Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform’d,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
‘Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
Anselmo sleeps, and is at Peace; last Night
The silent Tomb receiv’d the good Old King;
He and his Sorrows now are safely lodg’d
Within its cold, but hospitable Bosom.
Why am not I at Peace?
William Congreve, The Mourning Bride, 1697
In 1946, a young French war correspondent photographer …
seduced by his stopover in Tahiti, when he returned to France from Indochina, chose to settle in Punaauia. Adolphe Sylvain, a public works engineer by training, has just participated in the Libération de Paris as a tank driver in General Leclerc’s 2nd DB. He took the opportunity to fix some of the famous photos of the liberation with his Rolleiflex.
Arrived in Tahiti, he married a superb vahiné, named Jeanine Tehani, and became a correspondent for major international magazines while covering Polynesian news for Pathé-Journal.
He films and photographs the arrival of the famous Kon-Tiki by Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl, or the return of Alain Gerbault’s ashes to Bora Bora.
In 1948, Sylvain settled for a while on Huahine, an island preserved from the Society archipelago, to launch an open-air cinema – as Jacques Brel did in Hiva Oa. In 1949, he created the first Polynesian record company, Mareva, being himself a songwriter. The same year, at the request of the governor, he and Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie set up the bases of Radio Tahiti, the ancestor of the current RFO.
Between 1952 and 1968, he directed numerous documentary films, including Atoll à l’heure H, on French nuclear experiments in Polynesia. From 1968 to 1970, he wrote, produced and directed a series of thirteen episodes, Teva, which ORTF chose to promote colour television broadcasting in France.
Sylvain is above all a photographer — the most famous photographer of French Polynesia, his photos even serve as models for many local postage stamps and banknotes). He befriends Marlon Brando he met on the set of Mutiny on the Bounty (Sylvain works as set photographer).
In 1956, learning that General de Gaulle, announced in Tahiti, had warned that he would refuse to have the traditional necklace of Tiare flowers passed around his neck as a welcome, he asked his wife to welcome him: de Gaulle bowed… and the photo made the headlines of Paris-Match and then around the world!
In 1969, Sylvain decided to go into film and television. He goes to Paris, works on his project with a professional screenwriter, returns to Tahiti, and gives the first hand crank of “Teva”, a film that will become a series and whose main role is played by his ten-year-old son. More than any tourist documentary, this 6-hour TV series had in its time the merit of having given everyone the desire to see Tahiti. Everyone, that is the millions of French viewers who have seen it three times, and their European neighbours, Belgians and Swiss who have been entitled to “Teva” twice. This success, alas, cannot erase the drama:” — That morning, tells Sylvain, we were shooting a scene from the film about the port of Papeete, when my shop and the lab were destroyed by an accidental fire. Everything burned to the ground, there was nothing left.”
Nothing left indeed. Twenty years of archives, or 50,000 black and white and color shots, gone up in a few minutes! So to speak, Tahiti’s photo library has gone up in smoke.*