24.06.2019 One hundred and sixty years ago, a young Swiss adventurer creates the first photographs of Japan to be sent to the World

22 June 1859. On board the Imperial Fleet ship …

“In the light of a candle, exhausted by the journey and the incessant movements of a rough sea, I sketch out in the freshness of the moment, my first impressions of Japan as seen in the night. Although we did not really have access to the port of Nagasaki, the doors of the Deshima counter welcomed us warmly and quickly opened up to a multitude of new and interesting characters, Japanese and foreign residents, scientists and traders, dignitaries and coolies. We sleep in comfortable wooden huts, and due to the relative promiscuity of the place, contacts are easy and fast. The geography of the area already tells us about the immense distance we will have to travel to reach the heart of the country, which we do not yet see…”

Those lines are translated from a recently imagined letter of Pierre Rossier, a young Swiss man who was really sent to China, Japan and the Philippines by the ambitious photographic firm of the Chrystal Palace to provide the first images of the Far East to the western Public in 1858. The name of Pierre Rossier had disappeared for 150 years from public attention.

All the informations gathered in this article come from the patient investigation of a passionate dealer and private scholar, Terry Bennett, who investigated for over 20 years. He received help from the community of collectors and curators after he published his first article in the December 2004 issue of The PhotoHistorian- Journal of the Historical Group of the Royal Photographic Society. His books on the history of photography in Japan (2006), China (2009) and Korea (1998) have become classics. The provenance of the six stereoscopic albumen prints offered here is the Gimon collection.

An opportunity to evoke the richness and fragility of the history of photography when the patient and curious study of mysterious clues is threatened by the ogre appetites of the expensive and sterile din of big data.


Pierre Rossier. Reception of the British Legation, Yedo, July 1859

(Original quotes and captions will be found in the main article)

It is probably thanks to Henry Purcell Ward, an officer on board, that Rossier received permission to join this very official trip from Minister Rutherford Alcock, accompanied by consuls and officers, all of whom are coming from Shanghai to attend a historic meeting with the Emperor of Japan.

The boat will stop in Kanagawa and Yokohama after having covered nearly 712 nautical miles, and this before continuing to Yedo.

Pierre Rossier, British Legation, Joryuji Temple, Kanagawa, July 1859

Sir Rutherford Alcock, first Consul,  would not marry Lucy, widow of Rev.  Lowder, British chaplain at Shanghai until July 1862, and the first vice-consul, Francis “Punch” Howard Vyse (1828-1891) never get married. Original quotes and captions will be found in the main article:


1829 – Grandsivaz

Pierre Joseph Rossier was born on the 16th July 1829 in Grandsivaz, a small village in the Canton of Fribourg, Switzerland, into a Catholic French-speaking farming family of modest means, the 4th eldest of 10 children.

Autumn 1845 – Fribourg, Switzerland

Unlike his brothers and sisters, Pierre was not destined to follow a farming career. He must have shown early intelligence because, at the age of 16, he was given a teaching post at a school in the nearby village of Mannens (Commune of Montagny including Mannens and Grandsivaz, 16 kms north-west of Fribourg).

October 1855, Bulle

On the 19th October 1855, Rossier was issued with a passport for three years. The passport noted his occupation as a photographer, living in Bulle, and that he intended to practice his profession in France and England. Rossier was aged 26 and described as 5 feet 3 inches tall (1.6 metres) with brown hair and grey eyes. Rossier was away for seven years and would return only in late 1862.

November 1855 – Paris

Rossier visited The Exposition Universelle, held on the Champs-Elysees in Paris from 15 May to 15 November 1855.

