Monday, May 07, 2007

Ghosts of Paris

In an attempt to take my mind off the elections I decided to take advantage of the free admission to Paris museums usually available on the first Sunday of every month. But not all museums subscribe to this offer, including the Bibliothèque Nationale at its old site on rue Richelieu, where I went to see a retrospective of the photography of Eugène Atget, the first great photographic chronicler of Paris. The exhibition celebrates the 150th anniversary of Atget's birth and is an impressive show, encompassing some 350 prints, many of which were sold directly to the BNF by Atget himself in the years either side of the turn of the century.

Atget was a superb photographer, an unwitting forerunner of both the surrealists and much 20th-centuty urban photography, producing phenomenal work despite many technical limitations that his descendents did not face. Though he was a former art student he had no grand conception of himself as an artist, operating primarily as a shrewd upmarket commercial photographer with well-chosen clients, such as the BNF and the Musée Carnavelet - the city of Paris' museum. He worked to pre-established themes, possibly the first photographer to do so, and he had a particular penchant for le vieux Paris, which was beginning to recede in significance and visibility due to the Haussmanian overhaul of the city. Interests of his included the city's old mansions - the hôtels of the Marais, the warrens of courtyards on both banks of the Seine and the gens aux petits métiers, the pedlars and chimney sweeps that eked out a precarious existence on the city's streets. There are many tropes and interests that were to become standards (and later clichés - it is strange that in French, cliché has both that meaning and 'shot', as in a photograph) of urban photography: photographs of statuary, of empty staircases that seem to lead nowhere (later to become vital motifs in the works of Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson and Kertesz) and also of the downtrodden folk of the urban landscape.

Another thing that makes Atget's work particularly fascinating is the ghostly quality of the photography, something that endeared him to André Breton and the other surrealists, which was engendered primarily by technical exigency. The photographs are mostly sepia-tinted (he began to print in black and white towards the end of his life) and the lack of fast lenses at the time necessitated long exposure times which resulted in the spectral half-corporeality of many of the subjects, as in the example above 'Rue des Nonnains-d'Hyères', dated 1900. The need to shoot in bright daylight also bestows a ghostly lustre on his work.

It might be said that Atget was an accidental artist because of this, but such is the case of many artists in nascent art forms - particularly photography and its close contemporary, the cinema - and, more importantly, photography has always been and continues to be a synthesis of accident and artifice, something that goes for fashion photography and the staged tableaux of Jeff Wall as much as for more obviously kinetic artists such as Walker Evans, Weegee and Robert Capa.

For someone that knows Paris well (and such a person is still far from really knowing Paris) Atget's work is intriguing because of the brief snatches it offers of a vaguely familiar city - a landscape is given meaning by the outcropping of the columns of a local church or the familiar ornamental stonework of a old town house. It is a veritable jigsaw puzzle, out of which the city, its history and its ghosts can be reassembled and attempted to be understood. I found a similar thing in an engaging film I saw the night before, Emmanuelle Cuau's dark comedy Très bien, merci, which plays about with the Parisian cityscape - no doubt for reasons of budget - expecting us to believe that the Métro station that Gilbert Melki's beleagured accountant gets off at to go to work (Porte des Lilas) is close to his actual workplace (beside the Bibliothèque François Mitterand - the opposite side of the city). Though Cuau's shuffling of the urban topography is duplicitous, its disorienting effect is suited to the film's lean sense of 'rational paranoia'. Another good accompaniment to both Atget and this film is Andrew Hussey's enthralling Paris - A Secret History, which I am currently reading and which is a mine of fascinating information on the depraved, dissolute and glorious history of this wonderful city.