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Doisneau: Paris Les Halles
at the Hôtel de Ville, Paris, until 28 April 2012.
To judge from the enormous queue in front of the Hôtel de Ville to get into this magnificent exhibition of Doisneau’s photographs, there remains a Les Halles shaped void in the Parisian heart. There is perhaps no real place in Paris which exerts such fascination as the memory of Les Halles, “le ventre de Paris.” Of all the wounds inflicted on the city during the same period, from the rive gauche expressway (1967) to the Tour Montparnasse (1973), perhaps none was so psychically damaging as the closing of Les Halles in 1969. There was something intimate about this particular blow; it was literally a punch to the stomach, a bureaucratic meddling with the primal, particularly in France, human need for nourishment.
As Doisneau’s photos show us, Les Halles was also a world unto itself, with its own characters, hierarchy and vocabulary. His images benefit immensely from the trust built up between photographer and subjects over many years. Doisneau took his first photograph of Les Halles, Les filles au diable, in 1933, continued through the 1940s and 1950s, but began a systematic documentation of the place in 1967, when the transfer of its functions to the modern facility at Rungis was announced:
I wanted to spend one night a week at Les Halles so I woke up at three in the morning, in Montrouge, to get there among the dawn workers, those who emptied the trucks, those who put the merchandise in place. It was difficult to photograph: the lack of light, reflexes slowed by fatigue, so many possible images! And it was intimidating. But I took it on. I knew that it was going to disappear. I absolutely wanted to preserve its memory.
The power of Doisneau’s images derives both from their beauty and what they teach us. These photos document a physical place and an endangered culture. They are simultaneously an elegy for what is about to be destroyed, a protest against its destruction and a celebration of the few years which remained.
As a photographer of doomed places, Doisneau has an interesting oblique relationship with another Parisian photographer, Charles Marville (1816-1879), who a century earlier was hired to document the changes being made under the Second Empire. Both documented a city in the midst of swift transformation, but from completely different points of view, for completely different ends, in eras with completely different ideas about urban preservation. Where Marville’s usually depopulated images gain poignance from their seeming neutrality in the face of the extraordinary scenes they document, Doisneau manages to wear his heart on his sleeve without ever forgetting his duty to “preserve the memory,” that is to let photography do what it does most naturally. Like the best photographs they are simultaneously technically accomplished (particularly the many night images), beautiful and of immense documentary importance. They allow us in 2012, and above those of us who never knew Les Halles, to begin to understand how it worked, what happened at different times of night and day, what roles there were to fill and how all of this played out in the singular urban space of the 12 glass and steel Baltard pavilions and the surrounding streets (in the streets one found among many other attractions the “carré des merdeux” where, as one of the excellent exhibition labels tells us, cheaper produce in “strange colors” could be found).
Like the city of Renoir, Doisneau’s Paris, as depicted in photographs such as the famous Kiss of 1950 (taken a few steps from the site of the current exhibition), tends to be, at least on the surface, a cheerful place. If we distrust cheerful art today (when bleakness is almost a tic in contemporary art), or treat it as escapist entertainment, we miss a great deal. What complicates and deepens Doisneau’s images (or Renoir’s Le bal du Moulin de la Galette (1876) — “the most beautiful painting of the nineteenth century”)is their combination of ephemeral gestures and settings. We oracles of 2012 know the historical fate of the places Doisneau depicted, whether the gentrification of a neighborhood or the disappearance of the concierges, one of Doisneau’s favorite subjects, who haunted the ground floors of Parisian immeubles before the invention of the digicode. A seemingly innocuous image of a child playing in the street also documents the curbstones and strange emptiness of a lost Paris. There is a difference between fascination with the past and nostalgia. Whether one is nostalgic or not for the bygone city, to have it documented with such spirit is a great gift both to art and to history. Les Halles seems nearly resurrected.
Doisneau’s adopts a variety of techniques and points of view across the Les Halles photos. Sometimes the various personages are intently aware of his presence, posing, showing off or grinning broadly and sometimes the images seem stolen. We see Les Halles mostly from eye level, but also from on high, perhaps from a fourth story window, its seeming chaos taking on patterns which reveal the market as a place of daily repetition and routine. He makes sure to document the architecture itself, in black and white (La structure métallique de Baltard, 1969) and in color as demolition begins (Baltard en morceaux, 1975).
Doisneau’s framing is sometimes unconventional. He often uses the portrait format where one might conventionally expect a landscape, especially as Les Halles was, like most of Paris, a horizontally-organized space. The portrait format allows Doisneau to focus his gaze while capturing slices of different activities, perhaps a charming marchande de fleurs, her flowers, a bit of the crowd around her and, above, the airy heights of, in Napoleon III’s words, the “vastes parapluies” of the pavilions. A series depicting various pedestrians leaping over a gutter filled with market sweepings is also framed in portrait, an unexpected choice which heightens the sense of an instant being captured, the figure squeezed between the narrow edges of the frame. What could be an amusing, slightly anodyne slice of urban life becomes poignant in a vertical format which unites the passing moment with the more enduring (though not by much) buildings behind and the sky above. This is the lot of the Parisian photographer, how to avoid the clichés which lurk on every corner, riding Vélibs stacked with fresh baguettes, smoking Gauloises beneath the shadows of their berets.
Doisneau goes all the way to the end and beyond with his subject. In one weekend in 1969 nearly all the activity of Les Halles, which had been a market since the 12th century, was transferred to the immense, efficient spaces of Rungis, seven kilometers south of Paris, where it remains. In Doisneau’s photographs, the effect is like science fiction, as though an alien culture has been suddenly beamed off its world. At Les Halles, the personages shared a timeless quality with the architecture. There is not too much difference between the place in 1933 and in 1969, in spite of immense changes in the world outside. People always needed that enduringly medieval world where they could obtain, every single day, their vegetables, flowers and B.O.F. (beurre, oeufs, fromages). The effect of seeing these same people at Rungis, for the first time overwhelmed by their surroundings, is heartbreaking. One suddenly and forcefully understands what has been lost.
Doisneau also documents the famous “trou” of Les Halles, the epic hole which followed the demolition in 1974-75, and the opening of the Forum Les Halles in 1979, a full ten years after the last leek was sold, the last bouillabaisse slurped, at Les Halles. For those of us who imagined that the Forum looked dilapidated from birth, seeing it bright and shiny new, populated by young Parisians whose thoughts — ‘this might be groovy after all’ — you can almost read, is surprising. Even for its era, the Forum proved a remarkably ephemeral piece of architecture, almost as though it was ashamed to exist. It is gone now, unlamented, to be replaced by a complete do-over — the massive canopy and gardens which won a design competition in 2007. Though likely to correct the flaws of its predecessor, Les Halles remains a trou too deep to be filled by architecture.