“When I take photographs, it is not I who photograph, it is something in me that presses the shutter without my really deciding.”
—Pierre Verger (1902–1996)

The goal of this article is to investigate the beginning of the history of photography in Vietnam, from the mid-nineteenth-century birth of photographic technologies and their popularization in Europe (particularly France), through their spread to Indochina by pioneering French photographers who worked or established businesses in Vietnam’s southern, central, and northern regions (then termed Cochinchina, Annam, and Tonkin, respectively), to the early decades of the twentieth century, when Vietnamese photographers began to appear.

Since the first photograph was taken in France, by the inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, photographic technology has experienced many interesting periods of development. Through the efforts and desires of photographers from the first period to today, we have retained a great deal of material valuable not only for histories of technology but also—and greatly—for those of culture and society.

It was French, Swiss, Belgian, Dutch, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Algerians who comprised the majority of these professionals, earning their livelihoods by their new skills, largely through studios for photography and photographic processing in Saigon. One could mention Émile Gsell and his famous images of Cambodia and the southern and northern regions of Vietnam in the 1860s and 1870s, taken on an official expedition to Angkor, the Mekong, and the southern and northern regions of Vietnam in the first days of the French, and Pun Lun (繽綸, Tân Luân), a Chinese from Hong Kong with a photo studio in Saigon, with his extremely rare images of the area in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. There were Aurelian Pestel’s images of Saigon at the end of the nineteenth century and the work of Khánh Ký (Nguyễn Ðình Khánh) in the 1920s and 1930s, showing Vietnamese revolutionaries such as Phan Châu Trinh, Nguyễn An Ninh, and Nguyễn Ái Quốc,2 as well as French president Raymond Poincaré (1913), Governor General Pierre Pasquier, and other officials featured in the pictorial Illustration (l’Illustration) (1933).3

We also cannot forget to note the famous Swiss photographer Martin Hürlimann, who stopped in Vietnam in 1926 and shot images full of artistry: temples and shrines, statuary and scenery of Champa in the central region and Hanoi in the northern.

Their photographs from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries are endlessly precious materials for many topics in the study of history and society in Vietnam. At present, we have not yet been able to make full use of all the images that existed or still exist in archives or private collections.

As one often says in English, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Images live in the life of society. Their daily scenes, personal residences, larger architectural works, and other subjects of times past are a basis from which it is possible to supplement much information in studies of social culture.

Also with the history of photography comes the history of cinema. The first film shot in Vietnam was “Namo Village—Panorama Taken from a Rickshaw” (Le Village de Namo—Panorama pris d’une chaise à porteurs), by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, in the village of Namo (Nam Ô) near Danang in 1896, soon after their invention of the movie camera, in 1895. Earlier they had assisted their father in the art of photography, subsequently discovering a way to run film continuously through a camera. Upon their development of the movie camera, Auguste and Louis Lumière were sent to make films all over the world, bringing back interesting views of unfamiliar places in foreign countries (that is to say, the colonies) for lecturers in France.4 It is not the intention of this article to delve deeply into the history of film, however, but mainly that of photography, thereby touching on cinematic history in Vietnam through the following study.

On the History of Photographic Technologies and Photographs in Vietnam

Photographic technologies from the nineteenth to the start of the twentieth century may be summarized as follows:


In 1837, Louis Daguerre discovered a method of capturing images on a metal plate previously covered with a “film” of silver iodine or silver chloride. The image “shot” then was immersed in mercury fumes, causing mercury to gather on the parts of the image where light had reacted with the compounds, bringing out the silver on the metal surface. The intensity of the reaction depended on the strength of the light that had struck the surface of the film. The parts that retained the chemicals were fixed in sodium thiosulfate.

In 1839, the French government announced Daguerre’s photographic method as though it was a gift to humanity. The images on the metal plate were protected by glass on the surface, fitted into a frame of wood or gold. Because of the silver, this reflected like a mirror when tilted at various angles. Photographs using the daguerreotype method are very durable. If the protective frame and glazing are not damaged, they last quite a while.

In the subsequent period, not a few cameras recorded familiar images of events in France. Cameras still surprised many in Paris, however, provoking various impressions in—and awakening the curiosity of the masses as images were brought back from faraway lands—countries with customs and cultures strange to them, by photographers who used the camera’s daguerreotype technology through great efforts in their travels.5

The engineer Hippolyte Gaucheraud wrote the following in a newspaper, one day before Daguerre announced his discovery in front of the French Academy of Sciences, on January 7, 1839, on the future of daguerreotype photography: “It will not be long before our traveling friends, at a price of only a few hundred francs, will be able to have cameras of Daguerre’s invention, and with these machines will be able to bring images back to France, of monuments, statues, rare scenes of great beauty, or the most beautiful views in the world. All will understand that their pencils and erasers cannot create images like those that the machine of daguerreotype technology is bringing.”6

Gaucheraud’s predictions came true. Before a full year had passed, travelers had brought Daguerre’s invention to the wonders of France as well as far, foreign lands. Despite difficulties with cumbersome equipment, problems with the supply of metal plates and the understanding and adjustment of Daguerre’s technology in light-rich places (where land meets ocean or the hot climate of the Egyptian desert) or with the dearth of chemicals in ports like those of the Far East—still the copper plate images that they were able to bring back to France are precious and rare, allowing us glimpses of lives and events around the world in the mid-nineteenth century.

The first, exceedingly rare photographs in Vietnam and Indochina were taken according to Daguerre’s method. The French photographer Alphonse Jules Itier accompanied the mission of Théodore de Lagrené on a route through China to photograph the signing of a treaty between France and China in 1844, stopping at Danang to preserve an image of Vietnamese soldiers.


