Snapshots of a lost Paris

The first picture of a human being taken in Paris dates from 1838, the year Honoré de Balzac began the novel Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life. To capture this image, Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) climbed to the top of his diorama on Boulevard du Temple. The American Samuel Morse, writing in a letter to his brother dated 1839, described the picture: “The boulevard, generally filled with a chaos of walkers and vehicles, was perfectly empty, except for one man having his boots shined. His feet, of course, could not move, one being on the polisher’s box and the other on the ground. This is why his boots and legs are so clear, while he lacks a head and body, which moved.”

For the daguerréotypistes, taking a picture from the top of a building was one of the most common practices: portraits and interior views were difficult for reasons of lighting, and the cameras, heavy and fragile, were awkward to take out into the street. Hence the images of streets seen from above, which painting would take up 30 years later (among them Monet’s “Boulevard des Capucines” series, Pissarro’s “Place du Theâtre-Français”, Caillebotte’s perspectives towards Boulevard Malesherbes from his apartment on Rue de Miromesnil).

Then, in the years 1845-1850, the photographic image underwent a complete change of nature, with the negative-positive system. A photograph was now “taken” on a paper negative, followed by “printing”, likewise on paper, which delivered the positive image. Parallel with this, the exposure time was shorter and the moving human figure now made an appearance.

In 1851, Charles Nègre – from his courtyard at 21 Quai de Bourbon, which he used as an outdoor studio – took a photograph titled “Chimney Sweepers Under Way”, a frieze of three individuals walking east towards the rising sun. The only clear element in this photo is the dark grey stone of the island’s parapet. In the distance, the Quai des Célestins on the other side of the river offers an irregular line of roofs and a tight rhythm of dark windows in the bright aureole of the houses. In the foreground, the almost white pavement is a little burned by the printing. Of the three individuals, the one who walks ahead is scarcely taller than the top of the parapet; this is a child, needed in the team to climb up the chimneys. He wears a cap and looks towards the river, so that his features cannot be seen. Behind him, the two other figures are men, each carrying a bag on his shoulder, their faces blackened by soot and darkened even more by the visors of their caps. From a technical point of view, the characters are too dark, not very clear, and the printing is too contrasted. But it is precisely this vagueness and the violent opposition of values that give this image a mysterious novelty. Nothing like it had ever been seen before, neither in engraving nor in painting, whose subtlest sfumato was never as disturbing as the vibration of photography in this brief and marvellous period of innocence.

The writers and artists of the time were fascinated, despite a certain reticence on principle. In Quand J’étais Photographe, the great Nadar (1820-1910) – the only person to have photographed, over a span of 30 years, the four members of that relay team of genius: Delacroix, Baudelaire, Manet and Mallarmé – recalls that people toured photographers’ studios as they nowadays do galleries of contemporary art. These were grouped on the boulevards between Rue de la Paix and the Madeleine: Nadar at 35 Boulevard des Capucines (a façade of glass and metal that was heavy with history, and destroyed by Crédit Foncier in the early 1990s to install a shoe shop), the Bisson brothers and Le Gray a little further up towards the Madeleine.

“The Bissons’ shop raised great excitement,” Nadar wrote. “It was not simply the extraordinary luxury and good taste of the establishment, nor the novelty and perfection of its products, that halted the passer-by; there was a no less lively interest in contemplating through the plate-glass windows the illustrious visitors who followed one another on the velvet covers of the great circular divan, passing the proofs of the day from hand to hand.

“It was really like a meeting place of the Paris intellectual elite: Gautier, Saint-Victor, Préault, Delacroix, Baudelaire – everyone! I twice saw there another amateur who was equally essential in his way, Monsieur Rothschild – Baron James, as people called him – who was very affable but by this time could no longer manage to appear young. And these leading figures of Paris society, when they left the Bissons’, finished their tour by going on to the portraitist Le Gray.”

