The Belgian Photonovel, 1954-1985 | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

The Belgian Photonovel, 1954-1985

The Belgian Photonovel, 1954-1985
by Clarissa Colangelo

Leuven University Press, Leuven, Belgium, 2023
251 pp. Paper, $55.00; free eBook available at OAPEN Library, JSTOR, Project Muse, and Open Research Library
ISBN: 9789462703704.

Reviewed by: 
Mike Mosher
June 2024

As I was studying French in grade school, my parents encouraged me to buy a couple Francophonic comic books on a Summer trip to Canada. One was TINTIN magazine, containing a variety of comic strips and their characters. The other—STAR CINE VAILLANCE, depicting a (disturbingly relevant in 2024) movie about Israelis fighting Arabs—was a photonovel. Published in Paris though edited in Rome, it was available in Belgium, Canada, and Switzerland.

Belgium was a center of magazine publishing, and the book’s foreword “Time Traveling in a Lost World” discusses the range of Belgian photonovels and their publishers. Their ephemerality meant a failure until recently to be properly collected and archived, but now they’re well-represented in the digitized Photo-Lit collection. From 1954 to 1985, more than 600 photonovels appeared in women’s magazines, with tales that appeared to modern women, not shy to mention divorce, abortion, and domestic violence. Their target audience was middle class and working women in a time of changing roles. Shop- and office-employees and housewives could be depicted as stylish, flirtatious, or independent.

These melodramas for women’s weekly magazines were criticized by the Catholic Church and the government as immoral, perhaps communist. The communists criticised them as lacking class consciousness, too individualistic. There were often two versions of a photonovel, both Francophone and in Dutch. Titles were often changed in translation.

1940 film stills from “Giubbe Rosse”, a Cecil DeMille western, were assembled into an early example of the format. In 1946 some stories that had originated in Rome were hand-drawn in Belgium. In 1950 photonovels appeared in France, and in Belgium in 1954. In cinematic style, “Rendez Vous” in 1954, listed the actors in their roles at the beginning, while italic text in all caps was superimposed upon the photographs. Word balloons began to appear on the photographs about 1960. A 1957 story in the magazine ONS VOLK was shot in the Grand Place, Brussels. They weren’t all fictitious—aviator Jacqueline Auriol was profiled in a 1956 story, and bicyclist Eddy Merckx in a SPORTIF ’68/SPORT ’68 feature that year.

The chapter “Making Photonovels” follows the process from script, to drawn story boards, to shots. Photographer Jean Lepeltier shot 80 photonovels, Hubert Serra directed 184, and Richard Keller 46 of them, including one for FEMMES D’AUJOURD’HUI magazine published in color in the early 1980s. Keller was popular enough to appear in a contest “Voulez Vous Tourner Avec Moi?” in 1960, where the winner would appear in a Roma-Film photonovel. Two female readers won and were teamed with French actor Jean-Claude Pascal for the shoot.

Layout was important, and the proper balance of large and small photographs on the page, often shot by well-known photographers. Besides advertisements, the design and illustrations in the magazines are characteristic of their decades. The rotogravure printing process produced some grain (which this reader thinks adds an old-movie visual cachet). The print shop S.A.R., or S.A. de Rotagravure d’Art, was proud of their women’s magazine clients that featured photonovels.

With The Belgian Photonovel, 1954-1985 An Introduction, Clarissa Colangelo has given us a fine, thorough, yet readable chronicle of this area of publishing history.