Now, wholesale evidence of his prodigious talent in this sphere is to come to market courtesy of a huge cache of his photographic works and equipment to be offered at auction by Artcurial in Paris.
The collection belonged to his grandson, Dr François-Emile Zola. The ensemble, which comprises the major part of the writer's photographic archive, features albums, period prints, glass plates and photographic equipment – even the white lab coats he wore when developing his images.
It makes up the final 75-lot session in a sale in the Paris rooms on December 4, following on from an auction of books and manuscripts.
Zola knew the famous photographer Nadar, in whose studio the Impressionists held their first exhibition, so was well placed to learn the new art of photography. He took it up in 1894 after the completion of his mammoth Rougon-Macquart saga of novels. He continued to practise until his premature death.
He had no fewer than three photo labs, one at each of his homes: in Paris, Meudon and Verneuil. He was a skilled technician who made copious notes and left a total of around 7000 photographic glass negative plates, around 2000 of which are thought to have survived.
Most are included in this auction alongside the albums and groups of prints.
Zola's photographic subjects were as wide-ranging as those he tackled in his writing. He depicted Paris life, its architectural landmarks, the 1900 Exposition Universelle, panoramic landscapes, self-portraits and scenes from family life. As well as living with his wife, Alexandrine Melay, in Meudon, Zola had an alternative life in Verneuil due to his liaison with Jeanne Rozerot. His mistress bore him two children, Denise and Jacques the father of François.
Scenes from both sides of this double life are captured in the archive.
Many of the 75 lots comprise large groups. The ensemble of 1575 glass negatives is offered as one unit guided at €40,000-60,000 and there are numerous groups of photographic prints and albums.
A number of lots are themed, such as the ensemble of 48 prints detailing cycling excursions in Verneuil and Meudon guided at €1500-2000, while an album of 96 prints of his children, Denise and Jacques, with a dedication to Jeanne, is guided at €10,000-15,000.