Paris in Less Than a Month

Ed Osowski

Ed Osowski, a frequent
SPOT contributor, had the opportunity to visit Paris during the Mois de la Photo ’92 in November. The following is his assessment of the world-famous photography celebration.

Three days before I flew to Paris is mid-November I received a piece of mail from the friend with whom I was planning to stay. His letter included a brief note: “Good luck! You have your work cut out for you.” I had asked my friend to send me information about Mois de la Photo and he had obliged with a page torn from the magazine Art Press. As I counted the exhibitions listed—twenty-one in galleries and twenty-five in museums and public institutions—I knew that I would need more than just luck to see them all. With only five days to take them all in, I’d also need a good pair of running shoes.

This year’s Mois de la Photo was the seventh biennial appearance of the celebration of photography that inspired, seven years ago, the establishment of FotoFest in Houston. To see it all I hit the ground running.

The Palais de Tokyo, built for the 1937 World Exposition, sits on the right bank of the Seine directly in line with the Eiffel Tower. Adjacent to it is the City of Paris’ Museum of Modern Art. Several years ago, the Palais de Tokyo evolved into the National Center of Photography, an institution that mounts an impressive number of shows annually. In addition, the National Center of Photography instituted a remarkable series of inexpensive paperbacks, published in the United States by Pantheon, that trace the history of photography with volumes devoted to individuals—Robert Frank, André Kertész—and to themes—the nudes, American photographers of the Depression, for example.

I was one day late to see “En Avion,” a show, judging from its catalogue, that presented the romance of flight. Once inside, I discovered not one but four other exhibitions installed in the impressive, starkly modern halls of Palais de Tokyo. The principle show, “Images d’un autre monde: la photographie scientifique,” was also the basis for the center’s forty-seventh small publication. The show itself was staggeringly huge and filled five large galleries. I was reminded of the close link that exists between technology and photography and questionable belief that photography, as an aid to science and medicine, somehow captures the “truth.”

The first photographs o see were nineteenth-century images of the mentally and physically different and early examples of efforts to photograph the planets and the hidden world of cells inside plants and animals. That “truth” is a construct of its time became immediately clear in examining these “objective” images of persons suffering from physical or emotional illnesses and the naïve belief that some understanding of their state of health could be found by examining photographic images of them.

As the show advanced, huge color works dominated, demonstrating the continuing link between photography and science: NASA photographs of the sun enlarged microscopic views of muscles and tissues. For the nonscientist, it was a daunting experience, a National Geographic-like exploration of unknown territories, some deep within the body itself, that left an odd feeling: little of what I saw made sense. But it was also very benign. Science here held no threats, no dangers. If nature is a foreign world, “Images” left one troubled by the reduction of its foreign-ness to a collection of swirling shapes and patterns.

You don’t rest at the National Center of Photography. Even its card shop was a venue for a small, charming show, “La danse,” with works by Eve Arnold, Cornell Capa and Eadweard Muybridge, among others, and all reproduced in the center’s 1993 calendar.

A show of photographs of series and sequences, “L’épreuve numérique” came next. Here the decorative qualities of the first show were jettisoned: normal, orderly, and expected flow of sequences was broken or discarded. High art mixed with low art; advertising hung next to portraits. But “L’épreuve numérique” suffered from being too large an assemblage to make a coherent statement. Its curators seemed so attracted to the notion of sequences that they failed to establish any distinctions between a series used to advertise Chanel perfume, to cite on example, and portraits of the painte Francis Bacon in which Bacon’s face dissolves into an uncanny likeness of his own paintings.

The remaining show, “Digital Photography,” was also an experience in coming home. Here were photographers familiar to Houston Center for Photography members: Paul Berger, Carol Flax, Esther Parada, and MANUAL (Suzanne Bloom and Ed Hill). A bilingual catalogue came with the show. The works were beautifully shown and complemented each other thoughtfully. Here one saw that photographs can rewrite what and how we see, that the facts of history aren’t frozen, that social patterns are open to redefinition, and that nature itself is an artificial creation.

Near the Bois de Boulogne, the National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions attracts busloads of school children to its dioramas of life in France over the past centuries. What drew me was “Kaliña: des Amerindiens à Paris,” a small show of ethnographic pictures taken by Prince Roland Bonaparte in 1892 when a group of natives of Guyana visited Paris. While the exhibition’s catalogue reproduced more than fifty photographs, only thirteen were displayed in a tiny gallery. The French fascination with the “exotic” runs deep. One recalls the great success of “La Baker,” the American performer Josephine Baker, three decades after these were made. Bonaparte’s images are cool, remote, surprisingly modern. Like Irving Penn’s images of the Indians of Peru, Bonaparte portrays his subjects “out of context” in neutral, white spaces, making them into abstract representations of the other, the different.

Surprisingly Paris’ two principal public museums devoted to art since the invention of photography (Musée d’Orsay and Centre Georges Pompidou) paid little attention to Mois. At the d’Orsay, the museum’s permanent photography galleries were closed for physical repairs, a peculiar way to celebrate Mois, I thought. And where was “Hill et Adamson: la première reportage photographique,” the show I had come to see? Three guards sent me in three different directions. A fourth simply pointed her hand to two small galleries, quite close by and empty. The d’Orsay is filled with treasures—major works by the Impressionists and post-Impressionists. But it is also filled with huge, pompous, tasteless works that are, actually, quite at home in a building that seems to try to overpower its art. Seeing the calm, repetitive images of Hill and Adamson was not a high priority to visitors to the d’Orsay: I had the exhibition to myself.

At the Pompidou, participation in Mois was even more low-key than at the d’Orsay; thirty-four portraits of Latin-American writers by Sara Facio and Alicia d’Amico were shown in the public library, a facility that shares physical space with Paris’ principal museum of modern art but is administered separately. Facio and d’Amico work with a style that is indistinguishable—direct, clear, sharp, producing the kind of image one might find on the jacket of a book by one of their subjects. The images of Fuentes, Garcia Lorca, Vargas Llosa, and others demonstrated the dangers of turning the artist into a celebrity. Facio and d’Amico offer romantic images that turn their subjects into Saturday matinee idols.

At the Musée des arts de la mode et du textile, in a building vacated because of I.M. Pei’s redesign of the Louvre, I found “Man Ray: les Années Bazaar, 1934-42.” Covering a period actually longer that its title indicated, the exhibition explored in depth Man Ray’s fascination with surrealism and his efforts at dismembering and reconfiguring the female body.

Parisians love Paris. A visit to the Musée Carnavalet confirms that statement. Located in the Marais, not very far from the Musée Picasso and the Place des Vosges, this Renaissance “hotel” now houses the Museum of the History of Paris. It was also the one institution that seemed to take Mois most seriously. Posters with a photograph by Claude Baillargeon—a camera cleverly placed on top of the Eiffel Tower—led viewers to the museum and its principal exhibition, “Portraits d’une capitale.” The Carnavalet has a huge collection of photographs that it has only recently begun to inventory. Accompanied by a catalogue, “Portraits” was a huge show that documented how Paris and Parisians have changed over time. At the Carnavalet, the emphasis is always on “documentation.” Even the new photographs it purchased have a conservative feel to them. The installation of “Portraits” solved the problem of how to display hundreds of images in a limited space: viewers were given white gloves to wear and were allowed to flip through Plexiglas holders, mounted on the walls, which contained the photographs. Cartes-de-visite were displayed in tall, thin, vertical, holders mounted on posts. And slightly larger photographs were propped in rows in oversized easels.

The Carnavalet deals heavily in nostalgia, a dreamy reverence for “les temps perdus.” It was the Carnavalet that employed Atget and commissioned him to document Paris. It bought and displayed his work during his lifetime. “Les voitures d’Atget,” a show of sixty photographs of horse drawn carriages, trams, carts, and trucks, was mounted in two galleries on the second floor. Atget himself was no slave to the cult of nostalgia. Only his fans seem to be. While the visitors to the Carnavalet were more interested in watching a video of motorized buses and cars in Paris several years after the date of Atget’s work, this visitor had the chance to look at Atget’s images with few interruptions. What a close look reinforces is Atget’s concern—nearly a compulsion—to use the camera to record things, without desiring to hold naïvely onto a fleeting or disappearing past.

At the Bibliothèque Nationale, “La photographie pictorialiste en France” compared several copies of Camera Work with images by French photographers—Robert Demachy, Geroges Berteaux, Georges Guillaume—who worked between 1890 and 1910 and strove to impart to photography the same “fine art” qualities Alfred Stieglitz championed in the United States. It was a wonderful exhibition, small and precise, yet clearly demonstrating the continuities that link photographic expression across national boundaries.

Mois de la Photo held surprises of course. Not all exhibitions were exemplary. Galerie du Prévot showed fifty small, insignificant photographs of Parisian street life by Daniele Buertin. The majority were works a tourist would recognize as “typically Parisian.” A few images of homeless Parisians held one’s attention simply because they were so unexpected among the more charming and quaint works on display.

Little did I know that I had saved the best for last. The night before I was scheduled to leave Paris, my host invited me to a small dinner party. The guests included several gallery owners, a painter, and a sculptor whose works the host admired and collected. I told him that I was in Paris to write about Mois and asked what was the one show not to miss. The agreement was unanimous: the American photographer Andres Serrano at Galerie Lambert. The sculptor was rhapsodic in her praise. “Magnificent,” she repeated, “like works from Quatrocento.”

I was back in Marais at Yvon Lambert early the next day. Galerie Yvon Lambert is stunning; its principal room huge and tall, lit by an enourmous skylight. It regularly shows, I was told, the best new art in Paris and rarely shows photography.

Serrano’s series of eighteen huge (three by four feet) photographs was taken in a morgue. The works have titles like Rat Poison Suicide, Hacked to Death, and AIDS-Related Death. I thought of Georges de la Tour and Caravaggio whose dramatic lighting and lines echoed Serrano’s works, or, indeed, of Quatrocento paintings of Christ and the martyrs. The work also called to mind photographers like George Krause whose images of Mexican saints were echoed here. Serrano’s images of the dead—victims of murder or fire or suicide—are dramatic, assaulting, disturbing, and incredibly beautiful. One does not forget them easily.

Thirteen exhibitions in five days. I had barely cracked the list sent me before I traveled to Paris. But I had added to that list—the exhibitions of nudes and of Serrano, for example. Mois contained more than I could see; I actually knew that would be the case before I began my trip. But there were exhibitions listed in the hefty catalogue of Mois that had not opened when I went to see them. (The catalogue actually lists seventy-two different exhibitions but gives no dates for them.) I went to at least six locations only to learn that exhibitions like “La Lithuanie au tournant du siècle” had not yet opened. And I also knew that I had seen Bert Stern’s photographs of Marilyn Monroe or Helmut Newton’s tired images enough times to make visits to those exhibitions unnecessary.

Mois de la Photo in Paris makes demands on the viewer that Houston’s FotoFest never does. Quite simply, by grouping the majority of its exhibitions in one space, in the Brown Convention Center, a viewer is spared the task of getting around. And even though Paris is a wonderful city to move through and its Metro makes travel fast and inexpensive (except when there are slowdowns; I experienced one when I was there), I still had to move quickly and often to se even a small number of the exhibitions. But moving has its merits. I visited several galleries simply because I passed them on my way to the Metro. And moving gives one the time to absorb the images—thousands of them—that pass before one’s eyes.

Ed Osowski is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and his reviews appear regularly in the Houston Post.