Wednesday 22 December 2010

Bonnes Fêtes

Weather and transport technology permitting, I will soon be heading out of Paris for 10 days, and also away from all means of digital communication. Thanks to everyone who pops by here from time to time, and I wish you all bonnes fêtes. I'll be back posting in the new year, and I hope I may even meet a few more people as I have plans to organise one or two events in 2011...

Meanwhile, if you are in Paris over the holiday period, I've prepared a short list of suggestions for things to do on the Paris Weekends blog. Similar lists can also be found on Girls Guide to Paris and Vingt Paris.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

This photo belongs to the collective memory of our district

Following on from my post on Patrice de Moncan's Paris Avant/Après book comparing Charles Marville's photos of Paris with pictures taken today, I was interested to come across a similar project organised by 'Belleville mon amour', an association set up to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 20th arrondissement.

Rather than create a book and compare photos, the group have placed large-scale historical photos at key points around the arrondissement, enabling passers by to make instant comparisons themselves. Beneath the photo is a simple message;

"Cette photographie appartient à la mémoire collective de notre quartier. Merci d'en prendre soin" (This photo belongs to the collective memory of our district. Please take care of it).

It is fascinating to think of a photograph as belonging to the particular area in which it was taken. Marville was hired to document the changing city of Paris, but did he think how people would interact with his photos in the centuries to come? He was operating at a time when the technology was in its infancy, but must have been aware of its potential. Thousands of years of history before him had been words, paint, stone, dust. Now the city could be frozen and imprinted into our collective memories.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Avant/Après - looking back on Haussmann’s Paris

150 years were needed to write this book’ notes author and historian Patrice de Moncan in the introduction of his publication ‘Paris Avant-Après’, a book comparing Charles Marville’s 19th century pictures of Paris with photos of the same spots taken by his team today. A literary exageration perhaps, but representative of the labour of love the book entailed.

150 years is in fact the time elapsed since Charles Marville began his task of photographing the changing city of Paris, and an anniversary that Patrice de Moncan was determined to celebrate. The project, the largest ever undertaken on the works of Marville, involved carefully sifting through the photographer’s creations, then attempting to find the remaining traces in today’s city. In other words, as de Moncan says, “to put our feet in Marville’s and place our objective in exactly the same spot as he’d placed his”.

The result is an impressive and attractive book, featuring over 730 photos and 40 maps spread across 450 pages. Weighing around 3kg, it is a publication to lay down on a table, and lovingly pore over. Endlessly fascinating, it is an important reference not only on the the Paris of the second empire, but also on the city as it stands in 2010.

I recently met Patrice de Moncan, and we spoke together about the three main subjects featured in the book.

Paris in 1860, Paris today

What is so fascinating about Marville’s pictures” explains Patrice de Moncan, “is that they caught on record one of the most important eras in the history of Paris”. The period is indeed a crucial one, as it marked the end of the medieval city and the beginning of one of the world’s first truly modern cities.

Napolean III, who had returned to France from exile in England, chose the Baron Haussmann to undertake a complete regeneration of the city, ripping down the dense and insalubrious buildings and bringing in wide boulevards, plumbing and green spaces. In his pictures, Marville, the official photographer for the city of Paris, captured a world between the two. In many of the original photos, some of the Haussmannian buildings and traces of the Boulevards are already in place, but they are surrounded by the vestiges of a denser, older city.

It is these ancient buildings – crooked and uneven - that are strikingly absent in the photos taken by Patrice de Moncan today. “Haussmann and the city of Paris hired Marville to capture these old buildings before they disappeared” explains de Moncan. “There was no nostalgia though” he adds, “the Baron Haussmann wanted not only to record the old city for posterity, but also to provide a suitable contrast with the impressive new one”, notably at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867.

Another curiousity can be found written on the walls of these old buildings. Although we may think that today's society is overtly commercial and polluted by advertising, the Paris of Marville is seemingly covered with company names, products and slogans.

The photography

What seems incredible at first in Marville’s photos is the lack of people” says de Moncan. As he explains though, “this was simply due to the limitations of the technology at the time. A picture in the mid-19th century needed an exposure of between three and fifteen minutes, which meant that the people, horses and carriages were simply moving too fast to be caught on film”.

The technology chosen by Marville was crucial too. He used the calotype technique developed by Fox Talbot rather than the
daguerreotype used by his French contemporaries. His choice meant that he was alienated from his peers in the country, but the fact that he recorded the image as a negative, meant that it could be reproduced and thus recorded for posterity.

Patrice de Moncan’s team had fewer problems than may be imagined finding the spots chosen by Marville, and only around 100 of his original photos could not be recreated. As de Moncan points out though, “this was not just because of Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris, but also because of the recreation of the city in the 1970s, for example with the destruction of Les Halles and the area around Montparnasse”.

