Paul-Émile Miot was a naval officer and photographer who documented the French migratory cod fishery in Newfoundland between 1857 and 1860. He made this photograph in 1857, having convinced his shipmates to paint the word Album on a large rock in Sacred Bay. The print is slightly damaged, and it’s difficult to spot some of the sailors. One is silhouetted prominently at the top of the outcrop. Below, a second man stands above a short ladder, his white shirt easily mistaken for a punctuation mark as he embellishes the letter M. A third lurks beneath the L, barely visible but for his collar and a staff he is holding.
Apparently, Miot intended to use the image as the title page of an album of Newfoundland photos. The paint could not have lasted long, but because of this image the landmark is still known as Album Rock, and there is a small exhibit about Miot in the nearby community of Ship Cove. Miot’s photographs are some of the earliest made in Newfoundland & Labrador, and many (including Rocher peint par les marins français) can be found in the National Archives of Canada. The National Gallery is currently exhibiting Paul-Émile Miot: Early Photographs of Newfoundland.
I am charmed by Album Rock’s implausible dignity. Atop a wind-blasted rock in the far north of the island, a man poses, aloof, as if in deep thought. There is a kind of yearning in the stylized detail of the lettering, every serif carefully in place despite being bedraggled by the rocky surface. The albumen print is scuffed and scratched, seemingly as timeworn as the rock it depicts. Looking at Ship Cove on a map, the notched peninsula itself is like a serif on the glyph of Newfoundland.
I feel certain a kinship with a man who, in the age of wet-plate photography, would expend precious plates and chemicals on a whimsical experiment. “In spite of the difficulties encountered on board in setting up a small, suitably-equipped photographic laboratory,” wrote Miot’s collaborator Georges-Charles Cloué, “Mr. Miot has succeeded in producing photographs of harbour entrances which offer the highest promise of what this highly-skilled officer could produce with an instrument that has a powerful lens and if he were not frequently halted by an inadequate supply of chemicals.” One hundred and fifty-six years later, looking at Album Rock, it is difficult to imagine Miot describing to his men the necessity of painting the massive word. Scrounging up buckets of leftover paint, perhaps improvising mops into paintbrushes. Historical photography so often preserves scenes of industry or formality, much less often such moments of idle whimsy. There is something incredulous about the entire scene. It’s as if Miot managed, somehow, to photograph a daydream.