Paris En Fete

by Matt Damsker


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Text by Francoise Paviot. Published by Editions du Collectionneur. ISBN No. 2-847620-00-1. Priced at 29 Euros. 172 pages; approximately 70 plates. Editions du Collectionnear, 60, rue Saint-andre-des-Arts, 75006 Paris, France. Information: Galerie Françoise Paviot, 57, rue Sainte-Anne, 75002 Paris; phone: +33(0)142-601001

City of Lights, of course, but even more so, Paris is a city of life, and Francoise Paviot celebrates that happy fact with this collection of Parisian photographs that takes us from the medium's early days and into the 1990s. The images are all black-and-white, some are iconic (Eugene Atget's "Organ Grinder," for instance), and the unifying theme is the great city's embrace of scale, spectacle, and always, the local color of its people.

In her text (in French), gallery owner and collector Paviot notes that Paris is the official birthplace of photography, and indeed, from the first daguerreotypes, it has been one of the medium's great subjects--arguably its greatest. It would be hard to imagine any icon that has been more photographed than the Eiffel Tower, but Paviot does not drown us with Tower photos, preferring instead to connect the human with the monumental, as in the charming cover shot of stylish 1920s louche youth hanging out, smoking and preening high upon the Tower (during the making of Rene Clair's 1927 film, "Paris qui dort"), as well as a more formal shot by Pierre Petit of dignitaries assembled at the Tower's 1889 inauguration. And André Kertész's 1927 shot of the Tower illuminated by bolts of lightning is, of course, incomparable.

Indeed, Parisian architecture is central to these shots, beginning with an 1844 image by Charles-Marie Isodore of riders on horseback on the Pont Royal, in full view of a magnificent mansard-roofed dwelling. Other 19th-century images capture the splendor of La Place de la Concorde, the grand boulevards, fountains, arches, and the Seine, including a wonderful rooftop perspective along the Boulevard des Capucines, by William Henry Fox Talbot. Chronicling the wonders of the Second Empire, Paviot finds images of the great Parisian boom in urban development, along with parades, gatherings, and the sights of the Universal Exposition of 1867.

These historical photos are at once charming and broad, mainly long views that capture scale at the expense of intimate detail, as in an important documentary shot of Victor Hugo's massive funeral on the steps of the Pantheon. As the 20th century begins, along with France's Third Empire, photography's refinement is evident in the works not only of Atget, but of Emile Joachim Constant Puyo, whose wonderful image of a chambermaid peering over a balcony in Montmartre--with Sacre Coeur mistily off in the distance--is a 1906 masterwork.

There is also a photo by Emile Zola of a pavilion at the universal exposition of 1900, and images of Parisians at galleries, peering through telescopes, observing a solar eclipse through smoked glass, and a panoramic shot by Jacques-Henri Lartigue of his model Bibi at the 1927 international exposition of decorative and industrial arts. Indeed, to celebrate Paris is to celebrate its artists, and there is a fine still from Rene Clair's 1924 film "Entracte", featuring Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray playing chess, as well as an anonymous image depicting surrealist founder Andre Breton playfully holding a friend upside down from atop a ladder with a bicycle in front of a gallery showing paintings by Max Ernst.

Moving into the pre- and post-World War II eras, the photographs capture the intensity of modernity, with its cars, crowds, and anxious faces, always with the timelessness of Paris as a backdrop. There is Robert Doisneau's memorable 1944 shot of jubilant young students in a marching band, and Christophe Gin's 1993 image of gay-pride marchers, their painted faces betraying a solemn sense of the outsider. And Wolfgang Volz's 1985 shot of the Pont Neuf wrapped in the vast shroudings of artist Christo brings us full circle--from a Paris of the Old World to a Paris that can more than accommodate the shock of the new.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.