The Arts

Eternal Images

Denise Colomb
Photographer Denise Colomb A few days before her 100th birthday, Colomb recalls her life among the post-war avant-garde (Photo: AFP).

She was born on April 1 in Paris—is that why Denise Colomb, photographer and cellist, looks so mischievous when she talks, punctuating her sentences with charming, mocking laughter? Born Denise Loeb in 1902, she is celebrating her 100th birthday today, looking clearly at ease. “I used to be very independent,” she says simply, “but now I just leave things to others. I listen to music—Bach’s cello suites. I have played them so many times.”

Denise Colomb began playing the cello when she was 7. She studied at the conservatory but got stage fright when she had to play in front of an audience for her graduation recital. Unable to play, she gave up the cello.

Once out of school, Colomb became a loner and had very few friends. Her companions were her twin brothers Edouard and especially Pierre, a future gallery owner who later exhibited works by all the great artists of the time. It was at Pierre’s home that Antonin Artaud wrote, in just a  few days, the scathing, violently inspired essay, “Van Gogh, the Suicide of Society.”

In 1924, Colomb met the man of her life: Gilbert Cahen. He was tall, handsome, and brilliant, and was a naval engineer. They fell in love and were married in 1926. This was pure happiness, and for life. They traveled the world: Toulon, Paris, Saigon. When stopping off at Port Said, Denise bought her first camera, a fine Nettel 24 x 36 with a 50 mm F/3.5 Zeiss lens and a coupled range finder.

With this simple camera, she took her first pictures on board the Athos II. They went off on an expedition to the China Sea, the Gulf of Siam, Phnom Penh, and Angkor. She continued taking pictures—portraits and landscapes—and took notes as well. When she wrote her parents, she sent pictures as illustrations: “It saved me from writing descriptions.”

Gilbert’s sister, Thérèse le Prat, was a well-known photographer. But she had no influence on Denise’s photographic destiny, which took a decisive turn at the liberation of Paris. Colomb, née Loeb, and bearing the name of her husband, Cahen, became Colomb during the war; she spent that period in Drôme. She set up a darkroom between the kitchen and the entrance to an apartment requisitioned on rue Paul Doumer. In 1947, she held her first exhibit in her apartment. Her brother Pierre came with Aimé Césaire, who liked her simple, humane pictures so much that he invited her to photograph his homeland [Martinique] with the same sensitivity she used when photographing Indochina.

Pierre exhibited Artaud’s drawings after he was released from the asylum in Rodez. One day, while in the gallery, Artaud saw a portrait of Pierre’s daughter, Florence. He wanted to pose for the photographer [who had taken the photograph], despite the fact that he usually hated having his picture taken. “It’s my sister,” said Pierre. The outcome was a memorable series of photos. Nothing was improvised, even though it looked that way.

Artaud moved so much, changed expressions so often, that Denise Colomb just kept on shooting. After this experience, the young woman who had been so insecure dared to meet Man Ray and asked him, “How long does it take to become a photographer?” He replied, “Two months or never.”

She had made her decision: She would be a photographer. Her first models were the people she knew best; painters, such as [Arpad] Szenes, Vieira da Silva; and later Picasso, Calder, Chagall, [Nouveau Realisme sculptor] Cesar, and many others, but especially [painter Nicolas] de Stael. “That was the artistic meeting of my life, in 1954,” she said. “I really had an intuition that he would commit suicide one year before it happened. He was working in a very cluttered studio. I came back the next day, had him get rid of everything, and took a picture of him in front of a blank wall with paint splashes on it. In this picture, you have the feeling he was getting ready to go.”

Does she recall other artists? Yes, [Cubist painter Georges] Braque. “He received me as if I were the plumber. He did the same with [photographer Robert] Doisneau. [Christian] Zervos [author of a complete catalog of Picasso’s work] had told me that Braque was extraordinary. He asked me to take a picture of him riding a bike, probably to show that he was still young. Two people brought him, carrying him and helping him along, wrapped in a thick plaid blanket that we took off. I took a picture of him under a large branch.”

Zervos was, with François Mathey [chief curator of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris], Denise Colomb’s patron. His prestigious journal Cahiers d’art printed many of her photos, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs began exhibiting them in 1969.

Now, her nephew Albert is exhibiting pictures of her taken by others, covering her entire life, at his gallery at 12, rue des Beaux-Arts, in Paris. She deserves it.