Born in 1869 in Paris, it is said that Henri Roger took his first photograph at the age of 11. At the age of 20, as a young engineer, he practised photographic special effects and produced multiplied and facetious self-portraits, which he called “bilocations” and “trilocations”. At the turn of the 20th century, he married Jeanne Viollet and from then on, he added his wife's name to his own. His 6 children, 5 girls and 1 boy, were his models for his fantasy settings of bourgeois family life. After the First World War, his production became more sober and more documentary, until his death in 1947. Henri Roger's several thousand photographs, as well as those of his brother Ernest, are part of the founding collections of the Roger-Viollet Agency.
Therefore, it was Henri Roger who introduced his eldest daughter Hélène, born in 1901, to photography; she kept a lasting passion for it and made it her profession. With Jean-Victor Fischer, whom she met at journalism school and who would later become her husband, she began a series of photo reports in the summer of 1936. After having left with the beginning of paid leave from the Front Populaire, Hélène Roger-Viollet and Jean Fischer brought back some of the first images of the Spanish Civil War and the influx of refugees at the border.
Two years later, in October 1938, they founded the "Documentation Photographique Générale Roger-Viollet" at 6 rue de Seine in Paris.
They acquired Laurent Ollivier's shop and images collection, who used to sell artwork reproductions and landscape photographs to students of the School of Fine Arts. Hélène Roger-Viollet and her companion then added the family production and their own photographs. The agency closed barely a year after its opening, at the beginning of the Second World War, for a 5-year interlude which its founders spent in the South of France, in the free zone. They returned to Paris right after the Liberation, and the agency was one of the first to reopen in November 1944.
In the post-war years, they kept making acquisitions: the collections of agencies without successors, bankrupt studios, deceased photographers or postcard manufacturers, purchases of reportages or photos "piece by piece", collectors' treasures or the archives of booksellers, nothing escapes their purchasing. At the same time, they were building up a collection of daguerreotypes and old cameras. The shop grew, with the purchase of the neighbouring antique shop, the green boxes containing the prints filled up, the classification expanded, and the agency became a press agency in the 1960s, showing its place in the media.
Thus, they constituted a photographic collection that is unique in Europe, containing 6 million images and covering more than a century and a half of Parisian, French and international history.
The encyclopaedic ambition - the agency's communication documents proudly proclaim that it offers "the entire history of the world from prehistory to the present day" - is supported by the distribution of foreign collections and "in-house" production. At the same time, 6 months a year, the Roger-Viollet couple travelled. They completed the agency's collections with their own production, and in particular with their reports around the world, which have been regular since the end of the 1950s, from Africa to Asia and the Americas, until their world tour on the “France” liner, which then gave rise to a travel story: "Ah qu'il est beau ce tour du Monde".
When the creators of the Roger-Viollet agency passed away, and in accordance with their wishes, the collections and the agency were bequeathed to the City of Paris, which, after 20 years of contesting the legacy, created the “Parisienne de Photographie” in 2004 to manage the Roger-Viollet archives and ensure the digital reproduction and distribution of the other municipal collections. The digitization of the collections, which began at the end of the 1990s, has accelerated since 2007: nearly one million media are now digitized.
The photographic archives of the daily newspaper France-Soir, pre-empted by the City of Paris in 2012, have now been added to the agency's fabulous collections. They provide an original look at French society from the 1960s to the 1980s through the numerous reports produced by the newspaper's team of photographers covering all the sporting, political, cultural and societal events of the period.
In January 2020, in order to make the most of the collections, the City of Paris conceded the commercial exploitation of the Roger-Viollet and France-Soir collections to Delta Arts, a company of the Photononstop Group.
In order to perpetuate history and because contemporary photos are the archives of tomorrow, the Roger-Viollet agency is pursuing its policy of searching for untapped image collections. In addition to its own collections, the agency distributes the work of many photographers, enabling them to perpetuate and enhance their photographic production.