The Hanoitimes - Thang Long-Hanoi will turn 1,000 this October. This land has undergone so many changes since King Ly Thai To decided to relocate the capital from Hoa Lu (Ninh Binh) to Dai La citadel in Autumn 1010. In an attempt to discover valuable documents relating to the millennial capital, we visited the family of Pierre Dieulefils, one of the most famous French photographers in France in March.
The preparations for the millennium anniversary of Thang Long-Hanoi have led to a number of surprising discoveries of ancient objects relating to the founding and development of this sacred capital.
With the support of some sources, particularly French collector Philippe Chaplain, we at the end of the day could be able to meet Lionel Labastire, 62, a great grandson of photographer Pierre Dieulefils, now living in Manosque, a southern city in France.
We were warmly welcomed by the host as he said that his treasure would help recall part of Vietnam’s history a long time ago. The story of the descendant led us to the life and career of Pierre Dieulefils who was a well-known foreign photographer in Indochina for both quality and quantity of his snapshots. He was also called an adventure photographer concerning his passion for capturing the beautiful land and people despite difficulties and dangers during his innumerable photo-taking journeys. At that time, it took about 40 days to travel from France to Indochina while the cameras were extremely heavy, bulky and fragile. The results of his nearly 30 years in Vietnam were measured by about 5,000 photos and postcards.
Known as the inheritor, however Lionel had to devote much time and money to own such a remarkable collection. “The only things I inherited from Pierre Dieulefils are some 200 original glass film plates. Apart from me, as far as I know, nobody else owns these glass film plates from P Dieulefils with the exception of the Reunion des Museés Nationaux (French Union of National Museums). They own about the same number of glass film plates which they received as a gift directly from Pierre Dieulefils in 1930 or so.”
Some ten years also, people believed glass film plates had some value and now they appear to be of certain historical value also. “I am sure that you could not find any pictures like those in Vietnam,” he said.
He showed us several different albums of photos and postcards taken and created by Pierre Dieulefils. His careful moves suggested that the collection was truly unique which many may wish to own. Later in a letter, he revealed: “You have not seen the glass film plates during your visit as they have to be kept in a safe place and covered with a very special paper.”
The original prints (albumen or citrate prints) have been purchased by himself from various sources such as antique dealers, flee market dealers and other sources. He now owns some 60 original prints and they very rarely appear on the market or are being rated at high prices.
His collection is now available at http://www.pierre-dieulefils.com, a website which Lionel has created to introduce the legacy from his predecessor. “It was mainly a pure intellectual motivation. Moreover, I like to think that if my great grandfather was living today, as he was during his time, he would have loved the facilities offered by the website.”
Lionel has never been to Vietnam, nevertheless he appeared to know the country through the old images. His collection now includes nearly 3000 items including original prints, postcards and glass plates. It was some ten years ago, he realised that Vietnam could be very meaningful to his great grandfather to spend nearly half of his life there. Now, he can tell the date and locations of any photo or postcard as they are so familiar to him.
It is estimated that the copies are available at 20-35 euros while the origins range from 800 to 1000 euros. Actually, it is not Lionel’s main purpose to earn from these historical items. He wants to preserve the collection as a normal practice to prove his great grandfather’s love for Vietnam. He affirmed it, saying “Everyone has different interest and personally I am fascinated by your country.”
Then he opened his heart to us that “Frankly I do not know what will be in the future. I have done all that to try to recreate what was like at that time in the Vietnam. The fact that I was collecting pictures, postcards, frames, glass film plates and other items. At the end of the day, money is a problem but you know money comes and goes and I hope that some one in my family will continue my work to preserve this valuable asset left by our dear Pierre.”
It is now easy to find Pierre Dieulefils’ works in the internet but few people have an opportunity to view the origins. Lionel reveals his wish that his collection will be exhibited in Vietnam in the coming time, particularly during the millennium anniversary of Thang Long-Hanoi this October. In fact, it seems to be not easy for Lionel, an individual collector to realise it without the support from other organisations and people.
Time goes by but the value of historical items remain. To this end, Lionel notes: “I don’t have the noise nor the flavours of these pictures. Anyway, I want to say for sure that these works not only belong to my family but also to part of Vietnam’s history as they were the evidences of the past. This is our past and yours as well. I think one day all these works will return to Vietnam sooner or later.”