November 1855 – London

Rossier left France for England on a boat, his first boat trip, aboard l’Alliance, leaving Le Havre for Southanpon. : “My first boat trip, when I was amazed by the splendour of the Paris Universal Exhibition, which I had just left, I went from Le Havre to Southampton on board /’Alliance, a very beautiful steamer with two chimneys, which I kept a vivid memory and an engraving. A ship just out of the hold that was already giving me wings and the desire to go to Asia to discover what I had seen at the Exhibition. Today it’s a new race against time, and the headwinds are making life difficult for us. The stories of English explorers read in London after my first meeting with Negretti come back to me. How excessive, rude and romantic they seemed to me at the time! » (mon premier voyage en bateau, quand tout émerveillé par les fastes de l’Exposition Universelle de Paris, que je venais de quitter, j’allais du Havre à Southampton à bord de /’Alliance, un très beau vapeur à deux cheminées dont j’ai gardé un vif souvenir et une gravure. Un navire à peine sorti de cale qui me donnait déjà des ailes et l’envie d’aller découvrir en Asie ce que j’avais entrevu à l’Exposition. Aujourd’hui c’est une nouvelle course contre la montre, et les vents contraires nous mènent la vie dure. Les récits des explorateurs anglais lus à Londres après ma première rencontre avec Negretti, me reviennent en mémoire. Combien ils me paraissaient alors excessifs, grossiers et romanesques! ). He has a first meeting with Henry Negretti, who gave him the job and a list of books by English travellers and sailors to read.

Negretti and Zambra was a successful London firm created in 1850 by Henry Negretti (1818-1879) and Joseph Warren Zambra (1822-1879, both born in Italy) specialising in the manufacture and sale of photographic equipment and scientific instruments. The firm, which also operated photo studios, received a considerable boost when it was appointed as official photographer to the Crystal Palace Company in Sydenham, London which opened in 1854. Partly because of this, Negretti and Zambra became one of the most successful photographic businesses in the country. They would first collaborate with the best photographers of the time, such as Claude-Marie Ferrier (1811-1889) from Lyon, with whom Negretti undertook a trip to Italy, from where they brought back 270 stereoscopic views in 1854. Francis Frith (1822-1898) was also their partner and brought back hundreds of photographs of his travels between 1855 and 1860 to Egypt, Palestine and Syria. Then the techological competition with French company Ferrier et Soulier was a fruitful addition to the progress of photography. We can imagine Pierre Rossier’s intensive training with collodion during two years before being sent out to adventure in the Far East.

July 1858 – Hong-Kong

The ships’ passenger lists shown on the 8th July 1858 issue of the China Mail records that Rossier left Bombay for Hong Kong on 16th June. He arrived on the Pottinger on 7th July according to the North China Herald issue of the 17th July. We get our first ‘official sighting’ of Rossier when the English author, Albert Smith, meets him in Hong Kong on the 25th August 1858: “Paid a visit to Messrs. Negretti and Zambra’s photographer, M. Rossier, who lived at the Commercial Hotel, belonging, I believe, to Messrs. Lane and Crawford. He complained much of the effect of the climate on his chemicals.” Albert Smith will give Rossier worthless and useful advice for the photographer’s adventures to come. He would later became quite famous with the publishing of To China and Back, in London in 1874.

December 1858 – Hong-Kong

Rossier made some advertising for his photographic activity: « Photographic Likeness P. ROSSIER Assistant and Representative of MESSRS. NEGRETTI & ZAMBRA Photographers to the Crystal Palace Company, begs to announce to the Ladies and Gentlemen of Hongkong, that he has taken private apartments at the Commercial Hotel – Hours to be seen from 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock. Hongkong, 21st December, 1858. » (Hong Kong Register).

January-March  1859 – Canton

Even in early 1859, the trip from Hong Kong to Canton (today Guangzhou) was a daily boat trip through the Pearl River Delta. The first stereoviews from China, views of canton, that Rossier sent back to London were published by Negretti and Zambra in April 1859 in a set of 25.

Pierre Rossier being in the Far East, the pictures are printed and interpreted by his colleagues from the firm Negretti and Zambra, and signed NZ in ink on the albumen print. The name of Pierre Rossier would vanish for one and half century.