This was a method using the chemical solution “collodion” spread on glass. It was invented in England and gradually replaced the daguerreotype, as it was much more practical. Its rate of reaction and exposure time was also much faster. In France, this method was called the “collodion positive” (Collodion Positif). The ambrotype process expanded fiercely from 1855 to 1865. The daguerreotype was no longer commonly used by around the 1860s.

In many places, such as France, the ambrotype method was still used through the 1880s, near the end of the nineteenth century, before it was replaced completely by the tintype on iron and new technologies on film and paper.

In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer discovered a method of making images through the “wet plate” process, sometimes called the “collodion process” after the name of the solution used on glass plates. The solution was bromide and iodine or chloride (halogen gas) dissolved into collodion (a solution of pyroxylin in alcohol or ether). This solution then was processed onto a glass surface where, partially set but still wet, it was dipped into a solution of silver nitrate. The iodine and bromide on the glass would react with the silver nitrate, resulting in the compound silver iodide or silver bromide, which could capture an image on the glass.

When the reaction was complete, the glass was taken out of the silver nitrate solution and placed in the camera to be exposed while wet. When light shone on the glass containing silver iodide, the silver accumulated and darkened according to the intensity of the light. The degrees of darkness (the silver) would distinguish themselves. As the glass surface would lose its rate of reaction if the silver iodide solution dried, it was necessary to work with ever more speed and skill. After taking an image on the glass, the still-wet plate was rinsed in a solution of iron sulfate, acetic acid, and alcohol. Because of this, photographers had to bring along chemical solutions in order to make preparations for before and after shooting.

Calotype (or Talbotype)

At about the same time as the daguerreotype came the technology to shoot and process pictures on paper, called the calotype, invented by William Fox Talbot. The calotype process, although its images were not clear compared to the resolution of daguerreotypes, had a particularly important advantage: from one unique paper negative could be processed tens or hundreds of identical photographs. Because these were on paper, it was easy for artists to combine them with the art of painting. The photographs were easy to paste in albums, frame like paintings or insert in printed books. Thus, at the start of the 1850s, the paper calotype began to replace the daguerreotype. Although the daguerreotype was present in America longer, in France it had all but disappeared by the start of the 1860s. The calotype with its paper negative was very popular and used most by travelers.

The ambrotype used glass to make clearer images than the calotype could on paper. Both used negatives from which many images were developed. It is possible to see the ambrotype as the best combination of the daguerreotype’s clarity and high resolution with the calotype’s ease in producing and enlarging images from negatives.

In the 1850s, there were two schools of thought. One supported the ambrotype and one the calotype. Both were widespread, as the daguerreotype was disappearing gradually around 1860. The glass-using ambrotype was popular for portraits because of its clarity and sufficient speed, whereas the calotype with its paper negatives was much used by artists or travelers for its convenience. In truth, the ambrotype was used more than the calotype in the 1860s.

The popularity of photography was supported and further urged by the founding of the world’s first photography association in Paris, in 1851. This was the Helographic Society (Société Héliographique, later the French Society for Photography, Société Française de Photographie, SFP, which still exists today). This organization produced exhibitions of photographs and photographic technology, newsletters, books, and magazines, such as the periodical Illumination (Lumière). Its members were from all across France as well as other European countries.

Examples of Ambrotypes and Calotypes

After the extremely rare daguerreotypes, photographs in Vietnam used the ambrotype process (on glass) and the calotype (on paper). The first portrait of a Vietnamese was that of Phan Thanh Giản, taken in Paris with the ambrotype process, when he led a delegation to France in 1863, hoping to regain the three Vietnamese provinces previously ceded to that country.

In the report of this trip, Diary of Western Travels, assistant diplomat Phạm Phú Thứ wrote this about the experience of the delegation on its first contact with a camera:

“[F]irst of all in the process of photography is to take medicinal water and rub it into a bit of glass, then fit it into the camera. One stands in front of it, staring at a fellow through its mouth, and one’s image is printed by sunlight on the glass, not a hair or a speck incorrectly. Westerners like to take photographs very much. In general, when they have just met, they all want photographs of each other to express their feelings of eternal remembrance. Noblemen and cowards, all and each are as conscientious as the other. Thus, from that day forward, officials constantly have been bringing laborers9 to the hotel, requesting their supervisors’ permission to have a few photographs taken to give to their superiors and friends.”10

Following this was photography for Governor Charles le Myre de Vilers, the first French governor in the southern region of Vietnam, whose projects during his term of office had to be captured as data.11 These photographs were preserved at the Diplomatic Archive Center in France, Quai d’Orsay, unnoted for more than one hundred and twenty years. In 2002, the French Consulate General in Saigon brought them out on exhibit. The images are quite detailed, for the camera was one of the larger models.12 Instances of reddish color could indicate deterioration of chemical compounds or red on the back of the glass plates.

The Invention of Photographic Development on Albumen Paper

At the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, organized at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, in 1851, were two noteworthy events: the birth of Frederick Archer’s ambrotype process and the new invention of Désiré Blanquart-Evrard, the rapid development of photographs by daylight on paper coated with albumen. Through the invention of albumen paper and its replacement of glass plates, the cost of photographs became very affordable. Blanquart-Evrard opened the Photographic Printing House (Imprimerie Photographique), the first photographic production studio in France (at Lille) in 1851, printing many photographic albums.

The speed of developing on albumen paper made photographs popular and prized. From a single negative, many photographs were processed and printed on paper. These paper photographs were as easy to use as other illustrations in printed books, because they were not cumbersome and did not reflect light like images on glass.

Up to the 1850s, photographic specialists used daguerreotype or ambrotype technology with high resolution; others used low-resolution calotypes. The birth of albumen printing paper was received with satisfaction by both worlds and succeeded in transcending complaints. The vagaries and limits for amateur and professional photographers were lessened overall.

The negatives used to develop albumen photographs were usually calotypes (talbotypes) on paper or collodion negatives (ambrotypes) on glass. Collodion wet-plate negatives were used immediately after the photographer had mixed the chemicals on the glass surface, stuck into the camera in preparation for the shot. Because collodion negatives have high resolution, they gradually replaced negatives on paper.

Albumen photographs were developed from collodion negatives set into wooden frames, through which daylight was directed to cause a chemical reaction. If the day was cloudy or a bit too bright, it could take from one to five minutes to finish a photograph. Then the albumen paper with its just-created image was shielded from light with a fresh page of more-transparent paper. Usually photographs were inserted into frames before being brought to customers.

We can see that albumen prints long have been sepia-colored like the majority of postcards processed on albumen paper at the start of the twentieth century.

Tintype (or Ferrotype)

The tintype was invented in America, in 1856, by chemistry professor Hamilton Smith. Its method was not new; rather, it was an improvement on the ambrotype: instead of capturing an image on a glass surface, it substituted metal such as iron or tin. Tintypes were very popular in America from the start of the Civil War to the end of the nineteenth century.

The surface of an iron plate was coated with black compounds (those often used in lacquer), which originated in Japan and gave rise to the term “japanning.”13 These compounds made the iron plate smooth and impervious to rust, allowing the image to emerge during developing.

Cartes de Visite

At the end of 1850, Andre Disdéri brought out photographs in the form of cartes de visite.14 These were paper photographs very popular on the market. They were easy to publish in series, less expensive than tintypes, and used paper coated with albumen (from eggs) and then a layer of silver chloride. Although not as durable as ambrotypes or tintypes, their resolution was still high and their price was low enough for people to be able to pay. Also important were their ease of use and lack of cumbersomeness, winning popularity with every social class.

Cartes de visite were simpler and less expensive to publish than tintypes, and their quality was just as good. Thus they came to be more widely consumed by the masses, even though they were not as durable as the tintype for being paper (rather than iron), and bore the sepia tones of albumen.

Photography and Celluloid Film

In America, in 1884, George Eastman invented the method of photography on paper from celluloid film, using oily and dry compounds. In 1888, the Kodak camera emerged, using rolls of film, and photographers no longer had to carry around plates and chemicals. They had only to press a button to take a picture, and the work of chemical processing was assumed by the Eastman Dry Plate Company. At the end of the nineteenth century and start of the twentieth, modern photography as we have known it became a reality and spread among us (before digital photography arrived, at the start of the twenty-first century).

Chronology of Photographic Studios

This section sketches the biographies and photographic output of a few pioneer photographers during the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth centuries, in Vietnam generally as well as the in cities of Saigon and Cholon. Through this we see clearly the history of Vietnamese photography in its first era.

Émile Gsell (1838–1879)

Émile Gsell was the first commercial photographer in Saigon. He had been sent to the southern region of Vietnam on military duty. After his discharge, however, he was selected, with Lieutenant Francis Garnier, by Captain Doudart de Lagrée for the 1866–68 Commission for the Exploration of the Mekong (Commission d’exploration du Mekong). He was the first to photograph the towers of Angkor with the expedition team. After this travel, he opened the studio Gsell Photographie in Saigon, selling prints of Angkor with great success. He also took many images of landscape and life in Saigon and other areas of the south.

In 1873, he returned to Angkor with Lieutenant Louis Delaporte (who had accompanied him previously with Doudart de Lagrée). He also photographed French troops under Garnier attacking the Citadel of Hanoi that year. From November 1876 to January 1877, he followed Lieutenant Kergaradec back to the Red River. During these two trips, he traveled with the photographer Jean Baptiste Pellissier. Gsell was the first photographer to take a portrait of a Vietnamese woman in the northern region of the country.

He exhibited and took a medal at the Vienna International Exposition. Through his investigations, he concentrated on photographs of the lives and customs of local people. His studio in Saigon was near the homes of wealthy Vietnamese who often had him take their portraits.16

Gsell died when still young, at forty-one years old, in Saigon, on October 16, 1879. Near the end of his life, he photographed architectural and public works projects in Saigon for Governor General Le Myre de Vilers.

After Gsell’s death, his photographic material was taken over by O. Wegener and then inherited by Vidal. Vidal used it for commercial purposes until he died, in 1883. Gsell’s photographs also were printed in an article by Francis Garnier on Angkor in Around the World (Le Tour du Monde, 1870-71); Romanet de Caillaud’s “La conquête du delta du Tong-kin” (Le Tour du Monde, 1878/2), and Brossard de Corbigny’s “Eight Days in the Embassy at Hue” (“Huit jours d’ambassade à Hué”), printed in Le Tour du Monde, 1878/1, in which it is recorded that Gsell received permission to photograph from the Vietnamese emperor in Hue.

In December 2007, an album comprising about three hundred and fifty photographs by Gsell was brought to auction by Galerie Bassenge in Berlin. It included prints from negatives marked by Gsell as well as photographs with notes below them in pencil. All images of Angkor had printed captions mounted below.17

The first page of the album is a composite image of about one hundred and twenty postcards surrounding the name of his studio, Gsell Photographie. This could be used to identify Indochinese images for which photographers hitherto have been unknown. The album contains pictures of Saigon Harbor, sailboats at the docks, the estate of the governor general of Saigon, and other stately homes and palaces in Indochina when the French arrived and started to establish the city. Many other images show high officials, bishops, actors, singers, and soldiers, as well as shrines, temples, statuary, foreign settlements, and native villages.

Pun Lun (繽綸)

Pun Lun (Tân Luân) was a photographer from Hong Kong who had been famous there in the 1860s. His studio and main place of business was in the center of Hong Kong, at 56 Queens Street, facing the Oriental Bank. In addition to photography, he offered skills in sketching and carving images on elephant tusks.

He had branches in Saigon, Fuzhou, and Singapore. He was active from the 1860s to the 1880s, contemporarily with the photographer A Fong (華芳, Hoa Phương) in Hong Kong (1859–1941). He is considered a pioneer in the history of Chinese photography today.

