During their years of exile on Jersey (1852 - 1855), photography became a family affair. Hugo paid very close attention to this fledgling art form. He understood that it could be used as a political tool to broadcast his image as an exile in France. He also saw its potential for publishing. So his sons Charles, and to a lesser degree, François-Victor, set up a proper photographic studio in Marine Terrace, along with Auguste Vacquerie. The “Jersey workshop” was a unique venture. It provided views of the landscape which sometimes inspired drawings by Victor Hugo, and also served as a reminder of those banished to exile.
Victor Hugo had at least two daguerreotype portraits taken of himself at the end of the 1840s, but it was during his exile that the writer really became involved in photography.
With the help of Edmond Bacot, a photographer from Caen who came to Jersey to support the Exiles’ cause, Charles Hugo and Auguste Vacquerie set up and ran the “Jersey Workshop” between 1852 and 1855 - a photographic studio in the greenhouse at Marine Terrace. The group worked on a joint project for a book about the Channel Islands that was to be illustrated with photographs. Although the book was never finished, it was responsible for the intense production of salted paper prints that record this fruitful and creative period. The museum holds one of the main collections of these prints.
At the same time, Victor Hugo quickly grasped the medium’s artistic and media value. He worked with the photographers on staging the image of the exiled poet, looking back at France from the rocks of Jersey. The studio also took on the task of preserving the memory of the exiles. Their portraits would feature in many souvenir albums (Album des proscrits [Exile’s Album], Album Allix, Album Philip Asplet, etc.). Some of these were embellished with paintings or collages by Charles Hugo.
From 1855, this activity continued at Hauteville House on Guernsey, where a small laboratory was set up between the Tapestry Room and the “Workshop”. It ended with Vacquerie and Charles’ departure. The friendship and mutual esteem between Hugo and Edmond Bacot continued and it was Bacot who was given the honour of photographing the house in 1862. This set of photos was the first of many, as the house has held an attraction for photographers right up to the present day.
The poet's interest in photography can also be seen in the many prints he kept for their documentary or artistic value. He became friends with other photographers, such as Arsène Garnier, who lived in Guernsey, Étienne Carjat and Nadar. They would ensure that the image of Victor Hugo as patriarch, complete with beard and white hair, remained forever fixed in our collective memory.
Julia Margaret Cameron, the famous English photographer from the Pre-Raphaelite period, sent him some 30 photographs while he lived on Guernsey, as a mark of recognition and admiration.
The value of photography as a tribute is also evident in the portrait photos sent along with letters from his writer friends, such as Alexandre Dumas and George Sand.
The poet’s death did not put an end to his involvement with photography. Many photographs were taken of his funeral, recording the event as it would be remembered. From actor's portraits to set photographs, a new posterity emerged from Victor Hugo's plays and from the films based on his work. Even today, Hauteville House holds a fascination for photographers, whose images capture the unique creation suspended time.