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) belongs to that line of artists who, from Byron on, worked at their physical character to the point of making this an integral part of their work – a part that would later become preponderant, with Duchamp, Warhol, or Beuys. Though a great importance has been placed on Baudelaire’s judgements on photography, not enough has been placed on the number and quality of the photographic portraits we have of him, so poignant that even the talent of portrait photographers, such as Nadar or Carjat, is not sufficient explanation.

First of all, in very studied poses, we see a handsome young man with an insolent look – like Rembrandt in his first self-portraits. At Levêque and Bailly’s pension on Rue de l’Estrapade, his friend Prarond describes him descending the stairs, “thin, his collar open, a very long waistcoat, full cuffs, a light gold cane in his hand, with a supple, slow and almost rhythmic step”.

Later, Nadar tells of meeting him near the Hôtel Pimodan on the Ile Saint-Louis: “Black trousers drawn well above his polished boots; a blue workman’s blouse, stiff in its new folds; his black hair, naturally curly, worn long, his only coiffure; bright linen, strictly without starch ... rose-coloured gloves, quite new ... Baudelaire walked about his quartier of the city at an uneven pace, both nervous and languid, like a cat, choosing each stone of the pavement as if he had to avoid crushing an egg.”

Charles Asselineau, Baudelaire’s friend and biographer, describes the poet entering the editorial office of Le Corsaire-Satan: “You then saw his fantastic black suit appear on the boulevard, the cut that he had imposed on the tailor insolently going against the prevailing fashion – long and buttoned, opening at the top like a horn and ending in two narrow pointed lapels, like a whistle.” In 1848, “you would see him ... on the outer boulevards, dressed either in a loose jacket or a blouse; but as irreproachable, as correct in this democratic outfit as in the black suit of more prosperous times”. Two months after the trial over Les Fleurs du Mal, in October 1857, the Goncourts, never short on low comments, were dining at the Café Riché on Rue Le Peletier: “Baudelaire was having his supper alongside us, tieless, bare neck, shaved head, as if dressed for the guillotine. Just one refinement: little washed hands, cleaned and manicured. The head of a madman, a voice sharp as a blade. A pedantic manner of speech: the look of Saint-Just or a practical joker. He defends himself, quite stubbornly and with a certain rough passion, against the charge that his verses caused outrage to good manners.”

Baudelaire described himself on several occasions as a “dandy” or “flâneur”, and these terms have since been constantly applied to him. This is clearly not without good reason, and yet they should be used only with a double filter, as it were, made necessary both by Baudelaire’s own taste for mystification, and by the shift in the meaning of these words in the century and a half that divides us from Les Fleurs du Mal. Baudelaire certainly was a Parisian dandy in the sense of refinement of dress, cool insolence, the affectation of impassibility. In his essay My Heart Laid Bare, he writes: “The dandy should aspire to be sublime, continually. He should live and sleep in front of a mirror.”

Although place was slowly made for the new invention among other artistic practices – from 1859, photography was exhibited in the same building as the Salon – the major work of Paris photographers in the 19th century was the result of a technical and documentary commission. In 1865, the municipal administration decided to have photographed the old roads that were going to be demolished [to make way for the Haussmann renovation of Paris], and entrusted this work to Charles Marville. With a reputation as an illustrator, his beginnings in photography dated from the 1850s, in particular with studies of clouds at sunset in the sky above Paris – and it was certainly by choice that this cultivated man sought to rival the colours of Constable and Delacroix on this subject, with his nuances of grey. The task presented to him was unprecedented: to describe what was going to be destroyed, with the aim of demonstrating that what was about to disappear was not worth the trouble of being preserved. But Marville showed the silent charm of what others liked to see as disturbing and unhealthy. Without any quest for the picturesque, without the least resort to an aesthetic of poverty, he simply used the resources of photography in a way that much later would be described as “objective”. He placed his camera very low, almost at street level, so that the paving stones occupy a large surface, with a perspective effect that evokes the theoretical drawings of Renaissance Italy. Often glistening with rain, the street reflects the light of early morning or evening, when beautiful shadows accentuate the reliefs and contrasts. And although there are no human beings in his pictures, he uses the writing that was omnipresent in Paris at this time – signs and advertisements painted on walls – to give an impression of the comic or melancholy. In Rue de la Monnaie there is a “Librería española” with a sign of the siege of Sebastopol; on Rue de la Tonnellerie, above the old pillars of Les Halles, an advertisement advises the treatment of “glazings on the breasts (and elsewhere)”. There are the “Russian baths” on the Place Saint-André-des-Arts, the “Dunkirk oysters warehouse” on Rue Mondétour, the “Demolition material for sale” on the Passage des Deux-Soeurs, and “Henriat, tiler and stove-setter” on the Cour du Dragon – all activities that Marville catalogued on the eve of their disappearance without any detectable sentimentality, the effect being all the more striking.

