Photography was already a passion for Jean Baptiste Tournassoud when he decided in 1892 to make a career in the army. He would always carry with him his photographic equipment and thus quite naturally he photographed what surrounded him: daily life of the barracks, portraits of soldiers, and horses of his regiment. As he will later do so often, Tournassoud mastered constructed narrative photography or tableaux photography reminiscent of a painter, with a great focus on light and composition.
His talents of photographer were quickly recognized and he was assigned to several photographic missions at the beginning of World War I: in addition to receiving the Military Cross medal for his acts of bravery, he also received a special award for his photographic achievements. (See Chronology)
In 1918 he was the Managing Director of the Photographic and Cinematographic Services of the Army, which reported to the Ministry of War.
During the war years (1914 to 1918), which he mostly spent on the front lines, Tournassoud made over 3000 war photographs taken at the various active war zones and more than 800 Autochrome plates
In addition to the War Scenes or the life of the camp, Jean Baptiste Tournassoud made portraits of the great military French figures of the time: Foch, Joffre, Pétain, Nivelle, Weygand, Lyautey, Mangin, Debeney etc. A friend of Georges Clemenceau, he made also several portraits of the "Tiger" (as Clemenceau was affectionately known in France during the war), these portraits were eventually exhibited at the Clemenceau Museum, in Paris.
During this period, a great many number of his war photographs were published in such French magazines as " L' Illustration", "Sur le Vif" or " Pages de Gloire" "le Monde Illustré", "Le Nouvelliste" etc.
In 1919, Tournassoud mounted an exceptional exhibit of his finest prints of war entitled "Subjects of War 1914-1919". That exhibit traveled to many of France's large cities (Paris, Lyon, Strasbourg, Metz, Colmar, Mulhouse.). Not only a recognized photographer, Tournassoud was also an excellent technician in the darkroom. His prints, all which he made himself, are, in their tonalities, of an exceptional quality, true artist proofs. Several postcards were published from this collection.
As a foreword to the catalogue of the Exhibit, Major Tournassoud wrote:
"Far from me the thought to make, with my limited resources, a photographic history of the war... I only sought to note my personal memories and impressions, sometimes amusing and comforting, too often, alas! full of sadness and of indignation... If I could obtain some happy results, I owe them to Messrs Auguste and to Louis Lumiere, my guides, who led me for many years in the artistic way, and I would be very grateful if they would allow me to dedicate to them the whole of these memories as a testimony of my admiration and my recognition" Paris, February 23, 1919. Major Tournassoud.
A splendid portfolio entitled "1914-1919, The War, 150 Artist plates from the personal collection of Major Tournassoud" was published. Marechal Petain, who had been the Commander in Chief of the French Army, prefaced the book by outlining the quality of this work:
"Your prints... say with an unequalled eloquence all the picturesque and the tragedy of this war. Miseries of the invasion, glories of our resistance and of our victory".
Major Tournassoud kept close links with the army after his retirement in 1921. In 1929, he published a very beautiful booklet entitled "the Artillery Military Academy of Poitiers" (about sixty photographs describing the instruction & training reserved to the Cadet-Officers)
Tournassoud was a close friend of the Lumière brothers: it is with them that he learned how to exercise artistic control over the photographic process. As early as 1903, he was one of the very few photographers who took part in the testing and developing of the Autochrome plate that the Lumières will commercially introduce in 1907. Thus, Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud became a pioneer at the dawn of a new art: color photography.
In 1914, he was one of the very first photographers to document war in color: life in the trenches, life behind the lines, the grub of the camps, the war fronts, the charges with the bayonet, the "Poilus" as the French infantry men were known, the colonial troops, the property damages caused by the bombardments. He documented all in a unique and fascinating way.
"... In its capacity as official military photographer, JT is on the first row of the tragic fighting which transform North East of France into zone of desolation... (Ruins of Reims, Noyon)... he takes us behind the lines where he shows us the spectacle of the tragic struggles (Verdun besieged in 1916, the trenches near the Somme river during the same year). He covers a large range of territory in addition to the active war zones of North Eastern France. In 1916, he goes to North Africa and carries out a photographic reportage of the prisoner camp of Tizi-Ouzou. Other prints still reveal to us the little known aspects of the war by embedding us into the elite regiments which were furiously fighting in the Vosges.
The photographs of Jean Tournassoud abound in many exceptional details that provide a very precise portrait of this war.... the greatest anachronism as Tournassoud captures it thanks to the color - lies however in the glowing of the flashy French uniforms which transform the soldiers into genuine practice targets. These extravagant military uniforms unfortunately proved very expensive in human lives during first months of the war. Soon the red trousers and the blue jackets are quickly replaced by colors of camouflage - a dusty blue uniform and a kaki combat dress - better adapted....
Tournassoud took many pictures of the highly colored parade uniforms of many elite regiments (Spahis, Zouaves) recruited in North Africa: embroidered short jackets, red puffing trousers and hats, red trousers and blue berets of the alpine regiments...
Several photographs show the Senegalese regiments in the white trousers, the uniform at the beginning of the war. Others reveal the changes dictated by the circumstances: terns fatigue dress and steel helmets, a soldier in full battle gear which includes among other things a tin plate, a blanket and a pair of spare shoes.
We have also a good sense of the racial mix on the French side - with the Russian allies and the "imported" troops of the French African and Asian colonies... Behind the lines, the photographs give an outline of the life of the camp: daily drudgeries of earthwork, the laundry and the mending of the uniforms, humorous attempts at decoration of the tents and the mess in make believe. But over all that, they reveal the sad and tired faces of the soldiers...
Tournassoud colors plates provided us a very lively image of the war but at the same time a singularly deformed one. Indeed, when using these color plates, it must give up the speed advantages that the black and white possesses. The very long exposure time makes it impossible to capture the action on the photography... Tournassoud uses the realism of the color to fix symbolic details such as the banner of the regiment, the ruined landscapes, the trenches and the battered defensive stations.
(Extracts from Philippe Garner's book "War's Glorious Art" (1978) on Tournassoud's Autochromes( translated from the French version: Jean Tournassoud, l'Album-Photo de la Grande Guerre)
Tournassoud's files reveal many negatives and black and white photographic prints which are similar to the Autochrome plates: Tournassoud indeed was accustomed to doubling his images with one image in black and white and one in color.
In 1973, Mick Micheyl, Tournassoud's granddaughter, generously gave a gift of the collection of war photographs, including approximately 600 autochromes, taken by Major Tournassoud to the ECPA (Cinematographic and Photographic Establishment of the Armies) now called the ECPAD (Establishment of Communication and Audio-visual Production of Defense.
Portraits of the Great Military French Figures
Subjects of War 1914-1919
Artillery Military Academy of Poitiers