Longanese, 1982
Die Brueder Bisson – Aufsteig und Fall, Museum Folkwang Essen, 1999, ISBN 9057051230
Histoire du Mont Blanc, Stephen d’Arve, La Fontaine de Siloé, 1993, ISBN 2908697343