Several images from his studio are some of the earliest taken in Saigon, before those of Gsell.

Pun Lun took many images in Saigon, among which is the beautiful photograph of a southern official (below), “An Indochinese Notable” (Un notable indochinois), in about 1880, an albumen print (16 x 20 cm).

Several other images of Saigon bear the name Pun Ky (Tân Kỳ) on the back. He may have been a representative of Pun Lun in Saigon and is likely related to his Hong Kong lineage.

Aurélien Pestel (1855–1897)

Pestel could be called the best among the three pioneering geniuses of photography in late-nineteenth-century Saigon. Initially, his business was not related directly to photography, but he later became a photographer in Cambodia and then in Saigon, where he died in 1897 at 10 Charner Avenue.

The quality of Pestel’s images transformed him into a sort of ambassador for Indochina at the 1894 World Exposition in Lyon.20 He displayed an album full of rare prints of the southern region of Vietnam and Cambodia. This album was truly a work of art. From the standpoint of composition, the photographs used traditional Vietnamese lacquer techniques. A number of Pestel’s works can be seen in the diplomatic archives of France.21

Images by Pestel were used by Pierre Barrelon as illustrations for his article “Saigon” (Le Tour du Monde, 1893) and by E. Aymonier in a piece on Cambodia around 1900. Several of his images of the opium industry from an album of 1894 were published in the famous pictorial l’Illustration in 1896.

Pestel’s images were printed in announcements related to Indochina’s participation in the 1900 World’s Fair, along with those by Dr. Victor Le Lan and Fernand Blanchet. The collected series of cartes de visite from “Les editions La Pagode” in Saigon included a number of images by Pestel, mainly from the series “Vietnamese Men of Letters.”22 He took these photographs in the home of Governor General Phương in Cholon (then on Châu Văn Liêm Street, no longer extant). Pestel’s successor, Planté, also published some of Pestel’s most beautiful images as postcards.

Pestel’s studio, 10 Charner Avenue, was put to use after his death by Négadelle, then Paullussen, and finally Planté. All subsequently became well-known photographers in Saigon.

George Victor Planté (1847–1921)

Planté was born in France on March 2, 1847, and died in Saigon in 1921. When he first arrived in the southern region of Vietnam, he worked at the Indochina Department of Taxation and Registration (Service des Douanes et Regies de l’Indochine). This concern had opium factories on Paul Blanchy Street, now on Hai Ba Trưng past the Municipal Theater. He later became a photographer and postcard publisher, in 1893.24

After 1905, he moved to 10 Charner Avenue, the same address as Aurélien Pestel, Négadelle, and Paullussen before him. The 1907 Indochina Yearbook (Annuaire de l’Indochine de 1907) shows a portrait of Planté and describes the following activities:

“Portraits of every type. Enlarged on gelatino-bromure. Scenes of South Vietnam and the ruins of Angkor (on gelatino-bromure paper). Large collection of illustrated postcards. (Portraits en tous genre. Agrandissements au gélatino-bromure. Vues de Cochinchine et des ruines d’Angkor (sur papier gélatino-bromure). Grande collection de cartes postales illustrées).” (188)

Planté worked in a separate style for each customer and sold postcards from 1905 onward. Among these are a portrait of King Thành Thái as well as images by Pestel. The man who later replaced Planté was Crespin. The 1922 Indochina Yearbook lists an individual named Jules Louis Planté, born in 1891, working in the Indochina Department of Taxation and Registration (Douanes et Regies de l’Indochine), possibly his son.

Nguyễn Đình Khánh (styled Khánh Ký) (1884–1946)

Nguyễn Đình Khánh, originally Nguyễn Văn Xuân, who used the studio name Khánh Ký, was born in the village of Lai Xá, Hà Đông (currently part of Hanoi) in 1884. After the photographic firm Cảm Hiếu Đông appeared under Đặng Huy Trứ on Hanoi’s Thanh Hà Street in 1869, Khánh Ký’s studio became the second photo studio ever owned by a Vietnamese, opening on Hàng Da Street, Hanoi, in 1893. Unlike his predecessor, however, Khánh Ký not only specialized in taking portraits himself but also hired and trained many others, most of whom left Lai Xá and opened their own studios in Nam Định (1905), Saigon (1907), Toulouse (1910, when he had just arrived in France), and Paris. When he returned to Vietnam, in 1924, he opened photographic studios in Hanoi, Guangzhou, Haiphong, Nam Định, and Saigon. The village of Lai Xá today has a photographic tradition based on his work.

Khánh Ký engaged in photographic activity in Saigon mainly from 1924 to 1933. His Saigon office was at 54 Bonnard Avenue (now Lệ Lợi). In 1934, this establishment employed twenty-seven staff, comprising photographers, developers, retouchers, and salespeople. Starting in 1917, Khánh Ký was the one who shot portraits of all the French governors general in Indochina, just as he did for the Vietnamese emperor and the kings of Cambodia and Laos.

Photographs by Khánh Ký’s studios bear the inscriptions “Khanh Ky photo, Hanoi” and “Photo Khanh Ky, Saigon.”25 He also took photographs for the Society for Indochinese Studies (Société des Etudes Indochinoises). Several of his images were also printed in the periodical Colonial World Illustrated (Monde colonial illustré) (1931) and the special issue for the 1931 Colonial Exposition (Exposition colonial 1931), as well as the 1932 issue, after Minister of Colonies Paul Reynaud made a state visit to Indochina.

Khánh Ký also took a portrait of the governor general of Indochina Pierre Pasquier, who supported Emperor Bảo Đại, and of the revolutionary Nguyễn An Ninh. In the article “The Voyage of the Vietnamese Emperor to Tonkin” (“Le Voyage de l’empereur d’annam du Tonkin”) in edition 4740 of l’Illustration (1933), he had news photographs of Emperor Bảo Đại’s visit to the northern region of Vietnam.