May 1859 – Shanghai

Rossier went from Hong Kong to Shanghai on the Formosa, 23 till 27 May 1859. Leaving quickly for Philippines. He would also send a second larger group of negatives to London.  A set of 50 stereoviews was published on 19th November 1859. Taken almost exclusively in and around Canton (Guangzhou) they were favourably reviewed by the photographic periodicals of the time. «The time seems rapidly approaching… [to] be able to see the most distant corners of the world in miniature in the stereoscope…and the pictures we have received of Chinese people, costumes, and buildings, will, before long, be followed by others of Japan….The photographer, a portion of whose work we have before us, left Canton, according to his instructions, and proceeded to the Philippine Islands» (Photographic News, 4 November 1859).

June 1859 – Philippines

Rossier’s expedition to the Philippines is also reported in the Illustrated London News“….Some time since Messrs. Negretti and Zambra, with an amount of enterprise for which they deserve the thanks of the public, dispatched a representative of their firm [Pierre Rossier] to China and Japan….Having accomplished a considerable part of this interesting and difficult mission, he was directed to make his way to the Philippine Islands, and visit the Taal Volcano leaving a lively account [with interesting scientific observations]:

— According to your instructions I started from Canton and proceeded to the Philippines. Arrived at Manilla, I went on to the village of Taal, from thence on to the crater. I left the village at midnight and got to the spot at eight in the morning, travelling by canoe. Arrived at the edge of the crater, I pitched my tent; but such was the heat of the place, and so dense the steam that arose from the fissures, that I was glad to move further off to avoid being suffocated. Having found a more convenient spot I tried my first plate; nothing! Second, ditto; third, fourth – all black, all over-done: suffice it to say, that though I had been giving from thirty to forty seconds, with the same light and chemicals, the day before, I obtained the negatives I send you with four seconds’ exposure –a curious circumstance deserving investigation.

I was surrounded by sulphurous vapour, more especially when the wind (which was continually shifting) was blowing towards me: such was the density of vapour, that on one occasion indeed my two guides bundled into my tent, to the great danger of my bath and chemicals. I send you the three negatives I was enabled to take, and would have gladly sent you duplicates, but after about a couple of hours’ work my bath got covered with a black pellicle which adhered to the collodian, causing the plates to stain all over, so that I was obliged to give up. On the north-east of the small crater you will see a small lake: its waters are covered in a white vapour like steam; its borders strewed with a greenish white sulphurous substance, caked like ice on the edge of a pond. The effect all along the edge of the lake is very curious. I attempted to descend from the great crater to the inner one, in order to follow your instructions as to the temperature and density of the water; but I felt so weak from excessive perspiration that I was obliged to desist: it has to be done by a rope. I however sent down one of my guides who brought up a gourd full of water, the temperature of which, was, when I received it, 110 degrees Fahrenheit [43° Celsius]. I will send it to you if I have no accident, as it might be interesting to some of your scientific friends. I left the crater about twelve o’clock, and returned to Taal by half-past five, having wind and current in my favour. I have already told you of the many difficulties I had, especially in Canton; but this volcano photographing beats all. I sincerely hope your friends will not suggest any more such interesting objects for your photographer to take. As to Japan, I have no doubt I shall get on very well but if I hear that a volcano exists there I shall be tempted to turn back, as I think one volcano in my life will be sufficient.”

June 1859 – Hong-Kong

By mid-June Rossier was back in Hong Kong aboard the Chusan, according to the passenger lists in the 22nd June issue of the Overland China Mail. After a night or two at the Commercial Hotel where he had received letters and could prepare his photographic material, and a quick visit to Albert Smith, he set out for Nagasaki, or rather the small islet outside of Nagasaki, Deshima.

19 June 1859 – Dejima

Rossier arrived in Japan on 19 June 1859. Dejima, also called Deshima was the very small islet (120 m × 75 m) where foreigners could land, near Nagasaki. Dejima was built in 1634 to house Portuguese traders and separate them from Japanese society by digging a canal through a small peninsula. When the Tokugawa government decided to expel the Portuguese in 1639, and from 1641 on, only Chinese and Dutch ships were allowed to come to Japan, and Nagasaki harbor was the only harbor they were allowed to enter. The Japanese confiscated religious books and weapons. The Dutch were not allowed to hold any religious services on the island. But the Dutch employees sold more than 10,000 foreign books on various scientific subjects to the Japanese from the end of the 18th to the early 19th century. These became the basis of knowledge and a factor in the Rangaku movement, or Dutch studies. The first lessons in photography were given to Japanese in 1856 by the physician of the island, dr. J. K. van den Broek. The Dutch East India Company’s trading post at Dejima was abolished when Japan concluded the Treaty of Kanagawa with the USA in 1858. This ended Dejima’s role as Japan’s only window on the Western world during the era of national isolation. Since then, the island was expanded by reclaimed land and merged into Nagasaki.

