Photographer / Author

Who is (or was) Henri Mateus?

Paper Wad Study, Henri Mateus, ca. 1958
David Halpern

David Halpern

My recollections are a bit vague, but I think it was around 1975 that I became conscious of Henri Mateus. At the time, I was teaching a class in basic photography at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. One evening, while cleaning the lab, I discovered an old fiberboard camera case covered with dust under a table in a little used corner of the room. It seemed to be an item destined for the trash, as was virtually everything under that table, including chipped, stained and rusted metal trays and an assortment of old print tongs and bottles. I was surprised that I’d not noticed the case earlier, and when I lifted it and found that it was not empty, I was, of course, compelled to examine its contents.

To my surprise, I found the case contained an old Kodak 5″ x 7″ wooden view camera and six 5″ x 7″ sheet film holders, in surprisingly good condition. Although the lens was dirty and the shutter would not operate, the camera’s basic structure was sound and the bellows seemed pliable and free of cracks. I subsequently found the wooden tripod for the camera lying against the wall behind where I found the camera case.

After class that night, I took the camera, case, film holders and tripod home and spent some time examining them carefully. I wiped all the surfaces, cleaned the lens, exercised the shutter and lubricated it with graphite. The following morning I took everything back to the museum and walked into the director’s office to show him what I had found. Had he been aware that the camera was there?

After some investigation, I was told that the camera had been a gift from an older couple who had found the equipment in their attic some time after purchasing their home. No one was sure when the camera had been given to the museum and placed in the photography lab, but it had not been used by any previous instructor and everyone had assumed that it was of little use. I asked for and was granted permission to use it for demonstrations and some personal work.

I bought some 5″ x 7″ sheet film and began to make pictures. The camera operated well and although the old lens wasn’t the sharpest, it was adequate. The pictures I made had the appearance of vintage photographs and when I used color film the results were somewhat lacking in contrast, but the soft and subtler results were pleasing.

I wondered who had used the camera before me and what kind of subjects he or she had photographed. Perhaps it had been used to record significant events in the history of Oklahoma. Some skill would have been required to use this rather cumbersome piece of equipment, and it is not likely that the owner was simply making family snapshots. What was going on in Oklahoma at the time? Was the photographer someone noteworthy? I created my own fantasies.

I conjured up Henri Mateus, who came to the United States from France as a young boy some time in the 1930s, following a tragic accident that took the lives of both his parents. He came to live with his maternal grandparents who immigrated several years earlier and settled in Stillwater, perhaps because Oklahoma A&M College, founded in 1890 (now Oklahoma State University), was located there. I imagined that young Henri discovered the 5″ x 7″ view camera in his grandparents’ attic, became fascinated with it and learned to use it with some skill. At some point, he began an experiment photographing crumpled wads of paper, the textures of which fascinated him, and this resulted in an extensive series of images of all kinds of paper wads, which he never had the courage to expose to public scrutiny for fear of ridicule. I considered bringing this fantasy to life by using the old camera to produce a series of “Paper wad images” and publishing them under the Mateus pseudonym. However, I never got a chance to perpetrate that playful hoax. After several weeks, the museum decided that they had a responsibility to preserve and protect this now obviously worthwhile gift of early photographic equipment and asked me to return it. I complied with their request, of course, and never saw the camera again.

The next part of the story is no fantasy. A year or so later, I inquired about the camera and its disposition and was told it had mysteriously disappeared. Apparently it was never formally accessioned by the museum, and was only locked away for its “protection,” which obviously had been inadequate. My fantasy died and the life and work of Henri Mateus was all but forgotten…until now.

Though I’ve long been interested in photographing textures, that wasn’t the idea behind the development of the Henri Mateus persona. My purpose was satirical. In the 1970s the interest in contemporary fine art photography experienced significant growth. A number of publications focused attention on a new generation of young image makers who, it seemed to me, were determined to dwell excessively on the mundane and describe their work in far to many words. This prompted extremely boring, though often complimentary, reviews from the editorial community. From my perspective, if you were capable of writing lengthy essays about your sensibilities, sensitivities and motivations, you were even more likely to achieve critical acclaim than you were if you relied purely on the excellence of your visual perception, technique and craftsmanship. It reminded me of the time when, as a college freshman, I wrote an essay that was literally about nothing for a pretentious instructor who gave the work an “A” grade, ostensibly because she liked my use of polysyllabic words and long sentences.

I was convinced that I could create a fictitious photographer and a body of work that would earn critical acclaim from the fine art element of the media. However, my fear of being discovered for this hoax caused me to reconsider my actions. And maybe the fact that the museum reclaimed the old 5″ x 7″ view camera was a blessing.

Every now and then, I experiment with subjects like paper wads, pavement cracks, fruit and vegetables. I have no doubt that I could create a large number of these images in a manner that some people would find interesting and a few would call art. On the other hand, I haven’t yet found a way to interest myself in such images.

Maybe, there is a real Henri Mateus out there somewhere who will take those subjects and turn them into something worthwhile. He’s welcome to my fantasies.

Henri Mateus ca. 1975 with Kodak 5″x7″ view camera

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