Khánh Ký was part of the organization committee for the funeral proceedings of Phan Châu Trinh28 in Saigon in 1926. The photographic series of the funeral rites and the related spectacle in Saigon was created by Khánh Ký. In 1932, he went to Japan and made contact with early members of the Eastern Travel Movement.29 On his return, he praised the movement and was arrested by the French for offenses connected to Prince Cường Để’s influence and allegiances in Japan.30

Khánh Ký’s establishments then went bankrupt. He returned to France in 1934, continued to do business in photography, and died there in 1946. When Hồ Chí Minh visited France to attend the Fontainebleau conference in 1946, he paid respects at the tomb of Khánh Ký, who had helped him through his hard days of seeking work when he had first arrived in France.

Gabriel Auguste Paullussen

The images below (among which is a photograph of General Joffre in Cholon, before the telegraph office connecting Indochina with Marseille) were taken by the photographer Auguste Gabriel Paullussen in 1921. They bear the name of his studio, Saigon Photo, at 10 Charner Avenue (now Nguyễn Huệ Street). Paullussen employed one Chinese and five Vietnamese as workers in his studio.33

Paullussen succeeded the photographer George Victor Planté, who had an office with him at the address above. Planté had already made many famous postcards of Saigon. After Planté died, in 1921, Paullussen took over.

Paullussen’s birth and death dates, like his life and career, cannot be known clearly compared to those of other photographers. The photographic collections and papers of the photographer and inventor Gabriel Cromer, a member of the administrative council for the French Photography Society (Société Française de la Photographie), preserve a letter from Paullussen to Cromer, praising one of his works. This material currently belongs to the Kodak Collection, George Eastman House.

Martin Hürlimann (1897–1984)

Hürlimann was a famous Swiss photographer. He visited many places around the world, in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, taking photographs of temples and monuments, palaces, natural wonders, urban cultural productions, and ruins—in Europe, Ceylon, Burma, Siam (Thailand), Cambodia, the central and northern regions of Vietnam, and yet more—using a Sinclair with Kodak film. After this, his images were usually released as copperplate prints by the French method of photogravure, easily used in printing photographic books with clarity, beauty, and artistry.

Along the lines of his albums of Europe, his album of Asia and Indochina is titled Ceylon and Indochina: Architecture, Landscape, Popular Scenes (Ceylon et l’Indochine: Architecture, paysages, scenes populaires; Paris, 1930). Most of the images are towers, statues, scenes of Angkor, Chieng Mai, Lamphun, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Champa (in the central region of Vietnam), and the northern region of Vietnam. The most numerous of the Vietnamese images show the towers, statues, and landscapes of the ancient kingdom of Champa.34

Alexandre Francis Decoly

Decoly published images in Saigon from 1905 to 1924. He released postcard series and was situated at 10 Charner Avenue, the same location as the photographer Planté. Decoly and Planté were contemporaries, but Decoly was not a photographer—merely a businessman. Postcards bearing the symbol of a pagoda (pagode) in the corner are from Decoly’s firm. Later this symbol was replaced by the name of the business, Edition La Pagode Saigon. According to the 1910 Indochina Yearbook,35 Decoly was at 36 Legrand de la Liraye Street (now Điện Biện Phủ Street): “Decoly, employed in commerce (Decoly, employé de commerce).”

He collected and printed images in black and white as well as color. He printed images of Laos, particularly those by Raquez, just as of Cambodia and other places in Indochina. It is possible that early postcards marked “A.F.D.” were his. Among later cards with corresponding images, the backs are marked “B. Frey et Cie., Saigon et Phnom-Penh” (1920–24).

Decoly’s images were still being sold into the late 1930s, but the address of 10 Charner Avenue was no longer a photography studio after 1922; rather, it was the headquarters of the business Commercial and Industrial Company of Indochina (Compagnie commerciale et industrielle de l’Indochine). Thus we could call these postcards the last by Decoly.36

Poujade de Ladevèze

Poujade de Ladevèze is known through images of Saigon from 1908 to 1922 in his series “Collection Poujade de Ladevèze.” He is listed in the yearbook of business in Saigon for 1922 as succeeding C. David. He published postcards very early, particularly in color.

Poujade de Ladevèze also definitely was not a photographer. He gathered and printed many images without recording the names of their photographers.37 The 1909 Indochina Yearbook38 lists the following: Poujade de Ladevèze, 7 Vannier Street (now Ngô Đức Kế) businessman (commerçant). The yearbook for 1910 records the address as 173B Catinat Street, market (marchand, also a commercial area).

Ludovic Crespin (1873–?)

Ludovic Crespin was a photographer with an establishment, called Photo Studio, at 136-38 Catinat Street (now Đồng Khởi Street) in 1910. Before this, 136 Catinat Street had been the address of “Madame Verray, artistic photographer,” as recorded in the 1908–1909 Indochina Yearbook: “Mme Verray, photographe artistique.” Therefore it is probable that Madame Verray passed on her photography firm to Crespin.

After the First World War, Crespin owned one more film studio, at 10 Charner Avenue. This means that he may have bought the photography business that had belonged to Pestel and then Planté. It is thus possible that he owned the legacies of many photographers, namely the images owned by Pestel. This explains the rich and wide-ranging productions that Crespin published from this period on. He created many postcards from his own images but also borrowed from those of others, such as Joseph Brignon, a postcard publisher active from 1925 to 1930.

Crespin also published books of images that he owned, such as an album of photographs of Cholon in 1909. In 1921, Crespin photographed the launching ceremony of the steamboat Albert Sarrault, over which Governor General Maurice Long presided. He published a photographic series called “Souvenir of Conchinchina and Cambodia” (Souvenir de Cochinchine et Cambodge), edited by the Saigon Business Office, showing images of Captain Joffre when he paid an official visit to Indochina in 1923. Following are a few images from Souvenir de Cochinchine et Cambodge.