French contemporary swiss writer David Colin invented some fictional letters (see English translation at the beginning) :

« A la lumière d’une bougie, épuisé par le voyage et les mouvements incessants d’une mer agitée, j’esquisse dans la fraîcheur de l’instant, mes premières impressions du Japon entrevu dans la nuit. Si nous n ‘avons pas vraiment eu accès au port de Nagasaki, les portes du comptoir de Deshima nous accueillirent néanmoins chaleureusement et se sont rapidement ouvertes sur une multitude de nouveautés, de personnages plus intéressants les uns que les autres, de résidents japonais ou étrangers, savants ou commerçants, dignitaires ou coolies. Nous dormons dans des baraquements en bois confortables, et de par la relative promiscuité des lieux, les contacts sont faciles et rapides. La géographie des lieux nous renseigne déjà sur la distance immense qu’il nous faudra parcourir pour aborder le cœur du pays, ce que nous ne voyons pas encore… »

24 June 1859 – Yedo (Tokyo)

On 20th June 1859, the HMS Sampson left Nagasaki for Yedo, with Rossier and the Consuls. The HMS Sampson journal stated that Rossier was already in Nagasaki when the ship arrived there from Shanghai with the Consuls on board. Rossier precised the officer Henry Purcell Ward allowed him to join the historical ambassy. He mentioned also Abel Gower, young amateur photographer, just met at the customs house and who presented him to Ward.

July 1859 – Edo (Tokyo)

Bennet discovered a private journal written by one of the officers of the British ship, HMS Sampson – the ship charged with the task of escorting the British Minister, Rutherford Alcock, together with the other Consuls, to Japan. There they would take up their positions ahead of the official opening of the country on 1st July 1859. The journal entry for the 8th July 1859 reads: “I was included in a photographic view taken by Mr. Rossier, a gentleman we brought from Nagasaki, employed by the Crystal Palace Company.”

At that time, Negretti and Zambra were almost synonymous with the Crystal Palace. From the journal, it is clear that the photograph was taken in Yedo (Tokyo) on the same day that a party of British naval officers inspected Alcock’s Legation and residence-to-be, Tozenji Temple.

As the ship also visited Kanagawa and Yokohama, Rossier would have had ample opportunities to photograph in those places. Commodore Matthew Perry landed in Kanagawa in 1853 and 1854 and signed the Convention of Kanagawa to force open Japanese ports to the United States. Yokohama, the largest deep-water port in Tokyo Bay, was opened to foreign traders in 1859 after several more years of foreign pressure, and eventually developed into the largest trading port in Japan.

March 1860 – China

The North China Herald issue of 10th March 1860 lists Rossier among the passengers arriving at Shanghai from Nagasaki. He left Kanagawa for Nagasaki on 27 February, transiting in Nagasaki on 2 March, leaving on the Azf on 3 March arriving in Shanghai on 6 March. He then travels to Hong Kong, arriving on 27th March (China Mail 29th March 1860, passenger lists). On the 5th April, he is in Canton photographing the departure of the Commanding Officer of British Troops in China, General Sir Charles Straubenzee.

LONDON : The London & China Telegraph announced in its issue of 13th January 1860 (p.88): “Among the cargo brought by the Delta steamer, which arrived from Alexandria, was a large package containing photographic negatives, taken in Japan by an artist despatched specially for the purpose by Messrs. Negretti and Zambra, of London.”