In artistic terms he had few worries too. “When you compare Marville’s photos of Paris with others he took in his lifetime, you can see that this was a purely business contract”. Patrice de Moncan did however have more problems with the busy city today. “Several times we had to abandon shots and come back later because of big delivery lorries or too many parked cars.” He wonders whether Marville also had any similar problems with abandoned horses or forgotten carts, but concludes that it is partially these little features that add to the charm of his pictures. “I can only hope that future generations will think the same of the parked cars and pedestrians in our photos” he adds.

Haussmann – hero or villain?

It is perhaps a strange question to ask to a man who won the Prix Haussmann in 2003 for his previous books on the period, but it is also a question that is still endlessly debated.

Although de Moncan recognises that some of the Baron Haussmann’s works were a failure, notably on the Ile de la Cité which he describes as ‘a massacre’, he is a fervent believer that the second empire regeneration of Paris was a huge success. “Paris became a model for cities around the world” he points out. “It was also one of the only city regenerations in the world that was planned, and wasn't rebuilt following war or natural disaster.

Patrice de Moncan is also adamant that the changes were vital. "Victor Hugo and Eugène Sue criticised the Baron Haussmann's works for destroying the soul of the city, but they perhaps forgot a little too quickly just how poor and miserable the centre of Paris was beforehand".

He is also careful to dispel some of the other myths that have grown up around the Baron Haussmann and his project. “The new city wasn’t designed to control its inhabitants and prevent any popular revolts” he claims. For the author, the proof of this fact is that the Commune uprising in 1871 was able to take place.

He does however recognise that Haussmann’s Paris had become deeply unfashionable until recently. “We were never taught about the successes of the second empire at school” he explains. Victor Hugo’s attacks on Napolean III’s regime left a lasting impression in France, and as de Moncan points out, “Haussmannian buildings were seen as being ‘mauvais goût’ until well into the 1970s”.

Today's city is recognisible in many of Marville's photos, and what this book is perhaps also celebrating is just how little it has changed in 150 years. With rising property prices in Paris today showing just how much in demand Haussmannian buildings are now, it is very possible that we will still be saying the same thing about the city when somebody launches a similar project to de Moncan 150 years from now!

"Paris Avant/Après" is published by Les Editions du Mècene. It can be ordered from the publisher but is also available in most bookshops. Outside of France it is distributed by Gallimard, and can be ordered at any decent retailer.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Urban Archeology

On the Avenue Parmentier, the renovations of a shop unit have unearthed the wonderful vintage sign of one of the previous occupiers. Hand painted in graphic blacks and reds, there is definitely something here that screams the 1950s.

Although the unit is currently boarded up, it is easy to imagine how it may have been in its prime. Large plate glass windows with the latest
car models proudly displayed behind. Inside, moustachioed gentlemen in dapper suits, and a heady smell of leather, polish and petrol. This was a time when the car was one of the kings of the city and a sign of prestige, not the pariah it has become in Paris today.

Finally, for the urban archeologist, there is also an interesting clue to help date the find from these excavations. The telephone number contains seven figures, a system that was abandoned in Paris in 1963. It would even be possible to locate this photo without knowing the address of the shop, as the 023 at the begining of the number corresponded to the nearby Oberkampf telephone exchange.

Sunday 12 December 2010

The attack on Saint Joseph des Nations

Like the rest of Paris, Saint Joseph des Nations took a beating in the snow storms last Wednesday, but it was nothing compared to the battering it took in August 1899. That day it was not adverse natural weather conditions that set upon the church but a group of enraged anarchists.

The day was Sunday August 20th, and a popular newspaper, 'Le Journal du Peuple' had called for people to gather at the nearby Place du Chateau d'eau (today the Place de la République - and still the most important place for demonstrations in the city) to demand 'truth, well-being and social emancipation'. The Dreyfus affair was still on people's minds and emotions were running high.

The city police were prepared and prevented the crowds from gathering at the Place, but that just drove them in other directions - principally towards the Saint Joseph des Nations church on the Rue Saint Maur. The church as an institution was seen as being culpable in the Dreyfus affair, and therefore a legitimate target for the crowds who forced their way into this particular building.

In the hours that followed battles raged and the church was attacked and looted. Over 200 protesters were arrested and 137 police officers injured.

Théodore Ballu's building suffered the humiliation of being violated, but it was a clear sign of a society that was changing. Six years later, the French government voted to separate the church and the state and become a truly secular society. The role of the church in the running of the country was vastly reduced, turning it back towards more parochial and less controversial missions.

