In Mauritian, the traveler is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine some old postcards that show it as it used to be: the same identical square with a hen in the place of the bus station, a bandstand in the place of the overpass, two young ladies with white parasols in the place of the munitions factory. If the traveler does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one, though he must be careful to contain his regret at the changes within definite limits admitting that the magnificence and prosperity of the metropolis Mauritian, when compared to the old, provincial Mauritian, cannot compensate for a certain lost grace, which, however, can be appreciated only now in the old postcards, whereas before, when that provincial Mauritian was before one’s eyes, one saw absolutely nothing graceful and would see it even less today, if Mauritian had remained unchanged; and in any case the metropolis has the added attraction that, through what it has become, one can look back with nostalgia at what it was.
~ from Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (Cities & Memory 5)
I have no idea how to photograph Paris. Luckily the city (the current one) just throws itself at you in a hundred lovely ways. Would you like long rows of chestnut trees in perfect symmetry with lovely park benches artfully spaced throughout? How about long narrow streets that glow in the late afternoon light, with walkers throwing long deep shadows your way? Would you like a canal that suddenly surfaces in the arrondissement where you live? Perhaps a wide, slow moving river with barges and bridges and lampposts and a thousand-year-old cathedral straddling an island in the middle of said river? How about a (possibly intoxicated) French dancer magnificently sculpted across a sofa?
More to the point. I don’t know how to see this city. Making pictures in a situation like this, in a city like this, isn’t exactly doomed, but it’s weird. I don’t know this place. I think it helps to know a place before photographing it. I do not wish to disappoint the inhabitants.
Still, a traveler can make some nice pictures here. Given the intense beauty everywhere you look, you simply keep your eyes and heart open, keep moving, stay on the lookout for the light, and try to stand (sort of) in the right place. And then hope for the best. If all else fails, steal from the masters. If an image needs a touch of lipstick, there’s always the last minute rescue, the guilty pleasure, the cheap trick of the Instagram filter. (I like Crema, Juno, and sometimes Inkwell.)
Among the photographers I care about and love most in the world are two men who made so many memorable pictures of Paris it’s like they created the city in theIr viewfinders and poof there was Paris for all the world to see and visit and love. They didn’t just know Paris, they were Paris. The first is Andre Kertész, who was born in Budapest, but moved here in 1925. He didn’t know exactly why he came here, but he has said, “he had to come.” (And there you were wondering to yourself if Andre Kertész was a romantic by nature.) By 1927, his reputation was flying so high over the city’s chimney pots he became the first photographer in Paris to have a solo show. Kertész had bought one of the first Leica’s in Paris and in every way, in the late 1920s, Andre was the man. On the night of his one man show at Au Sacre de Printemps, Józef Śliwiński, a Polish classical pianist performed, and the Dadaist poet, Paul Dermée, read this piece below, created for the occasion.
By Paul Dermee, 1927
(Translated by Jill Anson)
his child’s eyes see each thing for the first time;
they see a great king naked when he is dressed in lies; they are frightened by the canvas-shrouded phantoms
who haunt the banks of the Seine;
innocently they delight in new pictures made by three sunlit chairs in the Luxembourg Gardens, Mondrian’s door opening onto a staircase, Eyeglasses tossed near a pipe on a table.
there is no method, no arrangement, no deception, no embroidery,
your style as true your vision.
in this asylum for the blind, Kertesz sees for us.
Later, in the dark days of 1936, Kertész made a decision that would have grave ramifications for his creative life. Being a Jew in France wasn’t safe, (see Letters from Paris #4, down below) so he left the City of Light to take a two-year assignment with an agency in America. The war brought complications and he couldn’t get back. America had absolutely no idea what to do with an artist like Andre Kertész. It’s no exaggeration to say this move cost him twenty years. At the time he left Paris, Kertész was single-handedly reimagining modern photography and the city’s painters, writers, poets, publishers, gallery owners, and other photographers like Cartier-Bresson and Brassai, (who were looking to him for inspiration) knew it.