On the 23rd May 1860 The Times (p.5) published the following advertisement: “JAPANESE LADIES IN FULL DRESS -A stereograph of the above interesting subject, taken by Messrs. NEGRETTI AND ZAMBRA’S artist, now in Japan, forwarded on receipt of 24 stamps – 1, Hatton Garden, and 59, Cornhill.”

Five days later The Times repeated the advertisement but with the insertion of the words ‘(full coloured)’ after stereograph Bennett precises this would have been the first hand-coloured photograph of Japan.

April 1860 – Canton

The journal of Lieutenant Charles William Carrington makes Rossier’s presence in Canton clear: “5th April 1860. Overcast and cold, but fine. At 11 o’clock, the Major General [This would be General Sir Charles Straubenzee] accompanied by his staff and Major Pownall 3rd Buffs [3rd East Kent Regiment of Foot], appointed Commissioner in place of Major Fisher, Royal Engineers, and attended by a guard and the band of the Buffs, proceeded to pay a farewell visit to the Tartar General. After exchanging the usual amount of courteous speeches, and partaking of tea and [illegible], a photograph of the party was taken by a photographer, at present staying in Canton, and who attended for the purpose. [A stereo photograph of the scene appears in the Negretti and Zambra China series.] The Major General then called upon Laoh the Governor General, more civil speeches and expressions of respect, and another photograph was taken, Laoh having proffered much anxiety to see the process used to have a likeness of himself.” Journal Quartermaster General of the Royal Marine Special Service Brigade in China 1859- 1860 (Royal Marines Museum).

June 1860 – Shanghai

Pierre Rossier was in Shanghai on 27th June 1860, staying at the exclusive Astor House Hotel. (North China Herald, 30 June, 1860 p.102). Rossier arrived from Hong Kong on the ship Pekin. Bennett suggets that he may have gone to Shanghai for photographic chemicals, and to try to convince the British and/or French military authorities to allow him to accompany them. History tells us the British already had Felice Beato and John Papillon, and the French had Charles Du Pin and Antoine Fauchery.

October 1860 – Nagasaki

Rossier was not in Peking during the sacking of the Summer Palace on the 18th and 19th of October as he was in Nagasaki taking photographs of the harbour on behalf of the British Consul, George Morrison. In a letter of the 13th October 1860 to Minister Alcock in Yedo, enclosing the photos, Morrison reports that he has “…taken advantage of the presence of a professional photographer …here for the moment, Mr. Rossier, an employe (sic) of the firm of Negretti & Zambra of London…the cost …namely seventy Dollars…but considering that M. Rossier’s time is specifically devoted to other purposes, and that he was occupied with them for several days…as he is not a tradesman here for the sale of photographs, was not in a position to bargain…and have seen very fair photographs taken, unassisted, by a pupil of M.Rossier….”

Meanwhile, in London, an announcement in The Times, 3 rd October 1860 (p.11): “Photographs From Japan – A case of rare and curious photographs of the scenery of this interesting country, and illustrative of the manners and customs of the Japanese tribes, which have been executed by a special artist sent out for the purpose by the enterprising firm of Negretti and Zambra of London, are expected by the Peninsular and Oriental Company’s steamship Ceylon, which will probably arrive at Southampton on Wednesday.”

October 1860 – Shanghai

Rossier left Hong Kong on 15 October 1860 on the Aden, arrived in Shanghai on 20 October. Not much information on the following months. Also in London, not much active promotion until a letter sent by Henry Negretti to the British Journal of Photography and published in the 15th May 1861 edition: “….With reference to M. Lacan’s statement that M. Ferrier has used his process in hot and cold climates without any inconvenience, has M. Ferrier ever been further than a few hours’ journey from any large town or city where he could obtain any chemicals required for the albumen process, or even obtain a fresh stock of prepared plates from home if needs be? His having taken views in Italy or Switzerland is no test that he would not be at times inconvenienced in distant countries, such as China, Japan, or Siam, where one of our photographers is at present, and at times where not even a drop of rain water is to be had; where on occasions, through the failure of a steamer, spoiling of chemicals, or some such casualty, the photographer has had to set to work with only his camera, lens, and glasses in his possession…” Rossier’s first Japan series consisted of 25 views. His second consisted of 40 views which were also published on glass. In November 1861, most or all of his first series was announced, and this appears to be the earliest date that Negretti & Zambra made a serious effort to market this first set.

August-September 1861 – Siam (Thailand)

The Overland China Mail issue of 15th October 1861 refers to Rossier leaving that country for Hong Kong on 22nd September. The North China Herald of the 26th October records P. Rosier as having arrived in Hong Kong on 1 October 1861 from Bangkok on the HMS Viscount Canning. He is in Shanghai on 20th October. Certainly to organize his successful second photographic expedition to Siam, with the organization of a famous royal workshop, with Mongkut, also known as King Rama IV (1804-1867).

December 1861 – Siam (Thailand)

At some point between December 10th 1861 and 30th July 1862 Rossier assisted the French zoologist, Firmin Bocourt, by taking ethnographical portraits of Siamese subjects which were required for a French museum: “[M. Bocourt] profite de la présence à Bangkok d’un artiste habile (M. Rossier) pour obtenir une nombreuse série de photographies…” [Mr. Bocourt took advantage of the fact that a good artist (M. Rossier) was staying in Bangkok and asked him to make numerous photographs.] (Académie des sciences, Seance du 10 août 1863). The British Journal Of Photography, 1st October 1861 (p.350), also reported that: “His Royal Highness the King of Siam is about to become a practical photographer, and is impatiently awaiting the arrival of a complete set of apparatus manufactured for him by Messrs. Negretti and Zambra, and has, beside, engaged the services of a gentleman to initiate him in the principles and practice of photography.” It is likely that Rossier arranged the transaction and gave the King lessons in photography. While he was in Siam, Rossier also produced a set of 30 stereoviews which were later marketed by Negretti & Zambra at the May 1862 London International Exhibition, together with his China and Japan views.

February 1862 – Shangai

In heroic times, photographers did not bring back their cameras, Maxime du Camp sold his to the Beyrouth Maitre des Postes, Rossier advertised in the Shanghai Dispensary:

“FOR SALE A BARGAIN A new and complete set of photographic apparatus comprising: A Patent Mahogany Folding Camera, with all improvements, first class in every respect. A Ross Portrait Lens, very superior A Ross Landscape Lens, do. All in small portable case. ALSO, A Portable Mahogany Tripod Stand, with Ball and Rocket Joint and Patent Screw Adjustment. ALSO, A Travelling case completely fitted up, containing all the necessary apparatus, together with a large fresh supply of Chemicals just received from London, and two practical works on photography. The whole quite new and in perfect order. The above is to be sold A BARGAIN, in consequence of the owner’s leaving Shanghai. For further particulars apply at the “Shanghai Dispensary”, Bridge Street. Shanghai, 27th February, 1862.”

March 1862 – Hong Kong

Rossier left Shanghai on 7 March 1862 with the Ly-ee-Moon and arrived in Hong Kong on 11th March.

July 1862 – Siam

Bennett deduced that Rossier was back in Siam on 2nd July 1862, photographing the funeral of the then vicar apostolic of Siam, Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix. An engraving of the photograph appeared in the 20th December 1862 edition of Le Monde Illustré (p.389) with the caption: “D’après une photographie de la maison Negretti et Zambra de Londres.”

Stereograph means some delay: watch the dog

July-November 1862 – Back to Europe

Pierre Rossier most probably came back with Firmin Bocourt, helping him to bring bqck an important collection of specimens; They left Bangkok on 30th July 1862 and reached Paris on the 15th November 1862.


As for many pioneers of photography, the life of Rossier contain endings so sad that you probably won’t wish to read them.

May 1863 – Einsilden

Rossier moved to and opened a studio in Einsiedeln in May 1863, and then stayed until November of that year. In June 1864, his younger brother Louis Rossier was recorded as operating as a photographer in Einsiedeln until 15 November, after which, unsuccessful, he sold off his equipment and just left.

November 1863 – Fribourg

Rossier did donate some Siamese artefact in 1863 to the Museum of Fribourg. No photographs were listed and, according to the museum, all these artefact appear to have been lost. We have only several entries in the 1882 museum catalogue: (Fribourg: L. Fragnière, 1882) “Aux noms de ces généreux donateurs, nous associerons avec reconnaissance ceux de M. Pierre Rossier, photographe, pour ses intéressants objets de l’Indo-Chine(1863), p. 76 ; Idole en marbre (Siam), Don de M. Pierre Rossier, p.80 ; Deux livres boudhistes en feuilles de palmier, de Siam, Don de M. Pierre Rossier, 1863, p. 81 ; Aiguillon de cornac, de Siam, Don de M. Pierre Rossier, 1863, p. 82.”

August 1864 – 

Rossier opened a photographic activity and realized a pionneering reportage, considered a step in the Swiss history of photojournalism on 20 August 1864 with a view of the Federal Day of Officers. Rossier declared in November 1864 his studio in Fribourg at 211, Place du College. Rossier published many views of Fribourg, of private villas and a large number of portraits.

In October 1865, in the nearby town of Aarau, Rossier married Catharine Barbe Kaelin (1843 -1867), who came from Einsiedeln. Nine months later, on the 30th July 1866, Christophe Marie Pierre Joseph was born. Perhaps Catharine failed to recover from the childbirth because, on the 4th April 1867, she died at the tragically young age of 23. Christophe went to some relative. Bennett found a descendant ot the son who had never known his father.

In July 1870, the Franco-Prussian War hit the activity. Nevertheless, Rossier persisted in his studio in Fribourg at 211 Place du College, where the town census shows him living there in a single room. At the same address is his future wife, Marie Virgine Overney, who may have been his domestic servant.

Times must have been hard for Rossier; the Franco-Prussian War, which started in July 1870, had hit tourism and brought about a financial crisis for Switzerland. On the 24th May 1872, a year following the end of the War, Rossier applied for a one-year passport to travel to France. His studio in Fribourg remained listed in the local directories until at least 1876.

August  1872 – Pontarlier

Following extensive and meticulous research by French essayist, Jean-Yves Tréhin-Saulière, Bennett found out that Marie at this time was pregnant. The couple’s child, Marie-Josephine, would be born a French citizen in Pontarlier (Doubs), France close to the Swiss border on 4th August 1872. She would be registered under her mother’s name, Overney as the couple were still unmarried. They probably moved to Paris in the next years.

1883 – Paris

Thanks to Tréhin’s research, Bennett found that in 1883 the couple were living at 89 Rue du Bac, Paris (7th district), where they finally married on 11th February 1883. Rossier’s third child, Joseph Louis Rossier, was born in Paris on 16th March 1884. The family were then living at 14 Rue Delbet (14e).

October 1886 – Paris

Rossier died on 22nd October 1886 in poverty at the Catholic asylum, l‘Asile Notre Dame du Bon Secours at 66 Rue des Plantes (14e), which is situated just 200 metres from his last-known address at Rue Delbet. The record of his death in the Archives de Paris does not show the cause of death but states that he was married and that his name was Pierre Rosier [sic], aged 55 [sic] and that he was Swiss and born in Grandsivaz.

After in death and for 100 years, Bennett could find only one isolated mention. In 1898, a Swiss book on the history of Fribourg Canton’s notables and personalities mentioned that Rossier died in Paris, but did not give the date. It went on to note that he was the first photographer to travel across the Far East taking photographs: “Rossier Pierre, Ier photographe ayant parcouru les Indes. décédé à Paris.” (Raemy, Alfred, Livre d’Or du Canton de Fribourg. Nomenclature des Bourgeois de la Ville de Fribourg des Anciennes familles patriciennes et des Notablitiés et Célébrités du Canton, Fribourg : Bonny, 1898, p.49).

Terry Bennett’s online updated article (2017):


The fictional letters come from an article ‘Enquête pour une fiction – Pierre Rossier, exposé aux vents’, which David Collin contributed to the 2006 publication ‘Pierre Joseph Rossier, Photographe. Une mémoire retrouvée’ (Pro Fribourg 153).

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