Crespin and his wife also ran a rubber plantation in Tam May (Biên Hòa). As Crespin was supervisor of a photography business and had experienced much activity for many years, Ernest Outrey, representative for Vietnam’s southern region in the French parliament, suggested in 1921 that he take responsibility for the exhibition and dissemination of photographs for the south in the 1922 Colonial Exposition at Marseille.

Despite the support of the Commercial Association of Saigon, the Council of Provincial Overseers, and the Saigon Municipal Council, Crespin would have had to cover the cost of enlarging photographic images as well as distribute one million free postcards at the exposition. He was hesitant and resisted the government and Ministry of Colonies in France, retaining his dignity by instead officially representing the Indochina Photo-cinematic Department (Service photo-cinématographique d l’Indochine).40

Although Crespin was not able to organize the photographic exhibition, he still made a respectable personal appearance at the 1922 Marseille Exposition. He had a series of sixteen images of local scenes from the southern region of Vietnam in the section for that area. According to the mayor of Saigon, Crespin was the only photographer with a collection so rich in all the architecture, statuary, and early scenes of the city.

Fernand Nadal

Nadal was an Arab, born in Algeria (possibly Hussein-Dey in 1898 or El Affroun in 1902). He came to Indochina at the start of the 1920s. In 1921, he was situated at 150 Catinat Street, Saigon.41 It is possible that he was the first Algerian to come to Saigon and open a business.

Several of his images were printed in the periodical Le Monde colonial illustré between 1929 and 1931, and the administration of the governor general of Indochina also used his photographs. He created many official news photos for the French government in the southern region of Vietnam, such as images of the 11th Colonial Regiment, government offices, and monuments in Saigon.

Among Saigon businesses in 1922, Nadal’s establishment was one that took photographs and sold photographic equipment and accessories. Nadal employed one European and six Vietnamese. Sometimes he did photographic work for the government. He also took photographs for the masters of various estates and for hotels at tourist sites such as Angkor, also shooting several series of advertising images for businesses in Saigon. Furthermore, he printed photographic albums and postcards and supervised a similar photographic studio in Phnom Penh.

Nadal photographed large industrial concerns and neighboring areas in Saigon. Between 1923 and 1924, he photographed Industrial Biên Hòa (La Bien-Hoa Industrielle) for the lumber concern the Society of Forestry (La Société forestiere), which at that time monopolized the export of wood in Indochina. In 1930, he made a photographic news report of the official visit to Hanoi of Dwight Davis, governor of the Philippines (then an American colony).

In 1935, postcards by Nadal bore the address 10 Catinat Street. At the start of the 1950s, he was still producing them.

Võ An Ninh (1907–2009)43

Võ An Ninh, originally Vũ An Tuyết, was born June 16, 1907, on Hàng Gai Street in Hanoi. Immediately from childhood, he had a passion for photography. In the colonial period, he worked as a photographic correspondent for the Department of Forestry. In 1935, his photograph “Morning on the Red River” took special prize in a contest organized by the Vietnamese Society for the Encouragement of Art and Industry (Société Annamite d’encouregement à l’Art et l’Industrie). In 1938, his image “Loaded Ships Departing” received a special award at a photographic exhibition in Paris.

Võ An Ninh went everywhere in the northern, central, and southern regions of Vietnam to take photographs with his 1928 German Zeiss Ikon. Every day until near the end of his life (2000), he still used only this handheld camera with monochrome film.

In Hanoi, he took many famous images of the Lake of the Sword, such as “Lake of the Sword in Morning Frost” (1935) and the lake as featured in the four images “Hanoi in Four Seasons.” In addition to this, he took nostalgic images of Hanoi in its elegant past: “In the Banyan Tree Garden at Voi Phục Temple” (1942), “South Wind” (Dike on the Red River, 1948), “Remembering the Past” (1944), “Rearing Silkworms at Nghi Tàm” (1956), “Young Women of Hanoi” (1960), “Stone Steps at Voi Phục Temple” (1956), “Láng Temple” (1941), “Elderly Scholars Writing New Year Couplets” (1940), “New Year Paintings in Hồ Village” (1941), “Street of Sail Shops” (1940), “Old Roof on the Street of Silver Brokers” (1956), “Quang Chương City Gate” (1940), “Hill of Banyan Trees” (1942), “The Constellation of Literature Pavilion and Graduates’ Steles in the Temple of Literature” (1945), “Dawn on the Fields of Phúc Xá” (1944), “Rickshaw in the Suburbs” (1935), “Gathering the Rice Harvest” (1935), “Winter Returns” (Từ Liêm, 1935), “Pier at the Earthen Bridge” (1935), “Pottery Market” (Bươi, 1935), “Đồng Xuân Market” (1956) and “Lotus at West Lake” (1941).

A number of his skillful images of Saigon have value as both art and social documentation, such as “Bến Thành Market with Station for Horse-drawn Carriages” (1949), “Elderly Scholars Writing New Year Couplets” (Saigon, 1950), “Royal Tomb on a Festival Day” (1952), “Mosque” (1950), “Incense Smoke at Bà Temple, Cholon” (1953), “Young Women of Saigon” (1951), “Crossing the Bridge” (Thủ Đức, 1953), “Alone” (1941), “Germination” (1942), “Thorn Tree Garden in the Suburbs” (1950), “Day of Honoring Buddhist Relics” (1951), “Easter Night” (1950), and “Dawn on the River” (1952).

Another valuable group of images in Võ An Ninh’s body of work are scenes from the famine of 1945, which witness conditions created by Japanese and French occupation in the northern region of our country. There are scenes of people dying of starvation in the streets of Hanoi, and in the streets from every province (although Thái Bình was most severely hit) to the capital city, human corpses filling carts already full. This rich series is the only one in Vietnam on the famine of 1945.


