Royal Salt Works: Story Behind the Picture

My sister-in-law lives in The Jura, an area of Eastern France near the Swiss border. It’s not a particularly well-known part of the country and you’ll have to work hard to find it in many guide books (honorable exception: The Rough Guide To France). It’s a pretty part of the country, and plonked in the middle of a forest is a remarkable set of pre-revolutionary buildings: the Royal Salt Works (Saline Royale, for those of you who speak the lingo).

Royal Salt Works, France

Royal Salt Works, France.

It’s a remarkable sight for many reasons. The architect was Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806), an architect in the neo-classical style (as you can see from the photographs). To me, his style can best be described as idealised form of classic architectural styles. Indeed, his grand plan for the salt works was an ideal city. It was one of his more ambitious projects and about half of the first phase was built before economic reality intervened (the site was constructed between 1774-79). Chaux was chosen because it was close to both the salt mines themselves, and also the forest — the energy source used to boil brine pumped up from the mines to extract the salt itself. Piping brine from miles away via wooden pipes was very inefficient, and huge quantities of wood were required to fuel the evaporation of what was left. In 1790 the salt works closed for good.

From a photographic composition perspective, the buildings offer regularity of form in their elements (like the alternating discs and squares of the columns, above) as well as massive scale. The photos were taken on a sunny afternoon in November, which really helps with the lighting: the sun doesn’t get too high in the sky at that time of year, so the light is softer, more golden colored, and leads to fewer harsh shadows.