La Section Photographique de l’Armée

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Germany recognised the potential of photography and used photos for propaganda as early as 1914. The images were used to influence the public opinion in neutral countries. France realised that it could not stay behind and decided to set up its own photography unit to counter the German propaganda[1-p.33]. Following the creation of the film unit Section Cinématographique des Armées (SCA) in February 1915[2-p.41], the Section Photographique de l’Armée (SPA) was founded on 9 May 1915[1-p.35]

The unit’s photographers were expected to take images[2-p.42]:

  1. From an historical point of view
  2. From the point of view of visual propaganda in neutral countries
  3. From the point of view of military operations in order to constitute the documentary archives of the Ministry of War

The SPA had to do with three different ministries. The service fell under the direct control of the Ministry of War (Le ministère de la Guerre). The Ministry of Art (Le ministère de l’instruction publique et des Beaux-Arts) was responsible for developing and archiving the photos and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Le ministère des Affaires étrangères) distributed the images for propaganda purposes[1-p.35].

Opérateur of the SCA at work
6x13cm glass stereoview by La Stéréoscopie Universelle
Opérateur of the SCA at work
6x13cm glass stereoview by La Stéréoscopie Universelle

The SPA was led by Lieutenant Pierre-Marcel Lévi[1-p.34] and its headquarters were located on Rue de Valois in Paris[1-p.38]. The photographers were called opérateurs and were first recruited by the Chambre Syndicale de Photographie. The War Ministry had signed a contract with this organization that represented several commercial photo studios in France. The CSP supplied the photographers and their equipment to the SPA, but the cooperation was short-lived.

A number of photographers that were recruited by the SCP were called up by the French army to serve at the front for combat duties, much to the frustration of the SCP[1-p.59]. In addition, the SCP retained the rights to the photos and sold them to newspapers[1-p.43]. The SPA realised that the sale of images was a lucrative source of income and decided to take matters into its own hands[1-p.59]. The contract with SCP was terminated on 1 November 1915[1-p60] and from that moment the photographers were recruited within the army and could join the SPA if they were unfit for combat duties. 

9,5×14 cm gelatin silver print of two French soldiers in a photo laboratory. They are probably from the SPA.
9,5×14 cm gelatin silver print of two French soldiers in a photo laboratory. They are probably from the SPA.

At the end of 1917, the SPA employed 27 photographers[1-p.63]. The service also consisted of a laboratory for developing photos, an archive, information service and administration[1-p.67].

The SPA merged with the SCA in 1917 to the Section Photographique et Cinématographique des Armées(SPCA)[1-p.39]. A final reorganisation of the unit to the Service Photographique et Cinématographique de la Guerre (SPCG) followed in July 1918[1-p.47]. The unit was disbanded a year later on 10 September 1919[1-p.40].

Photography and archive

A photography mission to the battlefields was tightly coordinated. The photographer was sent on the initiative of the Ministry of War[1-p.79]. Local army commanders were informed of the photographer’s arrival and the army arranged for the transport. On location, the photographer was accompanied by an officer. He gave detailed instructions on what to shoot[1-p.80]. The photographers were expected to keep notes of the photographed scenes and the date so that this information could be archived with the photos[1-p.85-86].

After the mission, the photographer was obliged to return to headquarters immediately[1-p.83] and the images were processed[1-p.91]:

  1. Each document entering the section was registered in les livres d’entrée with an entry number and an inventory number (letter and number) which is listed on all negatives and paper prints.
  2. In les cahiers de légendes all captions that were recorded by the photographer in notebooks (les pochettes d’opérateurs) were noted.  Also recorded was whether the image was  suitable for publication (B) or not (I).
  3. Les fichiers des photographies et des films are sheets that contain meta information like theme, place, names of people. They were used to categorise and get quick access to photos (white sheets) and films (pink sheets). They were stored in card boxes.
  4. Les albums photographiques contains selections of printed images, sorted by place and theme. They contain photos of the SPA, but also donated images of other sources. These albums are known today as Albums Valois.

The name of the opérateur was not mentioned on the slides or in archival documents. A code of one or two letters was used to link a series of images to an opérateur. The opérateur used this code also in his note books. An example is Série L which was linked to Albert-Samama-Chikli[1-p.42]. Sometimes two opérateurs worked on the same series. The glass plates and wooden storage boxes also contained the series number. 


The SPA made about 97.000 photos during the war, including about 20.000 stereo photos[3]. The stereo glass plate negatives in the archives are in the 6x13cm format. This format was also used to shoot panoramic photos. The compact stereo format made it possible to shoot closer to the front line[1-p.44] and with light-sensitive negatives it was possible to shoot without a tripod. The stereoviews of the SPA were intended to be displayed during exhibits where stereoscopes were present[1-p.44].

The following photographers shot large numbers of stereo photos for the SPA:

OpérateurNumber of stereo photos *Series
Henri Bilowski753V
Maurice Alexis Louis Boulay389BO
Marcel Adrien Léon Lorée186LO
Ernest Pierre Henri Miguel Machard673C
Pierre Alphonse Pansier1747N
Albert Samama-Chikli340L

* based on numbers published on ImagesDéfense

Archives today

The SPA’s photographic legacy is preserved by three organisations[1-p.44]:

  • Most glass plate negatives and 562 autochromes are preserved by the Établissement de Communication et de Production Audiovisuelle de la Défense (ECPAD) and are available online via ImagesDéfense.
  • A small collection of glass plate negatives and 1407 autochromes are preserved by the Médiathèque de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine (MAP) and are available online via Plateforme Ouverte du Patrimoine (POP).
  • The Albums Valois and paper prints are preserved by La Contemporaine[4] and available online via Argonnaute.


  1. Guillot, Hélène. Les soldats de la mémoire : La section photographique de l’armée, 1915-1919, Presses Universitaires de Paris Nanterre, 2017
  2. Pichel, Beatriz. Picturing the Western Front, Manchester University Press, 2021
  3. La photographie stéréoscopique, l’ancêtre de l’image 3D, Ministère des Armées, 24 January 2013
  4. Former Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine (BDIC).

See also: blogposts about La Section Photographique de l’Armée

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