This article is only a brief outline of the history of photography in Vietnam and a contribution to material on photographers in the region from the end of the nineteenth century to the start of the twentieth. They came from France, China, Vietnam, and other countries, probably with the initial intention only to be passionate about photography and live by its craft. At the same time, they brought into being materials that not only have value as art, as most of them hoped, but also have a value for history, culture, and society that we have not yet fully put to use.

The author believes that many photographic materials are scattered throughout private collections all over the world, just as in archives, such as France’s National Overseas Archives (Archives nationales d’outre mer ANOM) or in Vietnam, where presently they have not received sufficient attention. If a museum of photography could be founded in Vietnam, it would be a place for materials to converge, where private collectors could contribute to research—inside and outside of the country—on problems and topics in history, culture, and society in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Vietnam.

Nguyễn Ðức Hiệp is a biomedical engineer who has published scientific papers in journals such as Atmospheric Environment, Journal of Climatology, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Statistics, and Journal of Air & Waste Management. In addition to his scientific work, he also an independent researcher in the field of Vietnamese history from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century, especially the history of Cochinchina under the French period.


Annuaire général Administratif, Commercial et Industriel de l’Indo-Chine. Hanoi: Imprimerie F.-H. Schneider, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911.
“Chronique, Cochinchine.” Bulletin de l’Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient Année 1933, vol. 33, no. 33: 1110–11.
Claeys, J. Y., and Martin Hurlimann. “Ceylan et l’Indochine, architecture, paysages, scènes populaires.” Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient, 1930, vol. 30, no. 30: 180–81.
Creed, Barbara, and Jeanette Hoorn. “Memory and History: Early Film, Colonialism, and the French Civilising Mission in Indochina.” French History and Civilization, Papers from the George Rudé Seminar, vol. 4. eds. Briony Neilson and Robert Aldrich, 2011. [Formerly]
Daniel, Malcolm. “Daguerre (1787–1851) and the Invention of Photography.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
———. “The Daguerreian Age in France: 1839–1855.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)
———. “The Rise of Paper Photography in 1850s France.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (September 2008)
Degroise, Marie-Hélène. Photographes en Outre-Mer (1840–1944).
du Caillaud, Romanet. “La Conquête du delta du Tong-King.” Le Tour du Monde, vol. XXXIV(1877), second half of the year.
Goloubew, Victor. “V.-T. Holbé.” Bulletin de l’Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient Année 1927, vol. 27, no. 27: 525.
Guillaume, Xavier. La terre du Dragon, Tome 1. Paris: Publibook, 2004.
Keay, John. “The Mekong Exploration Commission 1866–68: Anglo-French Rivalry in Southeast Asia.” Asian Affairs, vol. XXXVI, no. III, November 2005.
Nguyễn Đình Đầu. “Tìm lại cầu tàu nơi Bác Hồ rời cảng Sài Gòn.” Báo Lao Động 4, June 2011. [Formerly]
Nguyễn Đức Hiệp. “Võ An Ninh: Nhiếp ảnh và cuộc đời.” 2009.
Phạm Phú Thứ. Tây hành nhật ký. Tô Văn Nguyễn Đình Diệm và Văn Vĩnh. Tp HCM: Nxb Văn Nghệ, 2001.
Voyage d'exploration en indochine: par les lieutenants Francis Garnier et Delaporte.” Le Tour du Monde, vol. XXII (1870), second half of the year: 305–21.
Vương Hồng Sển. Saigon năm xưa. Nxb Tp Hồ Chí Minh, 1991.



Translator’s note: I am very grateful to Nguyễn Ðức Hiệp and Trans-Asia Photography Review for the opportunity to make this translation of “Nhiếp ảnh ở Việt Nam từ cuối thế kỷ 19 đến thế kỷ 20,” which appeared originally in five parts in Diễn Đàn ( in 2012 and also in Tap chi Nghien cuu va phat Trien ( in the same year.

According to the bibliographic information in the original, images are taken from the following sources unless otherwise noted: and

For our present purposes, I have reformatted the text into three parts: an introduction, a chronology of photographic studios, and a conclusion. Similarly, I have incorporated the original’s two reference systems (endnotes and bibliographic citations) into a single set of notes with a bibliography. I also have translated French passages and publication titles into English on first mention in the body of the article and used the French for subsequent mentions, and omitted Vietnamese diacriticals for place-names commonly used in English (e.g., Saigon and Danang). In addition, you will find a few explanatory notes that bear my initials: ET.


Phan Châu Trinh (1872–1926) is revered as an early proponent of Vietnamese nationalism whose proposals tended towards moderation, Nguyễn An Ninh (1900–1943) was an anticolonial journalist who died during related imprisonment, and “Nguyễn Ái Quốc” is one of the better-known pseudonyms of Hồ Chí Minh (1890–1969). – ET.


Marie-Hélène Degroise, Photographes en Outre-Mer (1840–1944),


This film by the Lumière brothers was shot by Gabriel Veyre in a village near Danang and shown in 1900 in many places in France and the rest of Europe in the early years of film history. It can be seen at [formerly]. Their second film in Vietnam was Indochine: Enfants annamites ramassant des sépèques devant la Pagode des dames (1903); you may view it at The third was Déchargement du Four à Briques. Commentary and detailed study of this film can be found in Barbara Creed and Jeanette Hoorn, “Memory and History: Early Film, Colonialism and the French Civilising Mission in Indochina,” in French History and Civilization, Papers from the George Rudé Seminar, vol. 4, eds. Briony Neilson and Robert Aldrich, 2011, [formerly].


Malcolm Daniel, “The Daguerreian Age in France: 1839–1855,” in the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–, (October 2004).


