An exceptional collection of photographs

The photographs presented here are the result of a close collaboration between our services and those of the Archives Nationales, which preserve part of the historical photographic record of the mountain land restoration (RTM) service.

A little history

In the 19th century, numerous natural disasters affected the French mountain ranges. Mountain erosion linked to the deforestation of the hillsides caused floods, rockslides, landslides, debris flows and avalanches and caused considerable damage.

Village of Lieuche, Alpes-Maritimes department, village and furrowed slopes in the process of being stabilised by benches of clod and grass, Cenomanian marl; April 1905; P. Dinner.

Torrent du Bourget, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department, large dam n°2, longitudinal and transverse wattling; 1877; E. Gayffier (available end 2023)

From 1880 onwards, the Water and Forestry Administration initiates a proactive policy to control erosion and sets about "extinguishing the torrents" and "restoring the mountains" by building dams and sills in the torrents and planting trees across thousands of hectares. The work of the RTM service will have enabled the treatment of 1,100 torrents, a hundred or so avalanche corridors, twenty or so landslides and the reforestation of 300,000 hectares.

The village of Serennes from above, Alpes Maritimes; 1924; M. Genet.

From 1886 onwards, photography is used systematically on all the sites; it constitutes a modern communication tool and even one of propaganda for the forestry administration. It bears witness to the degradation of the mountains and helps to justify the work undertaken, sometimes against the opinion of the local populations. The authenticity of the documents is emphasised in order to make the reality of the deforestation indisputable and to insist on the necessity to counteract it. France has never been so sparsely forested as it was in the 19th century.

Canton des Ubacs, Alpes-de-Hautes-Provence department, workcamp, bank reshaping and living brushwood mattresses; 1877; E. Gayffier (available end 2023)

The forestry administration incorporates photography into the practices of its agents; from 1887 onwards, they follow two-month training courses in photography. Several tens of thousands of photographs will be taken, carefully described, dated and captioned. They have both an administrative and an educational purpose.

Torrent du Riou-Bourdoux, Hautes Alpes, shelter-barracks, reshaped banks, planted by horizontal strips; [187.]; E. Gayffier.

The original photographs (glass plates) were to remain in the departments of origin.

A selection of the best plates was sent to form the national collections to:

  • the Ministry of Agriculture,
  • Directorate of Forestry of the Ministry of Agriculture
  • the French National School of Forestry (ENEF) in Nancy.

Today, these thirty thousand photographs are kept in the national archives and the complete collections have been deposited in the departmental archives concerned.


This unique collection takes us to the mountains, forests, streams and glaciers. It takes us on a journey to the villages of the past where we meet the inhabitants and the foresters who shaped the landscapes we see in the mountains today.

Torrent des Sanières, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department, counter dam under construction ; [187] ; E. Gayffier

These forester-photographers have extensively documented their own lives on site and have also captured the daily life of their immediate environment until the First World War. After this event, and marking a real break, the technical aspects of the work constituted the main subjects photographed.

Montagne de la Gitte d'en bas, Municipality of Beaufort, Savoie department, Grandmother Frison Maurice and her helpers; 1935; Parlier

Plan-Bas Cheese dairy (1850 metres), Alpes-de-Haute-Provence; 1905; M. Vincent

Sowers of larch seeds on the snow, Alpes de Haute Provence; 1894; Sardi.

And nowadays at INRAE

Research teams at INRAe are still active in the field of natural hazards in the mountains and are interested in topics related to protection forests, hydrology, environmental engineering and flood monitoring as well as avalanches, having created a database for monitoring them.
The work carried out in the field of soil bioengineering is a good example of how this work follows on from that carried out by foresters during the major RTM projects.

Bibliographic references

Buffet, C.-A., & Noussan, A.-G. (2012). The photographic collection of the restoration of mountain land held by the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries: an illustration of the safeguarding and domestication of the landscape. (Le fonds photographique de la restauration des terrains en montagne conservé par le ministère de l’Alimentation, de l’Agriculture et de la Pêche : une illustration de la sauvegarde et de la domestication du paysage). Actes des congrès nationaux des sociétés historiques et scientifiques, 135(4), 173‑188.

Claus, S. (2013). The archives of mountain land restoration (Les archives de la restauration des terrains de montagne). Gazette des archives, 230(2), 109‑114.

Métailié, J.-P. (1988). A vision of mountain development in the 19th century: the RTM photographs. (Une vision de l’aménagement des montagnes au XIXe siècle : Les photographies de la RTM.) Revue géographique des Pyrénées et du Sud-Ouest. Sud-Ouest Européen, 59(1), 35‑52.

Access to the collections at the Archives Nationales

Ministère de l'Agriculture. Direction des forêts et service de Restauration des Terrains en Montagne (RTM). Départements des Basses-Alpes (1886-1933), des Hautes-Alpes (1879-1945) et des Alpes-Maritimes (1886-1927): description of the inventory at the Archives Nationales (in French)

Ministère de l'Agriculture. Restauration des Terrains en Montagne (RTM). Département de la Savoie (1885-1963): description of the inventory at the Archives Nationales (in French)

Text written by Pascale Hénaut and Catherine Tailleux (INRAE-DipSO).

How to cite : Agate Focus: An exceptional collection of photographs, Pascale Hénaut and Catherine Tailleux (INRAE-DipSO), march 2023,

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