Francis Niffle's Photographic Collection

In Pôle muséal et culturel
Sébastien Charlier and Marie-Christine Merch

ULiège - GAR- Niffle Institut Physique

Institute of Physics, Liège University, Sart Tilman, [1967], © GAR-Archives d’architecture (ULiège), Niffle Fund


Architectural Photography

Architectural photography, in addition to representing the author's view of a building, is both an aesthetic expression and a frozen record of a subject, an era, and a society. As such, it is a source of knowledge about architecture and the context in which it is integrated, evolves, and disappears...

It can, by its very nature, be an art of translation in the sense that objectivity and the author's withdrawal remain the absolute priority; it is purely documentary.  It can also be anecdotal and be a subjective "translation" of a subject by its author. Ancient, it is one of the precious tools for any researcher in search of traces of the past: architectural historians, architects, archaeologists, etc. Current, it is also a source of precious information for a great number of researchers from various disciplines.

The photographic collections relating to architecture offer researchers an abundance of iconographic material, often unpublished. Many private and public institutions allow the consultation of these documents online or at least list them in their collections. Questions relating to the dialogue between architecture and photography are also the subject of numerous publications and remain a particularly popular topic.

Times change, techniques evolve; more recently, silver photography has been succeeded by digital photography, which allows for retouching that can skew reality to the benefit of an image that its author wishes to show. And here is a new question, like a challenge: to ensure that there is no infringement of the collective memory1.

The GAR, the ULiège architecture archive centre, recently acquired the Francis Niffle collection, which was previously held in Ghent. This collection, which is essentially made up of architectural photographs - but also others dealing with various subjects - constitutes a fundamental documentary collection for the understanding of the history of architecture in Liège during the "Trente Glorieuses".

Niffle is one of the precious witnesses of this period during which the architectural and urban landscape of Liège would undergo a profound metamorphosis. He would capture the essence of it and restore it, not just as a frozen image, but rather as a nod  to these architects and the Modern Movement to whom Liege owes its new face.

ULIEGE- GAR -niffle Usine

Factory interior, © GAR-Archives d’Architecture (ULiège), Niffle Fund


The Beginnings

Born in Liège in May 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War, Francis Niffle was born into an environment where architecture was a natural part of family conversations. His father Édouard was an architect and decorator, trained in the great tradition of the Saint-Luc schools. The four years of the world conflict were synonymous with exile for the family, and they took refuge in Folkstone, England. Having lost his mother at the age of 9, Francis Niffle was raised by his maternal aunt until his adolescence.

After his secondary education at the Collège Saint-Servais, he discovered a passion for photography and was hired as an apprentice by the Liège photographer Ernest Gourdinne, whose shop was located on Boulevard d'Avroy 29 in Liège. Gourdinne was renowned for the photo reports and documentaries on the Congo that he made after the First World War. A wise choice that Francis Niffle made! He received solid training from this photographer and filmmaker who was a laureate of a photography contest held at the International Exhibition of Liège in 1905 at the age of 16, and at 20 he accompanied hunters in Africa where he filmed wild animals.

After Gourdinne's death in 1932, Francis Niffle was hired by the Émile Verdin company where he quickly became head of the laboratory. While the first known works of the young Niffle concern mainly reporting of current events (he covered several stars visits to Liege, like Charles Trenet, Maurice Chevalier and Stan Laurel) artistic portraits also occupy a part of his activities.

Mobilised during the second world war, Niffle was taken prisoner by the Germans and stayed in Oflag VII-B in Eichstätt in Bavaria and then in Nienburg in Lower Saxony where he had the chance to work in Anton Mohn's workshop. There he learnt, among other things, the technique of image retouching.

Back home at the end of the war, Niffle settled in Rue du Vertbois and, with the benefit of all his professional experience, acquired top-of-the-range equipment (in particular a Linhof 13X18 cm camera) which enabled him to access industrial and artistic commissions. He thus carried out numerous campaigns for various industries and companies in the Liège region (Cockerill factories, Merck Continental, printing works, etc.) and also worked for several museums, filming numerous pieces from the Walloon Art Museum or the Museum of Arms. Francis Niffle also embarked on a cinematographic adventure. With his friend Marcel Thonon, cameraman and photo reporter, he did several reports in Africa and South America. He also made several short animated films on a private basis.

A Look at the Urban Transformations of the Trente Glorieuses

Francis Niffle's personal history certainly plays a role in the way he looks at the great architectural achievements that have marked Liege since the early 1950s. Although he did not choose to become an architect like his father, Francis Niffle had the opportunity to experience architecture on a daily basis, to immerse himself in this discipline, which is both artistic and technical, and through which he was to initiate and practice his eye for architectural photography.