From left to right: Montmartre, Paris, Andre Kertesz | Gypsy Children Kissing, Esztergom, Hungary, 1917, Andre Kertesz
He sailed away to a stupid job and a country that couldn’t have cared less who he was, or how loving and beautiful and intelligent his eye was. Years later, around the mid 1970s, the world finally woke up and realized oh my god Andre Kertész is still with us—we better start paying attention. And then came the one man shows again — but this time in America, in New York, at MOMA—right where he belonged. It was then, as his bitterness had begun to lift, that his beloved wife Elizabeth died after a long bout with lung cancer. Maybe the lesson is to never leave Paris.
Images top left to right: Chez Mondrian 1926, Paris, Andre Kertesz | Modrian’s Glasses and Pipe, 1926, Paris, Andre Kertesz | Tuileries, Paris, Andre Kertesz | Eiffel Tower, 1929 Paris, Andre Kertesz
Andre Kertesz had no formal art training—he found his own way. He served as a photographer in the First World War, got injured and made pictures (Google The Swimmer by Kertesz) during his convalescence. There is charm and music and love for the world in nearly every single Kertész photograph. There’s a deep and intuitive understanding of what a photograph is and can be. Paul Dermee had it right. No method, no arrangement, no deception, no embroidery. (And no Instagram filters). Henri Cartier Bresson said, “Every time Andre Kertész’ shutter clicks, I feel his heart beating.” You look at the pictures today and you can feel that beating heart still. He created Paris. The one that is here right now today, and the one in the postcards, too.
In the very same year that Andre Kertesz got his one man show, Eugene Atget died. During the previous thirty years that he photographed Paris, Eugene Atget never once had an exhibition of his work. Least of all one that involved a classical pianist and a Dadaist poet. (He would have flown out of that scene as fast as his French legs could take him.)
Atget lost his parents as a young boy, became a merchant marine for a while, took a turn as an actor and traveled around France with a small repertory company. Around age forty, he picked up a camera and set about documenting one of the great cities of the world, and in so doing, became one of the most beloved, inspired practitioners to ever make pictures. And it wasn’t just any camera he picked up, it was a massive bellows camera, that along with tripod and plates, pushed 40 pounds. He lugged that kit all over the place for three decades. Atget is the one who shows you where the bandstand used to be, the one where the overpass is now, covered in graffiti.
Around 1897, Atget’s customers were the architects and artisans who wanted examples of old architectural models as well as the amateurs of the ancient city who deplored the modernization projects of Napoleon III and his agent, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann who had razed and rebuilt much of Paris during the last half of the 19th century. Atget also sold his pictures to illustrators and independent painters.
Images top left to right: #1 Arbre Trianon 1919-1921 | Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve | Hotel de Barbancois, Rue de Quatre Fils 20 | Ville d’Avray – Etang de Corot | Parc Delessert, 32 Quai de Passy | Buttes Chaumont, 1926 | Hotel Lepelletier Saint-Rargeau, Rue de Savigne
To say why is futile but I’ll try anyway. I love the work of Atget and Kertesz because their pictures are lyrical and elegant and they do more than describe, they evoke. Turning the pages of their books is like turning the pages of memory and imagination itself. We are all indebted to Eugene and Andre, who made music out of parks and trees, fountains and alleyways, rivers and staircases, and left us these beautiful images to live by.
Looking ahead, how do I even begin to talk about Lyon? I’ll have to think long and hard because Lyon was pure magic. For tonight, we lay our heads down in a very quiet, very beautiful room. A few steps away, across the center of town, is the Duomo of Orvieto, one of the most beautiful in all of Italy. This traveler has been here before. One night many years earlier, he found himself in a wine cave with a dozen travelers all from his own hometown. Everyone ate rabbit stew and got roaring drunk.