Freeze frame
February 8, 2008 7:53 PM   Subscribe

In 1855, Frenchman Joseph Fortuné Petiot-Groffier died. One of the first daguerrotypists, the pioneering photographer was apparently poisoned by his own chemistry. Some 152 years later, in the twilight of chemical photography, his lab, found intact, is viewed in a new light. Via.

This post needs pictures, naturellement. Photos of the lab itself begin on Page 3 of this link.
posted by sacre_bleu (16 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. This is a great find! I'm amazed that room sat completely untouched for so long - I kind of want to hear more about those who kept it.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 7:59 PM on February 8, 2008

This is really neat, but they both sort of imply that the family knew what was in the room and also had no idea for 152 years. I think the 'completely untouched for 15 decades' is unlikely to be true... nobody EVER wondered about the locked room on the second floor? That's just... bizarre.
posted by Malor at 8:01 PM on February 8, 2008

Incredible find, but I share Malor's misgiving's about the circumstances. There must have been some family taboo about the room, talk about a skeleton in the closet!
posted by tommasz at 8:07 PM on February 8, 2008

I don't think I could have survived a week not knowing what was behind a locked room in my house growing up. I used to *fantasize* about finding the blueprints of my house and seeing that there was unallocated space hiding a secret room. How could you go a whole lifetime!? Three lifetimes!!?
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 8:19 PM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Way cool.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:22 PM on February 8, 2008

It is as tho you invented your username for the sake of this post.
And I mean that as a compliment, honestly.
posted by mwhybark at 8:27 PM on February 8, 2008

I love this real-life time capsule stuff. great find!
posted by gnutron at 8:31 PM on February 8, 2008

But, unless I missed something, this is the supposed lost lab of an enormously famous photographer, and they found it (150 years later) in the house he was living in at the time?

Nobody though to check his house when looking for it? Or say to his relatives "Do you have any idea where his lab is?". Especially as this is the same house that was the known location of his other lab that had been extensively catalogued by historians to permanently archive the man's works. There have been people in that very house, for many, many hours, wondering where the other lab was. The one to go with the one they were standing in. In his house.

"Non, monsieur. Apart from the locked room of much mystery upstairs that no-one has opened for years, there is nothing in our lives to suggest any sort of hidden mystery that has been missing for years.... oh... wait".

It's a bloody good job they aren't policemen, isn't it?
posted by Brockles at 8:34 PM on February 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

Yeah I'd love to hear how they managed to keep the room preserved over that many decades and generations. I can barely keep my desk free of clutter for a week; I've no idea how they resisted the impulses over the years to reuse the space for storage or some other purpose.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:28 PM on February 8, 2008

I doubt in 1855 people came stomping to their door looking for the work of their crazy uncle bob who was locked away in his attic whenever he was home from india, inhaling all sorts of weird drugs up there. Who then died in some mysterious, somehow related to the crazy room, way. Lets really not think about it, I mean, we don't want anyone else to suffer like bob did.

To be honest, I don't think people considered the room to be of much merit, since at the time, he wasn't the only person practicing crazy photography. It is precisely that no one thought much of the room, or were afraid to open it, or just didn't want to bring any attention to their family estate and have it claimed by some historical society that this room is now become special, because it is the only remaining specimen of its kind.

Its like archeology. What most archeologists realize early on is that they aren't going to find the best pottery or most elaborate designed piece of work to signify some change in the technical prowess of a past people. They are going to find the cultural trash pile, where by sheer numbers and density of refuse and broken bits of pottery, the specimens are going to last for 5,000 years to be discovered by us. Historical objects are significant (in the cultural / research way) because we find them, we don't find them because they are significant.

There was nothing really special about the bog man or the ice man, they probably were not kings or lords or queens. They just happened to die in a way that made it easier to find their bodies preserved and intact.

The same goes for this hidden room. It wasn't important until it was discovered. Until it was discovered, it was just crazy uncle bob's room in the attic. It was the context that gave it meaning.

