Pierre G. Harmant (1921-1995)

A biography

by R. Derek Wood.
This article was published in History of Photography (Taylor & Francis, London), volume 21, number 3, Autumn 1997, pp. 248–9
“Too many legends, traditional stories, obscure the History of Photography, and it seems necessary to make an effort to establish the truth, simply by studying the documents themselves and not only second hand information.” — PGH 1967


The French photographic historian Pierre-Georges Harmant (PGH) died aged 73 at Charenton-le-Pont on 18 January 1995. Probably most widely known in France for his research on Niépce and in the English-speaking world for his valuable three-part article ‘Anno Lucis 1839’ first published in Camera of Luzern in 1960, his research on the early history of photography had an emphasis on patents, Niépce, Daguerre, and the microfilm ‘pigeongrammes’ of the siege of Paris of 1870. Examination of the following list of articles by him will demonstrate that we owe considerable respect to Pierre Harmant, perhaps in particular for the fine and dependable primary-source research he made available on Niépce.

Pierre Georges Harmant, only son of Fernand Pierre Harmant and Alice Henriette née Fournier, was born at Charenton-le-Pont, Seine, France, on 19 July 1921. He was educated at the lycée Charlemagne in Paris, Lycée Marcelin-Berthelot at Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, and l'Ecole des Chartes. At the age of 21 years, in the middle of the Second World War in occupied France, he started work at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris where he hoped to make a career. However in August 1943 the Germans took him for compulsory labour at an aircraft factory at Wiener-Neustadt, Austria. He acted mainly as a translator at the camp, at a time when it was subjected to heavy raids by American bombers. In November 1943 he escaped by train, arriving in Berlin during the period of a huge obliteration bombing campaign by the British airforce. PGH was recaptured near Hamburg and put to work (Kommando 553, Stalag XA) at the explosives factory at Geestacht Düneberg near Hamburg. Finally escaping on 13 April 1945, after one week he met an advancing English regiment at Hanover, and reached home at Charenton on 8 May 1945 - VE day.
Immediately after the war PGH returned to work at the Bibliothèque Nationale where he stayed for three years until December 1948. At Charenton-le-Pont on 24 April 1948 he married Claude Jeanne Bourdens. Their daughter Claude-Alice was born in 1950. Throughout 1949 PGH was employed by the photographic publishers Paul Montel of Paris. At the beginning of 1950, he became a chemist, and later a technical agent at the Services des Brevets of Kodak-Pathé at the factory at Vincennes, staying for 13 years.
The Société Française de Photographie transferred to new premises in 1955 and PGH helped with the move. He became a member of the SFP council from 1957 to 1960, serving the Society as archivist during that time.
After resigning from Kodak-Pathé in February 1963 he worked for three years, documenting and translating patents, in the nuclear research patent company Brevatome in Paris. After 1966 he became a freelance, working on patents especially in the fields of chemistry, pharmacy and nuclear energy.
The availability of work in translating patents became much reduced by the 1980s and PGH retired at the end of 1983.

From 1947 to December 1952, Pierre Harmant had prolifically contributed technical articles, especially on colour film and colour processes, to Le Photographe, Photo-cinéma, the Italian Progresso Fotografico, and to Schweizerische Photorundschau. However, only very rarely were these articles in his own name. Instead they appeared either anonymously or under the pseudonyms of ‘R. Tharitamp’ (anagram), ‘Piero Carentoni’ or ‘René Wilfried’. For three years, from February 1956 to February 1959, his monthly series ‘Dictionnaire photographique’ appeared anonymously in Officiel de la Photographie, and from February 1957 to June 1959 in Photo-Revue he wrote another monthly series under the name of René Wilfried on ‘Travaux en couleurs’. During this period of the late 1950s his first writing concerning the history of photography was published when he reached the age of 36 years with ‘From Camera to Cinemascope, Photography was born and raised in France’ being published without recording his authorship in France Actuelle of 15 March 1958. His work from that year on the history of photography is given below. It has been modified and annotated from his own basic full listing which was probably done by him in 1963 and 1980.

His non-historical writings on photography and the cinema done from the late 1940s until the first half of the 1960s are beyond the scope of this paper. During the 1980s PGH abandoned research on on the history of photography. There was no encouragement or help to publish, his fellow countrymen seemed to lack interest in the subject. After retirement he turned to other historical research on genealogy and local history. He was a member of the Société d’Archéologie de Charenton-Saint-Maurice. The discovery in 1986 of a sarcophagus of a young Englishman who had died in 1636 roused his interest in what was his last published project. Deciphering a Latin inscription showed the body was of a Thomas Craven, brother of Baron Craven, of Hamsted-Marshall, Berkshire, England, and the sarcopaghus was relevant to the history of Protestantism in seventeenth-century France. ‘Quelques réflexions sur la découverte d’un sarcophage dans un chantier en cours de rénovation à Saint-Maurice’ was published in CLIO 94: Bulletin des sociétés d’histoire et d’archéologie du Val-de-Marne, 1991, 50-76.
Yet even in his last years, when illness was a heavy burden, Pierre Harmant remained, as ever, ready to punish his stalwart typewriter as well as himself to discuss and help correspondants unravel the tangled tale of early photographic discoveries. Forever an enthusiast, he was, in the best and truest sense of the designation, amateur d’ histoire.

Bibliography:   1958 | 1959 | 1960 | 1961 | 1962 | 1963 | 1964 |
          | 1965 | 1966 | 1967 | 1970–74 | 1975–77 | 1980 to 1992 |


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This short biography (© 1997 R. Derek Wood) of Pierre Harmant was originally published as above in English in History of Photography (Taylor & Francis: London), but PGH's daughter Claude-Alice Marillier makes available on her own website a translation into [French].