Paris: Encore et pour toujours

.
by Richard Nilsen
.
There is no city more photogenic than Paris. New York does well by the camera, too, but Paris has that je ne sais quoi. London hardly shows up on the camera map; Los Angeles only serves as a set for movies. But Paris is the City of Light and untold photographers have asked it to be their model.
.
I’m not talking here of travel photos — those gaudy, sunny-skied brochure pictures — nor of the vacation snapshots we bring home to show friends, but photographs made by artists, trying to find the visual metaphor for city-ness or life, or an armature to hang their shapes, colors and textures. These are photographers for whom the purpose of clicking their shutters is to capture some human emotion or intricate design.
.
The city is also lucky to have had many photographers whose names are intimately tied to it and whose images have practically defined Paris for many of us. New York City may have had Joel Meyerowitz and Weegee, but Paris had Charles Marville, Eugene Atget, Brassai, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Robert Doisneau, Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Willy Ronis, among many others.
.
The earliest known photograph to contain an image of a human being was made in Paris in 1838 by Louis-Jacques Daguerre (the exposure was so long, no one on the busy street registered on the plate but a man standing still to have his shoes shined).
.
So many others: Edouard Boubat; Jeanloup Sieff; George Hoyningen-Huene; Guy Bourdin; William Klein; Germaine Krull; Lucien Clergue; Gisele Freund; Edouard Baldus; Hippolyte Bayard; and Nadar (Gaspard-Felix Tournachon) who made the first aerial photos of Paris, from a gas-filled balloon in 1858.
.
The greatest of the early photographers who have given us our Paris is Atget (1857-1927), a strange little man who took upon himself the project of archiving images of a city he saw disappearing before his eyes. The old city was giving way to the modern, and he dragged his camera all over the city to capture buildings, streets, doorways, windows, door knockers, fences — even peculiar trees and people. His work was little regarded as anything but the hobby of an eccentric, until American photographer Berenice Abbott discovered him as an old man, and bought his surviving prints and negatives and persuaded galleries and museums to exhibit them.
.
But Atget was not the first to try to document old Paris. In 1851, author Prosper Mérimeé commissioned the Missions Héliographiques, to photograph French monuments needing restoration. He hired five photographers: Baldus, Bayard, Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq and Auguste Mestral, who divided up the city and surrounding country to create a catalog.
.
Better known is the work of Charles Marville (1813-1879), named official photographer of Paris in 1862, who was hired to photograph the city before the radical urban renewal undertaken by Baron Haussmann (the prototype of Robert Moses), who widened boulevards and tore down slums and narrow alleys.
.
During La Belle Epoque, Jacques-Henri Lartigue (1894-1986) began photographing at the age of seven and captured life in Pre-WWI Paris. As an adult, he mostly gave up photography to be a painter, but it is the irrepressible pictures he made as a boy that he is remembered for.
.
   After the War to End All Wars, Paris became the home of emigres and artists. A Hungarian, who called himself Brassai (1899-1984), came to love the bohemian underworld of the city and between the wars made the memorable photos of bars, prostitutes, artists and the city at night. His most famous book, Paris de Nuit (1933) practically invented the way we see the Paris of Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Henry Miller.
.
In 1925, another Hungarian, André Kertész (1894-1985), moved to Paris and carved out a career as a photojournalist with an experimental and artistic bent, often using unusual angles and designs. He later moved to the U.S., but his Paris is one of the visual landmarks of the century.
.
Robert Doisneau (1912-1994) began photographing in the late 1930s, but the war interrupted his career and it is his photographs from the 1950s and after that are his legacy — a collection of photographs of visual puns, gentle mimicry and humanist concern. His jokes are never simply gags, but moments captured seemingly at random while people do the things that people do.
.
It is that instant, called the “decisive moment” by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) that define his work. One of the greatest photojournalists of the 20th Century, HCB, as he is sometimes called, filled his inch-by-inch-and-a-half Leica frame with designs so perfect, they seemed assembled like jigsaw puzzles. He intended to catch the perfect interaction of subject and motion to make a photograph that stands on its own as art, even when commissioned as an illustration to a magazine story or book.
.
This is all a very short precis of Parisian art photography. There is so much more to say about it, including Richard Avedon’s use of the city as a backdrop to his animated fashion photos of the Fifties, and the crazy energy of the often out-of-focus black and white of William Klein. Or the photographs Swiss-born Robert Frank made in Paris before he moved to the U.S. and defined Eisenhower’s era in his book, The Americans(1958).
.
Of course, Paris is a perfect subject for a camera. Many cities are interchangeable, and dropped into their downtowns unannounced, you would be hard pressed to tell which city it was. But Paris is unquestionably Paris, to the point of almost being a parody of itself. There is romance:
.
There is the eucharist of bread and wine:
.
When you enter Paris with your camera, you find there is little change between then and now:
.
There are cafes, markets, fountains, boulevards, architecture and, most of all, people. The camera still has plenty to make a meal of.
.
I’ve been to the city many times, and have made thousands of photographs, and almost every one of them says the one word, whispered in my welcoming ear: “Paris.”
.
Perhaps you have a different favorite. Perhaps it is Rome that holds you tight, or Prague, or Dayton, Ohio. The job is to use your eyes and your lens to find what defines that spot, not only on the map, but in your affections and mind. Manhattan is surprisingly filled with trees; Chicago has its trains; New Orleans is framed by bridges; and Las Vegas is … well … very much itself.
.
Even Phoenix has its visual soul, although it is often fried by the Sol. Take your camera out (or your phone — I know a photographer who has published an entire book of photographs of Havana taken entirely with his iPhone. The images are stunning). It matters less if it is Johannesburg, South Africa, or downtown Phoenix. There is something for the frame.
.
Although in my book, Paris beats them all.
.
Click on any image to enlarge
.
.

Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic. A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina. We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal. We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

.

.

1 comment
  1. callimg said:

    Thank you, Mr. Nilsen, for yet another thoughtful, and this time visual post to ponder…..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: