Joseph Tairraz was born in 1827 into an entrepreneurial family, with mountain guiding flowing in their veins. His father was mayor of Chamonix, as would Joseph become later. Other family members were hoteliers and sold crystals gathered from the local mountains. Joseph was to found the most famous photographic dynasty in Chamonix.
He followed the family tradition of becoming a mountain guide. One of his first ascensions of Mont Blanc was a famous one, as a guide to Albert Smith in 1851. This was only the 56th time that the summit had been attained since the initial ascent of Balmat and Paccard in 1786. In that epoque, it was a monumental undertaking. Smith’s party included 16 guides (of which four were from the Tairraz family) and was stocked with 46 chickens, 4 legs and 4 shoulders of lamb, and 108 bottles of wine and spirits with which to wash it down. On returning to London, Smith staged a presentation of his successful climb, with painted magic lantern slides, wooden chalets and even live St Bernard dogs, handled by Chamoniard girls in local costume. The show was an outstanding success, running to packed audiences in the Egyptian Hall for over six years; even Queen Victoria went to see it. Chamonix and Mont Blanc had been put firmly on the map and the slow increase of tourism to the Chamonix valley in the first half of the 18th century started to become a deluge.
The 1850s also saw the increasing commercialisation of a new invention: photography. In that decade, the family claim that Joseph Tairraz was experimenting with the daguerrotype, citing daguerrotype portraits from 1857 of his father and mother, which are in the family archives, as evidence. Soon after this, Joseph started using the wet collodion method using glass plate negatives, which allowed multiple prints to be made.
In 1858, Auguste-Rosalie Bisson, one of the best known French photographers of the period, visited Chamonix and returned the following year with the intention of taking photographs from the summit of Mont Blanc. His attempt on the summit failed due to bad weather, but he was able to record some magnificent views of the mountains from lower down. He returned again the following year as the official imperial photographer to Napoleon III, who visited Chamonix to celebrate Savoie becoming part of France in 1860. Around this time, Bisson opened a studio in Chamonix to sell his monumental views of the Alps.
It is likely that Joseph Tairraz was inspired by Bisson. He could see how much Bisson was able to charge for his photographs and how photography could be a viable career. Around this period he started calling himself not just a guide, but a guide photographer and in 1860 was employed by the town of Chamonix (along with Savioz) as an official local photographer for the Emperor’s visit.
In July 1861, Tairraz ascended Mont Blanc and it is reported that he was on the summit on the same day as Bisson.
The earliest commercial photographs by Tairraz (or possibly by Savioz – see page Tairraz and Savioz) that we can firmly date, were taken in 1861. It is a sad history. On the 15 August 1861, the frozen bodies of three alpinists were discovered in the glacier des Bossons. They were identified as the three guides of Dr Hamel, one of whom was a Tairraz. They had disappeared in an avalanche near the summit of Mont Blanc in 1820. This first mortal accident of guides on Mont Blanc had led to the formation of the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix. Joseph took several stereoviews of his fellow guides searching for the remains of their colleagues (see below “121 – Guides cherchant les restes de leurs camarades”).
Interestingly, I possess the same view printed on a plain white card (numbered 123), which came with collection of other previously unattributed Chamonix valley views (see page Tairraz and Savioz). This suggests that by August 1861, Tairraz (and/or Savioz) had already accumulated a catalogue of over 100 stereoviews, but he was perhaps not publishing in sufficient quantity to justify a formal label.
In 1863 he formed the company Tairraz Frères, with his brother Zacharie, and published a catalogue of his stereoviews, listing 164 views of Chamonix and the surrounding valleys. This catalogue included four views taken from the summit of Mont Blanc, which could have been from his ascension of July 1861 or from a further ascension in August-September 1861 as photographer for the Pitschner expedition.
There is a debate over who took the first photographs from the summit of Mont Blanc. At the end of July 1861, Tairraz set out to summit Mont Blanc, but as a client rather than as a guide. The only reason for this would be to have his photography equipment carried. He set out two days after Bisson, but poor weather stranded Bisson in the Grands Mulets Hut, so it is possible that they were both at the summit at the same time! The recent book “Tairraz – Les Alpes de pere en fils” contains a photograph taken from the summit of Mont Blanc. It has a row of tiny climbers painted on to it and is dated July 1861. The same photo, without added climbers, appears in the book “Photographier le Mont Blanc”, where it is dated 1880. Who is correct? If the Tairraz book’s claim is correct, then this is currently the earliest known photograph from the summit, as no examples of Bisson’s have yet been identified. However, all the early work of Tairraz appears to have been stereoscopic views, and experts claim that the glaciers in the photo appear to have receded compared to other images, so the latter date is more likely. But it does seem probable that Tairraz stereoscopic views taken in early September 1861 with the Pitschner expedition are the earliest known photos taken at the summit.
Photographier le Mont Blanc, Sylvaine de Decker Heftler, Guerin, 2002, ISBN 2911755626
Tairraz – Les Alpes de Pere en Fils, Olivier Montalba, Hoëbeke, 2010, ISBN 2842303911
Chamonix et ses Glaciers – Les Premières Images sous l’Oeil des Photographes,
Remi Fontaine, Éditions Ésope, 2015, ISBN 9782903420789