A History of Paris in 150 Photographs
A new exhibit claims to present the social history of Paris as seen through the lens of Magnum photographers over the past century. But its grand vision falls just a little short.
Paris Magnum, a new exhibition at l’Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) in Paris, presents a visual scope of the French capital as depicted by notable photojournalists during the 20th century. Billed as a cinematographic “greatest hits,” the show pulls from the archives of the renowned agency, Magnum Photos, from the 1930s until today. Some 150 images are chronologically sequenced, touching on major moments in the city’s social history, including labor strikes, the Occupation, après-guerre hardships, the riots of May 1968, the construction of key cultural institutions, changing architectural topography, and scenes of quotidian urban experiences. The expo is introduced by Mayor Anne Hildalgo, who describes it as a “sensitive reading of the upheavals in French society.”
Magnum came into being as a cooperative only two years after the conclusion of World War II. It was founded by the photographic foursome Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, George Rodger, and David “Chim” Seymour. Under their jurisdiction, the photographic profession became a statut d’auteur, mixing the role of journalist with artist and eye-witness, and the group put unflappable emphasis on independence, control, and authorship. Newly empowered, the photographers kept the copyrights to their images instead of handing them over to the magazines that published their work, thus regulating the means by which their images were viewed. Magnum became a badge, a label. To date, the agency follows new photographers’ careers for over four to eight years before they may be considered for Magnum membership (there are 80 members).
Well before the launch of the agency, the founders used their cameras to capture telling snippets of city life. The exhibit’s first image is by Cartier-Bresson from 1932: two men, seen from behind, peer over a wall onto tracks leading to Gare d’Austerlitz; it’s a rather ordinary scene to open with. In 1936, David “Chim” Seymour snapped the grèves (strikes), the battlegrounds of the working classes campaigning for better circumstances. There’s Cartier-Bresson wonderful 1936 Bastille day parade shot, featuring girls standing on a car cut off at the kneecaps, while mustachioed police sit in the vehicle below and a middle-aged woman stands smiling at the camera. The planes of space and the assortment of people shown is an interesting mini cross-section of Paris. The pre-Magnum section ends with Capa’s images of the liberation, taken on August 26, 1944, showing hordes of cars, tanks, and people standing on balconies and spilling out in the streets off the Champs Elysees.
The section on the 1950s, by which time the agency was well established, boasts some photographic gems by Marc Riboud, who presents the most tongue-in-cheek view of the capital—a nun leaning offhandedly on a car, a man holding a sign for “Consultations: marriages, divorces, tribunals, work, inheritance, rentals…”.
Thereafter, the 1960s swelled with political zeal and social unrest. Raymond Depardon’s agitated Manifestation pour la paie en Algerie (1961) shows wild-eyed crowds of men, legs kicked out, with policemen elbowing into the frame from left. In Bruno Barbey’s images of the 1968 student protests, one notable photo shows a man with his arm raised as he stands aloft atop a stoplight, echoing the silhouette of the Bastille monument in the background.
The 1980s era includes an image in which we see the Pyramide du Louvre being built—a carcass in 1987, a tourist circus centerpiece now. Leonard Freed’s image Bateau Mouche (1985) reframes the city in a surprising way: no horizon lines, just a layer cake of visual planes: a tourist boat, classical French architecture, rows of cars, anonymous faces, brick detailing, deteriorating walls, wide windows.
The current period, from the 1990s through today, is surprisingly cheerless. Paris as depicted by contemporary photography appears… lackluster. Martin Parr’s stacks of rhinestone-festooned Eiffel Tower paraphernalia (2012) makes the city but a cheap souvenir; nearby, his image of pink macarons are somehow sickening instead of appetizing. If Parr’s Paris is cartoonish, others’ contemporary visions are more loaded. Harry Gruyaert’s 2006 image snapped in Villeneuve-la-Garenne (of kids playing soccer amid ugly modern buildings under an ominous sky) and Alex Majoli’s 2001 image at Barbès-Rochechouart (of two black men and the Sacré Coeur basilica looming over Montmartre) allude to the knotty identity of today’s Paris. These images evoke the city’s struggle to define itself amid new generations of immigrant populations, the divisive borders within the larger Ile-de-France region, and the generic nature of contemporary structural design.
Beyond the chronology, there’s a wall honoring key cultural figures: Picasso by Capa (1944), Simone de Beauvoir by Elliott Erwin (1949), Françoise Sagan by Burt Glinn (1958), Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Seberg by Depardon (1960), Michel Foucault by Martine Franck (1978). These portraits signal France’s artistic and intellectual import, epitomizing Paris glamour and society. They’re at once vital to French tradition, and harder to situate in the face of contemporary images like Majoli’s and Gruyaert’s.
Overall, Paris Magnum reaches both too widely and too thinly in trying to convey a sense of spectrum. From a historical point of view, it provides an enriching access to the urban memory of the arrondissements through early street photography. But ultimately, the exhibition’s move to position itself from the outset as “iconic” undercuts its effect, and makes it feel somewhat underwhelming. Photographic images influence and infuse the mythology of a city—perhaps Paris more than anywhere else—and so the notion of “revealing” the city in any new way at this point is quite a feat.
These photographers are respected, indeed, but that is not in and of itself enough to provide insight about the city. The exhibition claims to encapsulate the evolution of Paris through Magnum’s photography; but is any exhibition able to fulfill this promise authentically? What qualifies as vast enough, as comprehensive enough, as representative enough to faithfully render a city and its people? Magnum’s legacy is writ large, and its influence is evident, yet there’s a whiff of over-promise here—partially due to the grandiosity of the wall texts, which do not match the scope of the visual offerings.
Moreover, the exhibition begs the question: how do we come to privilege certain images? Magnum is an entrusted brand, with an irrefutably global reach. Yet it is plagued by at least one dazzling oversight: for an agency built on chronicling forward-thinking change, rights, equality, and politics, it remains, to this very day, almost exclusively male. That goes for its contemporary membership roster as well as for the photographers represented in the exhibition. (Martine Franck, a wonderful photographer and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s wife, and Inge Morath, an Austrian-born photographer who married Arthur Miller, are the exceptions here.) Given this omission, it is problematic to claim a balanced and full look at a major global city while it excluded a diversity of visions—especially under the guise of a progressive institution. It doesn’t negate the iconic moments sprinkled throughout Magnum’s history displayed here, but to assert that Paris has been rendered to its essence over only 150 photos becomes an even less convincing thesis.
Paris Magnum: Exhibition runs from December 12, 2014-March 28, 2015.
Catalogue, published by Flammarion (2014), includes photographs from the Magnum Photos archives and text by Éric Hazan.