The first time I encountered photographer Eugène Atget was at a photo expo at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which included other photographers like Walker Evans and Diane Arbus (I’m trying to remember the theme of this expo at the moment, but it’s not jumping out at me). Additionally, the book I recently purchased by Leonard Pitt also contains several marvelous photos of old Paris by Atget, which made me anxious to explore Paris de nouveau, so it seemed like fate that there was an Atget expo at the Bibliothèque Richelieu, and I couldn’t wait to go. Anne suggested I get off the Métro at Pyramides and stroll through the Jardin du Palais Royal on my way to the expo.
I love the parks of Paris. At any time of day, you’ll see people young and old lingering about, reading books on the benches or taking their lunch outdoors. I love the way the trees are trimmed just low enough to create a discreet space for lovers to kiss.
The Atget expo was remarkable. It was my first time seeing such a wide collection of his work in one place. Atget spent his career capturing Vieux Paris through his lens. Pitt’s book explains how Baron Haussmann demolished many of the buildings dating back to the Middle Ages in order to create the grands boulevards that we know and love today, such as Boulevard St. Germain. So at the time, Atget set out with his camera to capture the spirit of Paris before it disappeared forever. You can tell how much he loved this old version of Paris and the people who lived there during his time. The expo started with the petits métiers, the street merchants who would sell everything from herbs to lampshades in marketplaces and door-to-door. Atget also photographed streets and passages that would be demolished or renovated. He must have had his camera on a slow shutter speed, because often there were blurred figures of people moving about the streets, looking much like ghosts of a lost city.
My surprise find at the Atget expo was an American photographer who became Atget’s apprentice by the name of Berenice Abbot. She took one of the only publicly known portraits of Atget, a profile of the photographer when he was an old man. Abbot is known for many of the portraits she took of famous artists of her day, including the famous portrait of James Joyce. So once again, I discovered the name of the artist behind a work that I already appreciated.
Leaving the exhibit, I meandered aimlessly once again through the streets of Paris, this time my path leading me to Place Dauphine and the Palais de Justice, Notre Dame (who looks fabulously pristine after her makeover), and the narrow streets of Ile St. Louis.
Because I hadn’t visited Paris for six years, it’s logical that I would notice some changes. There were three differences that struck me. One is that the city has added designated bike lanes to many of its streets and bridges. So I noticed many more cyclists out and about looking quite fashionable in their outfits on their bicycles with little baskets. I was, however, concerned for their well-being because the gross majority of Parisian cyclists do not wear helmets and the French tend to be crazy drivers. Another change was the addition of the “Batobus,” a boat ride on the Seine that costs 12 Euros, but unlike the Bateaux Mouches, allows you to get on and off at your leisure. The third difference that I noticed was that it seemed like there was a lot more diversity. In the métro, I noticed a lot more Africans, North Africans and Asians than on my previous visit. Of course, I’m not saying this is a bad thing, just different. It reminded me of some of the themes of the latest election in France, and suggested to me why the Front National is so popular in France. Many of the French still long for the Paris of Old, when the face of France is quickly changing. It reminded me of the words of some stupid guy whom I met at the Dog last summer during the World Cup. I of course rooted for France, and he rooted for Italy, and he said something supremely stupid like, “There are hardly any French players on the French team.” Et voilà la mentalité de beaucoup de français. Ça craint!