Saint Joseph des Nations wears its name well today, and is home to a wide range of international communities, offering services in both Portuguese and Tamil as well as in French. In the silence of the snow, few passers by would be able to imagine the building under siege from hundreds of angry protestors, and how curious it would seem anyway in a world where banks and stock exchanges have become more privileged targets.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Paris People: Mademoiselle London

Is it possible to write a portrait of someone who doesn’t exist? It’s not Mademoiselle London, an imaginary character, in front of me, but her creators, the art and writing team Katya Jezzard-Puyraud and Franki Goodwin, and yet she is ever present, somehow bigger than all of us.

But who is she, and how did she come into being? “She’s a bit of both of us” explains Katya, the writer who gives the character words and thoughts. “And she’s also anyone who’s ever felt they don’t quite belong somewhere” chips in Franki, who creates all the artwork in Mademoiselle London’s world.

Mademoiselle London is a website, happenings, poems, prose, sketches and now a book, Mademoiselle London (heart) Paris (sometimes). “Bad love affairs, bad grammar and bad hangovers”, promises the press release. The book is the opening chapter of her new life in Paris, and sees the character wresting with loneliness, language and some very dodgy characters. Underneath though there is something more tangible, something more universal. It’s a short book, attractive but dense. It’s more of an experience than a read.

The book, and Mademoiselle London’s existence, is also completely bilingual. “This element is crucial to our work” says Katya “I live everyday with two languages and I think it’s important to reflect that”. Franki the artist has no such language boundaries in her work, but she still sees the beauty of the bilingual being; “the translations take the poems in different directions. She loses her language and they can become sadder, more poignant and in some cases even funnier”. It also makes their work, and Mademoiselle London’s experiences, all the more universal.

And the ambition of the team in this respect is impressive. “Kat and Franki also have a crazy idea that their translated texts might somehow break down some of the language and cultural barriers that keep the English and French at loggerheads” cries the press release, before adding that “they don’t expect over six centuries of bickering to be undone by some bloody poems”.

They do however believe that Mademoiselle London has been created at a time when relations are beginning to change between the two nations. “I think the relationship has become much more affectionate, that we have more and more in common and are starting to understand each other better” states Franki. “For me Mademoiselle London is born out of this change - my French girlfriends read the book and don’t feel it’s about being English in Paris. It’s about being in Paris. Point!

Both of the creators are, like their invention, originally from London. Paris was a dream, a distant attraction, and yet close enough to turn into a reality. Anyone who has ever attempted such a move will be familiar with the issues and emotions it entails, all of which generally boil down to one single fact – how do you find your place in this strange new world? For Katya and Franki, the answer has been through a joint creation, an individual who could encapsulate all that they had experienced.

I am very happy to hide behind Mademoiselle London" confesses Katya. "I use her to reveal all most embarrassing stories and deepest feelings. Weirdly, since hiding behind her, my words have become more visible. And this project has really helped me find a toe-hold in this city” she adds. For Franki, some of the results have been more surprising, “when you arrive anonymously in a place where you could be anyone, you actually become more yourself than ever before. I didn’t expect that”.

The book is a view of Paris through Mademoiselle London’s eyes, but despite the many sketches, we never see the character herself. She is clearly though an individual who has grown through the exchanges between Katya’s words and Franki’s sketches. As Katya says,“I am always inspired by Franki’s drawings. She’s like a bottle of eye drops. She makes me see Paris clearly again”.

Our decision to work together was so seamless that I sort of forget where my early scribbles of Paris stopped and the birth of Mademoiselle London began” adds Franki. “I feel like she arrived when I did. I try not to “illustrate” in the traditional sense but match up things I have drawn with the wonderful pieces Kat has written. It’s more of a game of snap than a linear process from words to image”.

Mademoiselle London may not exist, but she has clearly only just been born. Many more adventures are planned for her in her adopted city, and her two creators have very clear ideas of the directions she will take. “We will be continuing our character’s Parisian adventures with a graphic novel – a riotous night in the life of Mademoiselle London. We are also planning a line of bilingual t-shirts which will launch in the New Year. Our art and writing events will continue around Paris where we hope to get ideas from everyone involved in Mademoiselle London’s life”.

You have been warned!

Mademoiselle London (heart) Paris (sometimes) is available from a selection of stores in Paris, and online here.

Sunday 5 December 2010

City Snapshots: L'Arcouest

Pont de Sevres, 8am. The sky is slate-black, it's freezing cold and drifts of snow lay across the ground. L'Arcouest, the solitary café in the neighbourhood, pulls people towards it like a magnet, offering warmth, light and a meeting point. The context, like the café and its decor, hasn't changed for decades.

There are days when no-one wants to go to work, when the day ahead promises just difficulties and dark skies. Ten minutes in L'Arcouest and a shot of hot coffee straighten your mind and put you upright again. Some will be back at lunchtime, back every lunchtime, the comfort of familiarity in plastic chairs. Others had just stopped for a moment, passing through to somewhere else.
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