Malcolm Daniel, “Daguerre (1787–1851) and the Invention of Photography,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art,


The term “laborers” would seem to indicate the photographers. – ET


Phạm Phú Thứ, Tây hành nhật ký, Tô Văn Nguyễn Đình Diệm và Văn Vĩnh, Nxb Văn Nghệ, Tp HCM, 2001.


A Japanese-inspired lacquer style that originated in seventeenth-century Europe and spread to America. –ET


Malcolm Daniel, “The Rise of Paper Photography in 1850s France,” in the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–, (September 2008).


Romanet du Caillaud, “La Conquête du delta du Tong-Kin,” in Le Tour du Monde, vol. XXXIV – 1877 – 2nd semestre,


Marie-Hélène Degroise, Photographes en Outre-Mer (1840–1944),


V. A. Malte-Brun was the first person to refer to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos as “Indochina.”


After more than two thousand kilometers of exploration along the Mekong, Doudart de Lagrée died of exhaustion and liver disease in Yunnan. Carné also succumbed to exhaustion after the expedition. On the path to Côn Minh, the expedition team almost accidentally discovered the source of the Red River flowing into the Gulf of Tonkin. Rather than follow the Mekong down from Saigon Harbor (then under French rule) to Yunnan, they took the most convenient shortcut, from Haiphong to Yunnan along the Red River. In reality, this was an opportunity for France to attack the northern region of Vietnam. History would have it differently, as though this opportunity never existed. From Côn Minh, the team took a northern route to the province of Tứ Xuyên, over the source of the Dương Tử River. From here, they went downstream to the coast near Shanghai, then returned to Saigon along the coastal route. After this famous expedition, Garnier received an award from the Royal Geographic Society of England and his explorations were compared to the arduous experiences of Dr. Livingston in the Congo. See John Keay, “The Mekong Exploration Commission 1866–68: Anglo-French rivalry in South East Asia,” in Asian Affairs, vol. XXXVI, no. III, November 2005,


Marie-Hélène Degroise, Photographes en Outre-Mer (1840–1944),


The series title cited in the original article is “Main de lettré annamite,” literally, “Hand of a Vietnamese man of letters,” a subject commonly photographed as a curiosity for its long nails symbolizing the intellectual’s traditional exemption from manual labor. It seems likely that this title was designated one image in a series otherwise devoted to portraits of the men of letters themselves, and I have changed the wording to reflect this. – ET


Figs. 13 and 14: Marie-Hélène Degroise, Photographes en Outre-Mer (1840-1944),


Marie-Hélène Degroise, Photographes en Outre-Mer (1840-1944),


Marie-Hélène Degroise, Photographes en Outre-Mer (1840–1944),


Làng nhiếp ảnh Lai Xá,




Just after release from prison at Santé in 1915, Phan Châu Trinh also had a period of working as a photographic developer for Khánh Ký in France. Indeed, Phan Châu Trinh also brought Nguyễn Ái Quốc (one of the better-known pseudonyms of Hồ Chí Minh – ET) to Khánh Ký’s shop in order to learn a trade to support himself during his struggles in Paris.


The Phong Trào Đông Du was founded in the early 1900s by Vietnamese anticolonial scholar Phan Bội Châu to bring youths overseas to study developments of “modernity,” thereby to work for Vietnamese independence. – ET


Prince Cường Để was a descendant of Prince Cảnh, son of the founder of Vietnam’s Nguyễn Dynasty, which lasted from 1802 to 1954. He was brought to Japan as a young man by Phan Bội Châu, who suggested that he might become emperor as part of a plan to restore Vietnam as an independent monarchy (a destiny that he awaited in Japan until his death). – ET


Marie-Hélène Degroise, Photographes en Outre-Mer (1840–1944),


J. Y. Claeys, Martin Hurlimann, “Ceylan et l’Indochine: architecture, paysages, scènes populaires,” Bulletin de l’École francaise d’Extrême-Orient, 1930, vo\. 30, no. 30, 180–81.


Annuaire général Administratif, Commercial et Industriel de l'Indo-Chine. Hanoi: Imprimerie F.-H. Schneider, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911.


Marie-Hélène Degroise, Photographes en Outre-Mer (1840–1944),


Marie-Hélène Degroise, Photographes en Outre-Mer (1840–1944),


Annuaire général Administratif, Commercial et Industriel de l’Indo-Chine. Hanoi: Imprimerie F.-H. Schneider, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911.


According to Vương Hồng Sển, Pancrazi was one of four establishments near the intersection of Nguyễn Huệ and Lệ Lợi Streets, which he has described as follows: “At the four corners of Bugler’s Intersection were a place with European wines, open from 6 pm to 2 am, after which only Pancrazi was the most tolerable. The Café de la musique at the corner of Tự Do and Lệ Lợi was across from the European Music Hall (Nhà Hát Tây), which in 1905 passed to the owner of Pancrazi, then to the European pharmacy Solirène, and finally to the ice-cream seller Givral. See Vương Hồng Sển, Saigon năm xưa, Nxb Tp Hồ Chí Minh, 1991.


Marie-Hélène Degroise, Photographes en Outre-Mer (1840–1944),


Marie-Hélène Degroise, Photographes en Outre-Mer (1840–1944),


(original endnote 6) In Cholon at the time, Chinese (aside from the descendants of Minh Hương [Ming Loyalists who had come to Vietnam in the seventeenth century – ET]) were seen as foreigners and openly hosted active branches of the Guomindang. Triệu Quang Phục Street was one of several business centers in Cholon, where the Chinese were mostly from Guangdong. On the corner of Triệu Quang Phục and Nguyễn Trãi (then Cay-mai) Streets is the Temple of the Empress of Heaven, one of the oldest temples in Cholon and also a meeting place for Cantonese (the Tuệ Thành Hội quán).


Nguyễn Đức Hiệp, “Võ An Ninh: Nhiếpảnh và cuộc đời, 2009,”

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