Also, it is really neat.
posted by mrzarquon at 9:30 PM on February 8, 2008

Yeah... great story but I have to say my bullshit detector is going off.
posted by crapmatic at 9:47 PM on February 8, 2008

What a great post, thanks heaps.
posted by mattoxic at 10:00 PM on February 8, 2008

Yeah... great story but I have to say my bullshit detector is going off.

I really wish it were true - I'd love to see someone experience my all-time biggest fantasy of finding a secret room in my house. But I smell a hoax.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:26 PM on February 8, 2008

Wow, I had no idea finding a secret room fantasies were so common. I've had them for as long as I can remember, but I think they might have started with, or at least been greatly stimulated by, living with my parents in the century-old hotel where they both worked, when I was around 4 or 5. I can still remember fragments of the place, and while it didn't have hidden rooms as such, it had an old attic full of weird bric-a-brac, like a full suit of armor (certainly a reproduction, but I was convinced it was genuine at the time, and it scared me). It had also been built and remodeled in several phases, so that there were rooms where closets also had doors from two different rooms, and so on, which seemed almost like secret passages to me.

Regarding this story, it is hard to believe, but I really want to believe it, it's so awesome.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:59 AM on February 9, 2008

I'm kind of surprised everything isn't thickly layered in dust and that the books aren't rat-eaten. I've seen rooms in worse condition after being left alone for only a decade.

The guy must have been pretty well off to afford all those bottles, chemicals, books and lab equipment in the mid-19th century. So maybe this was one of those estate mansions big enough that the family sealed off the rooms they couldn't be bothered with any more.
posted by ardgedee at 4:33 AM on February 9, 2008

Some thoughts. I don't think it's a hoax, here is a video of the photographic exhibit in Paris regarding this lost-in-time room.

Interesting the glory of the find goes to Pierre-Yves Mahé, who runs the museum of "the first photograph ever taken" by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a mansion of a place that happens to be right near the very same town as Petiot-Groffier's lost room.

I wonder if Petiot-Groffier and Niépce knew each other?

According to the article on the site:

In 1840, Joseph Fortuné Petiot-Groffier opens his lab, which he uses until 1855 – the time of his sudden death under mysterious circumstances, most probably caused by the photo chemicals he used. As a safety measure, his heirs close down the lab.
Through the coming generations, the family inhabits all of their buildings near Chalon, with the exception of that very room, which – although shut – is not completely forgotten either. For the family is well aware that they have been sheltering a photographic treasure, carefully hidden away behind a protective wooden door on the second floor of their dwelling.
Two years ago, the family heritage changes hands for the last time: its new owner discovers the treasure. It takes him two years to find out to whom he would like to entrust the lab, with the aim of preserving it entirely and as a whole.

In the beginning of 2007, he thus contacts Pierre-Yves Mahé, the initiator of the Niépce House in Saint-Loup de Varennes.

Maybe the family didn't realize the chemicals he used caused his death and maybe murder was suspected? Perhaps it became a sort of room that has some sort of pall of family fear about it? Why else would the family know they were sitting on an historical treasure and not offer it up? The family sounds rich enough to own enough buildings that one room could be kept locked up for 152 years.

There were, in fact, 2 separate discoveries. One was the dry lab by Pierre-Yves Mahé, who wondered where the other component to the development was, the wet lab... During a trip to the US, Pierre-Yves Mahé presented his discovery to the researchers at George Eastman House, who – fascinated by the finding – are equally intrigued by the question as to the whereabouts of the wet lab. Back to France, Pierre-Yves Mahé thus decided to look for the missing part. With Petiot-Groffier’s heir, he searches the house, room by room, from basement to the top.
In a simple storage room, the famous missing part is to be found – eventually. On the first floor, behind two large swing-doors leading to a room plunged in darkness. This room had been used for decades to store away things. In one corner, at its end, one discovers a sink; next to it, there seems to be a window, hidden away, carefully sealed off, preventing any light to enter.

Another blog's images and a little backstory; examples of those first photographs.

Map of the part of France where these finds were made: Chalon-sur-Saône, France
posted by nickyskye at 9:32 AM on February 9, 2008

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