Proust and Photography

Prince de Sagan, head shot
The Prince de Sagan

Proust, who was as obsessed with photographs as he was with train travel and the telephone system and the telephone switch-girls who connected people and acted like interceding angels, put his thoughts about photography into the mouth of his saturnine character Baron de Charlus:
He told us how a house that had belonged to his family, in which Marie Antoinette had slept, with a park laid out by Lenôtre, was now in the hands of the Israels, the wealthy financiers, who had bought it. … “I keep a photograph of the house, when it was still unspoiled, just as I keep one of the Princess before her large eyes had learned to gaze on anyone but my cousin. A photograph acquires something of the dignity which it ordinarily lacks when it ceases to be a reproduction of reality and shews us things that no longer exist.”

— Marcel Proust. «Within a Budding Grove». Part 2. Trans C.K. Scott Moncrieff. London: Chatto and Windus, 1961. Pages 86–87.

A sad and deeply moving thought. The same is true of poems, of course: all poems are essentially elegiac, as their occasion, topic or subject matter begins to grow old and die as soon as the poem is made. Look at this beautiful man: his body has been rotting in its grave for over a century. He never imagined this might happen. But it happens to us all.

The Prince de Sagan. Photograph by Nadar.


“No figure in Belle Epoque Paris surpassed the Prince de Sagan in elegance and personal style. Dressed by the best tailors and forever sporting a white rose in his buttonhole, Sagan provided the era with a sumptuous archetype as he joined his friends Robert de Fitz-James, General de Galliffet, Charles Haas, and the Comte de Turenne to attend a performance at the Comedie Française. In 1908 Sagan suffered a stroke, and it was as a bent, drooling old man pushed about in a wheelchair, mumbling and bowing to the wrong people, that Proust remembered him in the image of a dying Baron de Charlus.”*

*From: William Howard Adams. «A Proust Souvenir». With period photographs by Paul Nadar. London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Copyright © 1984 The Vendome Press, 515 Madison Avenue, N.Y, N.Y. 10022 USA, distributed by Rizzoli International Publications, 579 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017 USA.

Leave a Reply