I accidentally tripped over the history of this image of national lighthouse on the French island of Ouessant.
How was this photo made? The lighthouse keeper died in the wave? I asked myself these questions the first time I saw this shockingly large-sized image on a poster I do not know where. Then I’ve seen you hundreds of times in hundreds of different places, just as you’ve probably seen it: it’s one of the best-selling postcards in decor stores and souvenirs.
And look where I went to stumble unintentionally in the history of this photo and that of the lighthouse keeper who stars it, on the French island of Ouessant, in the Finistere of Brittany.
The national lighthouse is called La Jument and is one of the most spectacular sea lanterns on the French coast. It is two kilometers from the island of Ouessant and was built between 1904 and 1911 to signal dangerous ditches that have produced innumerable shipwrecks.
The photo story of this Lighthouse takes place on on a 21st day of December, 1989. Jean Guichard, a French photographer specializing in headlamp images, flew by helicopter at La Jument on a hot weather day, seeking the perfect picture of the gigantic waves of the Atlantic striking the structure of the lighthouse. Inside, the lighthouse keeper Theophile Malgorn, who at the time was about 30 years old, listened to the repeated passages of the helicopter and thought that something abnormal would be happening; perhaps the pilot was trying to contact him to warn him of a shipwreck or accident. And in an absurd action opened the door to see what was happening.
The complete action lasted only a few seconds. Guichard saw that man at the door and his instinct as a photographer told him that there was the perfect composition: man and the force of nature. He began firing his camera repeatedly as a new giant wave began to embrace tons of raging water in the headlight structure. At that very moment, the national lighthouse keeper Malgorn – in the doorway – heard a dry thunder, like a brutal boom (the impact of the wave against the front of the lighthouse) and knew that he had made a terrible mistake. As fast as it opened he closed the door again, a thousandth of a second before the wave broke him. He was alive by a miracle.in World Press Photo (the first one was for the famous photo of a Chinese demonstrator stopping alone a column of tanks in Tianammen Square ).
Lighthouse keeper Theophile Malgorn is still alive on the island of Ouessant and does not want anyone to ask him again about the damn picture. People close to him tell me that he was very angry at that moment because they put him in mortal danger in an irresponsible way and also for a commercial reason; he left to see what was happening by professionalism and almost lost his life. But shortly afterwards Guichard visited him at his house, presented him with an autographed photo of that “decisive moment” – as Cartier Bresson would say – and became friends.
The last national lighthouse keeper left La Jument on July 26, 1991. Since then it has been an automatic beacon. Theophile is now controller of the National Lighthouse, also in Ouessant. The locals often watch him pass with his dogs along the path that follows the coast of the island, his gaze lost in the wild sea that crashes against these escarpments, observing the dark silhouette of the headlights in which as a young man he spent long periods of solitude in a damp, dark room.
National Lighthouse owners are (or were) very special people. Lonely beings and few words, artists with all the time in the world to write, paint or sculpt. Philosophers of a life few have been able to endure.
So they have difficulty adapting to a sedentary life, controlling a lighthouse sitting in front of a computer in an aseptic room with heating after being the last romantic of the sea; solitary philosophers who every night lit lights with which they saved the lives of anonymous sailors who would never know them or would have occasion to thank them. Like Theophile Malgorn.