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Friday, 9 March 2012


Photographs of Paris by Yvon

Man Ray: A man in love with a woman from a different era. I see a photograph! Luis Bunuel: see a film!
Gil: I see an insurmountable problem!
Salvador Dali: I see a rhinoceros!
Woody Allen: Midnight in Paris

The opening sequence to Midnight in Paris begins with a shot of the Eiffel Tower (naturally) at dawn. As the day progresses other landmarks appear - the Arc de Triomphe, Place de la Concorde, the Pont de Neuf - interspersed with scenes of people hurrying through the streets. An afternoon shower arrives, blows over and by nightfall we are back at the Eiffel Tower. In three minutes we get an effectively understated and elliptical impression of the city so that as soon as Owen Wilson turns up to the hotel you know he has not just fallen in love with Paris, it’s already everything he has imagined it to be. There aren’t many cities that can get that kind of treatment. New York is too noisy and overwhelmed by skyscrapers, Rome used to in the 1950s and London almost could except, honestly, it doesn’t have a reputation as a romantic town. The other reason the sequence works is that Paris has been so thoroughly photographed that even if you haven’t been there you will recognize the places. You have seen them before.

About five years ago I made some enquiries to a respectable photographic dealer about Yvon photographs and got the response that they were very cheap; in other words, why bother? Well, it’s true; you still shouldn’t have to pay more than a couple of dollars for a vintage photo postcard by Yvon, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t good. Cheap can also mean undervalued, or in Yvon’s case, there is so much of his work floating about that you can reassess his place in history and anoint him to the pantheon of great French photographers if you want; that isn’t going to budge prices. Good. We are lucky, because in an era when fine art photography is increasingly being marketed out of the reach of a lot of people, it’s important that we can still buy an excellent image like the one at the top of the page for next to nothing. It is among Yvon’s most famous shots, taken sometime in the 1930s when Paris was the centre of surrealism, and if he had been in the right circle and only released a few prints, today it would be considered a masterpiece of French photography. 

In 2010 W. W Norton published a book dedicated to Yvon’s photographs by Robert Stevens. Not having seen the book in the flesh it is hard to comment except that several reviews carry the observation that Yvon invented the Paris of our imaginations. By that the critics mean that when we think of Paris in the last century we unconsciously conjure up images he saw first. I doubt they believed that. Paris in the 1920s and 30s does have vivid connotations for a lot of us but the scenes are intimate - smoky cafes and jazz clubs inhabited by left bank artists and intellectuals – not his grand vistas. It is unlikely that several critics hit upon the same notion without a little help, so we can assume the book gave it to them but so far as photography was concerned, Yvon’s commercial instincts drew him to a Paris everyone would recognize and he sought locations already instilled in popular consciousness. Take as an example the study of the Palais de Trocadéro through the framework of the Eiffel Tower. By 1900 photographs from almost exactly the same viewpoint were being produced as postcards, half tone, photochrom prints and other processes so even people who hadn’t been to Paris knew the scene well.

In the 1900s Eugene Atget used to get up at four in the morning, pack his camera and tripod and trudge across Paris just to capture a particular street corner at sunrise. Such dedication has never been that uncommon among photographers but it required something more than simply forgoing sleep. If walking the streets and observing various features appeared to be a desultory, aimless waste of time, it actually required discipline and a practiced ability at observing small details. In effect the photographer had to see and compose the image, sometimes weeks before it was eventually taken. It is obvious from Yvon’s photographs that he subjected himself to the same rigours as Atget. He didn’t just stumble on these scenes on his walks but noted them, calculated the best conditions for the photograph he wanted and then returned at the right time, regardless of the hour. Dawn was best, when the weak light created the strongest atmosphere and the streets were empty of people. They are rare in his images. He probably saw them as an inconvenience unless, like the bookseller above, they represented an essential element of the Parisian street. 

The big distinction between Atget and Yvon is that Atget’s work was much more personal. His city was represented by small shopfronts and anonymous backstreets and often as not the photograph could have feasibly been taken in any French or, for that matter European, town as Paris. Working just a few years later, Yvon rarely published an image that wasn’t immediately identifiable as being Paris. This difference didn’t come down to a question of how closely one or the other observed or how they defined the city but their market. Atget advertised himself as a photographer of scenes for artists, a job description he invented himself for a business with a limited but faithful clientele. Yvon wanted the general public. With that in mind he published his photographs as postcards and small snaps in paper wallets. He could have found work with a magazine or a publisher but by going out on his own he kept a couple of things Atget also valued; independence and integrity. 

What really distinguishes Yvon’s photographs from the enormous pile of clichés is a particular atmosphere. Fog was his friend and the best time to make use of it was just before dawn in late autumn. Some of the critics not only compared Yvon to Atget but to Brassaï (or rather, Stephens did) and presumably they weren’t just thinking of the two photographers coincidentally wandering through the city but an atmosphere. Shooting around Montparnasse and Montmartre, Brassaï used fog to heighten the seedy and slightly dangerous ambience. You get the impression his subjects regarded the weather as useful cover and protection.  You can also date Brassaï’s work to the 1930s because of the cars and the clothes people wore. In Yvon’s work, Paris in the fog became stately, baroque and somewhat gloomy, and it was timeless too.  A lot of Yvon’s photographs could have been taken at any time fifty years either side of when they actually were. 

A photographer who set out to sell as much of his work as he could via the cheapest and most accessible formats available would hardly care how posterity judged him. Even so, Yvon (his real name incidentally was Pierre Yves-Petit) deserved a monograph. If some of the claims made in his favour are dubious, compare his work instead to his rivals, the dozens of other companies plying the postcard and snapshot market and it becomes apparent that he worked harder, cared more about his work and had standards that wouldn’t allow him to compromise. Like the others, he tended to keep his distance when he shot a scene, framing the point of interest in the centre so there could be no ambiguity about what the viewer was supposed to be looking at, but his work is better than average because he chose vantage points that encouraged the viewer to look into the image and see its details. If he wasn’t the genius the critics declare he was he didn’t have to be. The real mark of his photographs wasn’t that they show the Paris of your imagination but one he had an affinity for. That was Gil’s discovery at the end of Midnight in Paris too. You know at the end as he walks off into the rain with Gabrielle that he will never meet Hemingway, Gertrude Stein or the others again but their Paris vanished years ago.

Apart from the postcard of the rhinoceros, these photos come from an album of some 80 miniature views collected some time in the 1920s.


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