Taking a glimpse of the poor man’s Belle Epoque…
At the turn of the twentieth century in Minot, a French hamlet set in the bleak, wooded highlands of Burgundy, a carpenter named Hippolyte Amiot put aside his hammer and his plane, took up a camera, and began to scan his world with a true hobbyist’s passion. Amiot kind of laid dormant for seventy years until some anonymous photographs credited to him were rediscovered and assembled for study, which rekindled interest in his work, this time by academia, College de France social anthropology “laboratoire” under the sponsorship of the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique,putting France’s legendary massive bureaucracy to the service of something worthwhile. From these old plates emerged a singular view of a forgotten side of La Belle Epoque.
Amiot’s world had none of the Parisian gloss and glitter that Proust made synonymous with the age, but it had its own beauty. The five hundred or so citizens of Minot lived close to nature and divided themselves into classes- based not on money, wardrobes, or wit but on the amount of farmland they owned. A few vegetables, a sack of potatoes, or half a pig served as currency; the townspeople used coins only to buy shoes or to give as an offering at mass.
Life’s major events were celebrated at church. Amiot, wrapped in a black cape, lugged his cumbersome camera to Sunday mass and weddings and focused it on his self-conscious neighbors, stiff in their formal clothes. But the average day was filled with chores, and Amiot captured his friends at work too— the handyman shuffling to a job, or the cobbler, proud in an era when craftsmen would scrap an imperfect product and begin again.
The old days of swapping between neighbors- not spouses apparently- and mutual aid faded into the every person for himself era. No more horses and sheep, machines to the farming and part of the town was zoned as a garbage dump. But the photographs of Amiot’s village do recall the dignity, the cohesion, and the quiet pleasures that were a part of small-town life in a simpler time.