The 425 photographs that Marville took between 1865 and 1868 are the only major visual souvenir that remains of a Paris that has completely disappeared. They are there in every detail, these streets of the Ile de la Cité that existed already in the days of François Rabelais or even François Villon. They are the streets that Victor Hugo paced while writing Notre-Dame de Paris, those of Charles Nodier, Aloysius Bertrand, Gérard de Nerval. The demolition was under way: but here were the old corner posts, the little shops, the paving whose irregularity was fashioned over centuries, the bars, the cant walls with bay windows, the lampposts, the signboards, the courtyards – a whole world that would disappear.

This is an edited extract from ‘The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps’ by Eric Hazan, which will be published by Verso on March 15, £20. It is available for £16, plus p&p, from the FT Bookshop, tel: 0970 429 5884;

Brassaï, Kertész and something of the night

From the Cyrano on the Place Blanche to the Promenade de Vénus on Rue de Viarmes, the collective life of the Surrealist group was spent in a number of cafés. The Surrealists were the first to bring photography inside these places, which had so often been captured from outside by Eugène Atget (1857-1927). This was a time of great advances in photographic film and materials: the Leica, the first 24 x 35 camera, was contemporary with Nadja, André Breton’s great surrealist novel of 1928. With the greatest photographers – and for photographs of cafés, this means Brassaï and André Kertész, despite the possible objection that they were not formal members of the Surrealist group – there is the enormous difference between an anecdotal image and a literary one.

A young woman with lowered eyes is reading a newspaper in a café. Behind her through the window is the uniform grey of the empty street. In front of her, occupying the whole of the right half of the photo, is a cylindrical stove in punched metal, and on a small round table with a zinc border an empty cup of coffee. The young woman, wearing a black coat with a fur collar and a cloche hat with her hair escaping below it, is in the narrow space between the stove and the windows on to the terrace – a position in which she seems threatened or at least fragile. This picture by Kertész (1894-1985), which is like the start of a novel, is dated 1928 and carries the dreamy caption “A Winter Morning at the Café du Dôme”.

In the corner of another café, this time on the Place d’Italie, a man and a woman look into each other’s eyes, close enough to touch. Above the benches, the two walls that meet in a corner have large mirrors that almost come into contact at the centre of the picture, so that the woman’s face is reflected in profile in the right-hand mirror and the man’s in the left-hand one. The two mirrors are also reflected in each other. You see the abyss between these two individuals: the woman, mouth open, on the edge of ecstasy, and the man, who has his back to the photographer, but whose calculating look is detectable in the mirror. This is a photograph by Brassaï (1899-1984), dated 1932, and titled with a certain cruelty “A Pair of Lovers in a Small Paris Café”.

The Surrealist photographers did indeed photograph love – whether tender as in Kertész’s “Self-portrait with Élisabeth in a Montparnasse Café”, an exceptional image of amorous joy, or venal as in Brassaï’s brothel scenes, in the tradition of Degas and Lautrec. They were the first to photograph the night (not at night, but night as a subject, as one photographs the sea), the particular Paris night, the milieu of Surrealist culture. EH

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