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Entrance hall of the Gare des Guillemins, Liège, [1958], © GAR-Archives d’Architecture (ULiège), Niffle Fund


Through his first marriage in 1936 to Marguerite Deprez, sister of the wife of Jules Mozin, one of the founders of the Groupe ÉGAU (Études en Groupe d'Architecture et d'Urbanisme), he had the opportunity to approach architecture more intimately, and more particularly the expressions of the Modern Movement.

Niffle would go on to follow and cover the gigantic project undertaken by the newly established Liège architectural firm from 1950 onwards. He celebrated the modernity of the Droixhe housing complex, from conception to completion. His photographs, rich in detail, illustrate the different phases of construction, which lasted until the end of the 1970s.

Here the photographer's approach is documentary - general views are joined by detailed shots showing artistic integrations, significant architectural details, the environment in which the project is set - here, it is more anecdotal, more "human". Niffle takes the liberty of capturing the atmosphere, as in this photograph of Droixhe park with the towers in the background, where he shows children, including his son, enjoying the good weather and playing by the pond.

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Droixhe park, circa 1956-1957, © GAR-Archives d’Architecture (ULiège), Niffle Fund


In the early 1960s, Niffle left his studio on Rue du Vertbois and moved to a building on Rue de Campine, a stone's throw from the house of his brother-in-law, Jules Mozin. The ties between the photographer and the ÉGAU team (Charles Carlier, Jules Mozin, Hyacinthe Lhoest) were strengthened, as shown by several individual portraits and group shots.

The photographs he took of the Mozin house are of pure aestheticism, a perfect two-dimensional translation of an architecture that would become an essential reference for the time.  The shot of the rear façade of the Mozin house, taken from a low angle, emphasises the expressive power of the metal structure. The rendering is amazing and was featured on the cover of the magazine La Maison n°4 in 1960. A year earlier, another shot, just as powerful, of the Carlier house perched on the top of a slope on the Avenue de l'Observatoire, was also on the cover of the same magazine in February 1959.

Niffle's keen interest in modern architecture led him to regularly publish in several Belgian architectural magazines, in particular in La Maison, which was always attentive to the major architectural trends of the time and whose editor was Pierre-Louis Flouquet.

In addition to the regular monitoring of ÉGAU's production, Niffle also put his talent at the service of other major architectural firms in Liege and elsewhere in Wallonia. Thus, he covered several projects of the Groupe L'Équerre (Émile Parent, Albert Tibaux, Edgard Klutz, Paul Fitschy, Ivon Falise), as well as those of the architects Jean Poskin, Henri Bonhomme, Léon Stynen and Roger Bastin.

For the City of Liège, however, it is difficult to distinguish the private from the public.
The construction of the Palais des Congrès (Groupe L'Équerre, 1956-1958) bears witness to the commitment of the City of Liège to the modernisation of Belgian infrastructures built for Expo 58 in Brussels. Niffle's photographs highlight the strong elements of this powerful architecture, reveal the perspectives and views offered by the interior spaces, and emphasise the context by underlining the "internationalisation" of a city linked to Brussels by helicopter, as in this snapshot showing take-off from the heliport. Other emblematic buildings, such as the Chiroux-Kennedy-Croisiers Complex (Jean Poskin and Henri Bonhomme, 1960-1976) or the Cité administrative (Henri Bonhomme and Jean Poskin, 1963-1967), would also be immortalised by the photographer's lens.

ULIège - GAR- Niffle vueaerienne PalaisCongres

Aerial view of the Palais des Congrès, Liège, ca. 1958, © GAR-Archives d’Architecture (ULiège), Niffle Fund

Francis Niffle's work rubs shoulders with that of other architectural photographers from Liège, such as Désiré Daniel and Cogéphoto, who also cover the major construction sites of the city, often referred to as the Cité ardente. Each has its place. Niffle, through his proximity and his friendships with the actors of the "modern" circles, focuses his eye on the Modern Movement, which he portrays through strong images which are framed to enhance the new aesthetics of the buildings. He became the champion of this modern line which translates the optimism and ambition of a city in full mutation, going far beyond the strict framework of a documentary approach.



(1) Limorté Floriane, La manipulation de l'image, une atteinte à la mémoire collective, Master 1 dissertation in Anthropology, Université de Pau et des Pays de l'Adour, 2015-2016.




The Authors

Sébastien Charlier has a doctorate in History, Art and Archaeology and is a specialist in the history of architecture of the first half of the 20th century. He is the scientific director of GAR-Archives d'Architecture. Since 2011, he has been in charge, with Thomas Moor, of the Guides de l'architecture moderne et contemporaine collection. With Aloys Beguin and Claudine Houbart, he is the scientific director of the Archidoc, une expo, un livre, un film project (Archidoc  an exhibition, a book, a film).

Marie-Christine Merch is an art historian and head of the GAR-Archives d'Architecture

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