Head down, knuckles white, body pressed against the rumbling fuel tank, a motorcyclist known only as Robert sears across the glass plate—from top left to bottom right—cutting the photograph clean in half. Bystanders lean inwards on either side, drawn by curiosity and tilted by the parallax of the lens. Behind the rider, a rising plume of dust, testament to the 500 cubic centimetres of power in the belly of his Motosacoche SA Dufaux & Cie bike, and in front of him, only the fresh air of an unknown future.
It was Geneva, Switzerland, 1915, and Bob the biker was riding to glory, but neither he nor the photographer—Jules Decrauzat—would be remembered by history. After the shutter closed, he would shoot past the camera, and the pair would be lost in dust and time—until earlier this year, when a box of glass plates was pulled from a shelf at the Swiss picture agency Keystone.
In it were 1250 of Decrauzat’s glass plate negatives dating from 1910 to 1925, a period which marks a spike in the popularity and publication of the photographic image. But it also pre-dated celluloid film and the technology that made portable 35-millimetre cameras possible. Images were in high demand, but photographers still confronted huge technical challenges with every exposure.
Consider the photograph in question, for instance. Today, with focus servo technology and burst-mode shutter release built into the body of just about every SLR, this picture would have been a relatively modest achievement. But consider the technology available to the photographer in 1915. Decrauzat stood on the side of a dusty road with a large-format camera and a cable release in his hand.
He had just one frame, and a depth-of-field of about a foot, in which to capture the rider in the 1/250th of a second (or thereabouts) he took to cross the focal plane.
Despite the technical difficulties of the frame, Decrauzat had lowered his tripod to the eye-line of the rider in preparation, and aimed the lens at a point of focus on the gravel road such that the rider would diagonally bisect the image. It might have been one of the finest motorsport images of the decade… but when the dust cleared, Decrauzat’s name remained obscure.
Jules Decrauzat followed a career trajectory similar to many a jobbing photojournalist. At the age of 18 he moved with his family to Paris, where he trained in photography, then worked for a newspaper in Rennes in Brittany, then to the Boer War, then home to Switzerland. For 15 years from 1910, Decrauzat captured much of his best work, focusing largely on sports. His pictures from the period are not only technically remarkable, but exude the values demanded of modern sports imagery—dynamism, athleticism, and for motorsport in particular, the flabbergasting spectacle of technology in all its speed, power and austere beauty.
If photojournalism is a mirror for society, then Decauzat’s era was one of wonder, where humanity’s progress knew no bounds. Though most of his later work remains lost or forgotten, he was prolific, recording some 100,000 plates until his death in 1960. Within his rediscovered early work are some of the finest sports pictures of the period—a glider pilot hangs, perilously stalled, between heaven and Earth; a car slides around a corner, whipping dust into clouds back-lit by the sun; a tennis player is seized by the shutter at the top of his leap, the racquet stretching clear out of frame. While frozen motion such as this might seem less than remarkable, in its day it would have been a dramatic bending of physics; stopping time and motion with the press of a button.