Over the years, photographers have flocked to France’s Côte d’Azur, to enjoy the sea—of course—but also to capture the mystique that made the region popular in the first place. How does one enshrine the baby-blue skies that unfold into the turquoise of the Mediterranean? Or suggest the crisp yet balmy air?

A young Charles Nègre was the first to immortalize the Côte d’Azur. In two sittings—one in 1852 and one in 1863—Nègre used the first publicly available photographic process, the daguerreotype, to document monuments in the cities of Avignon, Antibes, and Nice. Although the resulting book, Midi de la France, wasn’t a commercial success, it did inspire the painter Georges Braque, who used the architectural shots as inspiration for his Cubist landscapes.

Almost a century later, during the hot summer of 1937, Pablo Picasso escaped to the French Riviera (as the non-French call it) with his lover Dora Maar. She shot candid images of their friends—a group that included Eileen Agar, Lee Miller, Man Ray, and André Breton. In 1948, the great Robert Capa made charming informal portraits of Picasso and François Gilot (Maar’s replacement) on the Cote d’Azur.

Other renowned images emerged over the next few decades. In the 50s, photographers snapped topless women smoking on the beach. In 1956, Roger Vadim starred the large-lipped, long-haired Brigitte Bardot in his movie And God Created Woman, and suddenly the Riviera became a worldwide sensation.

Helmut Newton entered the Riviera scene in 1964, buying a small stone house near Ramatuelle. At the height of his career, a couple of decades later, he shot glittering pools and casinos in Monaco and a young Cindy Crawford in Monte Carlo. Wearing a black bathing suit and heels, Crawford wrapped her legs around a statue of Hector Berlioz. Newton’s shots made their way into the pages of Vogue.

In celebration of a long, sun-soaked legacy, the new coffee-table book Light of the Riviera collects many of these photographs. Together, they toast la belle vie. —Elena Clavarino

Elena Clavarino is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL