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Eugène Atget Exhibition at the Musée Carnavalet

AS THE VERY SUCCESSFUL Bernice Abbott exhibition comes to a close in the Jeu de Paume, an exhibition of the work of the man who inspired her, Eugène Atget, opens in the Musée Carnavalet. I went along to see it and was enthralled by it.

Listening to the pictures:

Atget is somewhat of an enigma. Today he is the most celebrated of all the photographers of Vieux Paris, Old Paris, but when he died in 1927 scarcely anyone had heard of him.

Eugène Atget photographed by Bernice Abbott in 1927

He was born in 1857 in modest circumstances in Libourne in the Gironde. As a young man he seemed to fail at everything he turned his hand to. He tried acting, soldiering and painting but failed at all three. His only success was to meet and to marry Valentine Delafosse-Compagnon, an actress who was devoted to him.

Atget and Valentine moved to Paris and around 1890, in order to make a living, he took up photography. Initially he produced study material for artists, images of trees, flowers and various objects for artists to incorporate into their compositions. It was towards the end of the 1890’s that he changed direction and set out to make a systematic photographic record of Paris. He photographed everything – the streets, the shops fronts, the tradesmen, the interiors and architectural details – he captured every aspect of Vieux Paris.

Atget worked hard. Every day was spent on the streets of Paris laden with cumbersome equipment, a bellows camera, glass plates in plate holders, a focusing cloth, a lens case and a wooden tripod. He eschewed the new flexible negatives that had become available which made life easier; he preferred to remain faithful to his old equipment and old habits. He travelled everywhere by bus or Metro carrying all his equipment.

In Atget’s world, photography was not only hard work it was really quite technical too. He used an 18 x 24 cm plate camera with a rectilinear lens. This is a lens, still in use today, that ensures that the vertical lines of buildings always remain vertical. He liked to work in the early morning because he preferred the light at that time and this resulted in lots of photographs with quite eerie empty streets and ghostly people.

Virtually all the Atget photographs we see today are albumen prints. The paper was sold impregnated with whipped and salted egg white which the photographer soaked in a bath of silver nitrate. Sensitised and dried, the paper was laid in the printing frame with the glass negative and exposed to sunlight until an image appeared, then fixed and toned with a salt of gold.

But it is not for his technical mastery that Atget will be remembered. It is rather for his day in day out unrelenting work recording the face of Paris that was constantly changing. He was not interested in Haussmann’s Paris – rich, grand, pretentious – but in a picturesque section of a wall that was on the point of collapsing, or in any touching or unexpected detail. Although his technique belongs to the nineteenth-century, his vision belongs firmly with us today.

On show at the exhibition are of some of Atget’s most well know photographs along with some pictures that have never been exhibited before.

I recommend this exhibition as a ‘must see’ for anyone with an interest in this wonderful city.

The exhibition EUGÈNE ATGET, PARIS runs from 25th April to 29th July 2012 at:

Musée Carnavalet

23, rue de Sévigné

75003 Paris

Tél. : 01 44 59 58 58

Open every day from 10 h to 18 h except Mondays and public holidays.

Tarif: 7 euros

Nearest Metro: Saint-Paul; Line 1


Piano Al Fresco

I FOUND MYSELF IN THE  9th arrondissement in the Galeries Lafayette Homme. ‘Homme’ being the part of that majestic temple to shopping devoted to menswear.

I entered full of ideas and good intentions but the plethora of big brand names and extravagant prices completely overwhelmed me so I left empty-handed.

Leaving the Galeries Lafayette I found a young man sitting on a stool playing a piano in the middle of the pavement. Living in Paris one gets used to seeing the quirky and accepting it as being quite normal but this spectacle did grab my attention.

Piano Al Fresco 01:

Quirky the sight may have been but, gallantly competing with the very harsh traffic noise, the young man gave a bravura performance.

PIANO Al Fresco 02:


La Presidentielle and The Media Circus

TODAY, THE FRENCH WENT to the polls in the first round of the Presidential election. If I could vote in France, which I can’t, I would have voted at the polling station just outside my apartment building.

Outside each polling station posters of all the candidates in the election are displayed. In today’s election there were ten candidates.

Like many polling stations my local one was a school.

Before today, all the opinion polls had François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy more or less neck and neck after the first round but with François Hollande having a commanding lead in the second round.

Just to explain, to win the Presidential election a candidate must win over 50% of the vote. If no candidate achieves that in the first round then the top two candidates go through to a second round of voting with all the other candidates eliminated.

Since François Hollande seemed to be riding high, I decided to go to his Parti Socialiste headquarters in the Rue de Solferino this afternoon some five hours before the closing of the polls.

Rue de Solferino:

What always fascinates me on occasions like this is the media circus that appears.

I live in Paris and I take an interest in French politics but I am not single-minded about it. I also have a great interest in the media and particularly in the technology of the media. So, wandering through the satellite trucks, the cameras and the miles of cables was fascinating for me. ‘Boys and their Toys’ I hear you say, but it’s been a lifelong passion of mine and it remains so.

Covering elections for TV is hard work!

This afternoon, when I was taking these photographs, recording the sound and thinking about this blog piece I didn’t know what the result of the premier tour would be. I only had the opinion poll predictions.

Now, as I write this, I know that François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy will go head to head in the second round of La Presidentielle on 6th May. With a turnout of over 80% of the electorate in the first round, the outcome of the second round may be uncertain but what is certain is that the media circus in the Rue de Solferino will be even greater than today.


Église Saint-Augustin

THE ÉGLISE SAINT-AUGUSTIN DE PARIS is to be found in the 8th Arrondissement amidst Baron Haussmann’s rectilinear avenues.

The Église Saint-Augustin was designed and built by the French architect, Louis Baltard between 1860 and 1871. As well as building Saint-Augustin, Baltard was also involved with the restoration of several Parisian churches including Saint Germain l’Auxerrois, St. Eustache, Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Saint-Séverin. He is perhaps best known though for building the twelve pavilions of Les Halles, the former central market in Paris.

The Église Saint-Augustin is almost 100 metres long and the dome stands 80 metres high. The church incorporates several architectural styles, Roman, Gothic, Byzantine and Renaissance but its main feature is that it is the first church in Paris to be built around a metal frame.

Inside the Église Saint-Augustin:

The church is dedicated to the philosopher and theologian, Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430), patron saint of brewers, printers and theologians. His writings, including his framing of the concepts of original sin and just war, were very influential in the development of Western Christianity.

The Église Saint-Augustin boasts not one, but two organs.  The first, the Orgue de tribune or Gallery Organ, was built by Charles S. Barker, an Englishman, and it was inaugurated on June 17, 1868.  The occasion aroused great interest in France and abroad because it was the first organ to be powered by electricity.

The second organ, the Orgue de choeur or Chancel Organ, was inaugurated in 1899.

The great French organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, was involved with both organs.  In 1899, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll completed the rebuilding and enlarging of the Gallery Organ. The organ was enlarged again in 1925 by Charles Mutin. 
More modifications were made in 1962 and, in 1988, the instrument was completely revoiced and rebuilt by the organ builder Bernard Dargassies.

Charles Eugène de Foucauld was a French Catholic priest living among the Tuareg in the Sahara in Algeria. He was assassinated in 1916 outside the door of the fort he built for protection of the Tuareg. On November 13th, 2005, de Foucauld was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI and listed as a martyr in the liturgy of the Catholic Church.

It was in 1886 in the Église Saint-Augustin that de Foucauld spoke with Father Huvelin. Father Huvelin encouraged de Foucauld to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where he was inspired to begin the spiritual work that led to his death. There is a chapel in the Église Saint-Augustin dedicated to Charles Eugène de Foucauld.

As an unashamed organ enthusiast, I have one remaining fact to share, which has little to do with the Église Saint-Augustin but is connected to the architect of this church, Louis Baltard. Amongst all the other work he did in Paris, Baltard also built the tomb of Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély (1817-1869) at Père Lachaise Cemetery. Who is Lefébure-Wély I hear you ask.

Lefébure-Wély was a French organist and composer who played a major role in the development of the French symphonic organ style and was a close friend of the organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, inaugurating many new Cavaillé-Coll organs. Lefébure-Wély left a considerable catalogue of compositions for both organ and piano but he is perhaps most well known for one work in particular, the Sortie in E-Flat, which still seems to be as popular as ever.

Thanks to the involvement of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, the Gallery organ of the Église Saint-Augustin has exactly the symphonic qualities required to do justice to the works of Lefébure-Wély.

Sortie in E-Flat; Lefébure-Wély:


Paris Marathon 2012

THE THIRTY-SIXTH PARIS MARATHON took place earlier today. More than forty thousand runners from over one hundred countries competed over the 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195 kilometres) course from the Champs-Elysées to avenue Foch via the Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne.

The Paris Marathon is one of the five biggest marathons in the world (along with New-York, London, Berlin and Chicago), not only in terms of the size of the field but also by the performances achieved.

I went along to watch the finish in the Avenue Foch. I emerged from Porte Dauphine Metro station just in time to see the Kenyan runner, Stanley Biwott, surge past to win the men’s race in a record time of 2hrs 05 min 12 sec beating the previous record by thirty-six seconds.

Biwott attacked at the 30km mark and came home more than a minute ahead of Ethiopian duo Raji Assefa and Sisay Jisa.

In the women’s race Tirfi Beyene came first in a new record time of 2hrs 21min 39sec.

Although I saw but couldn’t photograph Beyene on the home stretch, I did capture Turkey’s Sultan Haydar who finished second in 2hr 25:09.

Crowd atmosphere:

The Paris Marathon is a serious and gruelling athletics event, but for the crowd it is also a festive occasion with an atmosphere to match.

Adding atmosphere:

This was the first time that I’ve seen the Paris Marathon, or any marathon for that matter, and I was very impressed by the performance of the ‘elite’ women runners. No doubt we shall be seeing them and their male colleagues in the London Olympic Marathon later this year.

Away from the finish line into the Bois de Boulogne I found some more ‘atmosphere’ that was certainly encouraging both the runners and the crowd.

Adding more atmosphere:

Whether an ‘elite’ runner or an enthusiastic amateur, I’m sure that any sort of encouragement is more than welcome as the 42 kilometre mark comes into view!


Cour du Commerce Saint-André

APPROACHING FROM THE RUE Saint-André des Arts in the 6th Arrondissement it’s easy to miss but once found, the Cour du Commerce Saint-André reveals a rich seam of Parisian history.

In the heart of today’s Latin Quarter, this cobbled passageway was created in 1735 originally to connect the Rue Saint-André des Arts to the Rue l’Ancienne Comédie, which it still does.

Sounds inside the Cour du Commerce Saint-André:

In 1776 the passageway was doubled in length and reached across to the Rue l’Ecole de Médicine. Georges-Jacques Danton, a leading figure in the French revolution lived in the Cour du Commerce Saint-André close to the Rue l’Ecole de Médicine. Danton’s house together with that part of the Cour du Commerce was subsequently torn down to make way for the Haussmann development, the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

There is a piece of history in the Cour du Commerce that dates back hundreds of years before the passageway was created. Before leaving for the Crusades in the early 13th century, King Philippe-Auguste fortified Paris by building a thirty-foot high defensive wall around the city. The Cour du Commerce Saint-André is actually built on the site of the moat that surrounded this wall. The wall itself included thirty-four defensive towers and part of one of these towers survives today in the Cour du Commerce.

Un Dimanche à Paris is an elegant Salon de Thé and restaurant in the Cour du Commerce. But all is not what it seems.

Inside, amidst the tables, stands the remains of one of the defensive towers from the Philippe-August wall. Whilst Un Dimanche à Paris is a modern creation, it’s worth remembering that this tower was built somewhere between the years 1200 and 1215.

Beside the Philippe-August tower, Le Procope, the oldest café in Paris seems modern in comparison. It’s only been here since 1686!

It’s the rear entrance that’s in the Cour du Commerce; the front entrance is in the adjacent Rue l’Ancienne Comédie.

Francesco Procopio arrived in Paris and opened his first café in Rue de Tournon in 1675. He moved to the Rue l’Ancienne Comédie in 1686. Proving that location is everything, the Comédie Française theatre moved in across the street and Le Procope’s future was assured.

Further along the Cour du Commerce Saint-André from Le Procope we find N°8.

N°8 was the location of Jean-Paul Marat’s printing press where he published his revolutionary newspaper, L’Ami du Peuple, The Friend of the People. L’Ami du Peuple was a vocal advocate for the rights of the lower classes against those Marat believed to be enemies of the people. On 13 July 1793, Marat was murdered in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday. The last edition of his newspaper was published the day after his death. Charlotte Corday was guillotined on 17 July 1793 for the murder. During her four-day trial, she testified that she had carried out the assassination alone, saying, “I killed one man to save 100,000.

The physician, Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin once lived here at N° 21 Rue l’Ancienne Comédie – a very different N° 21 than exists today.

Contrary to popular belief, Dr Guillotin did not actually invent the guillotine, that was down to one Antoine Louis. Dr Guillotine in fact opposed the death penalty, even though his name has become eponymous with it.  As a member of the Assemblée Constituante, during a debate on capital punishment, Guillotin proposed that “the criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism.” The “mechanism” was defined as “a machine that beheads painlessly”. At that time, beheading in France was typically done by axe or sword, which did not always cause immediate death. Guillotin hoped that a more humane and less painful method of execution would be the first step toward a total abolition of the death penalty.

Nevertheless, it was here in the basement of N° 9 Cour du Commerce that Dr Guillotin carried out experiments using sheep to try to perfect the machine that beheads painlessly.

The Cour du Commerce Saint-André is a perfect example of the living history to be found in this city. It’s well worth a visit.


Rue des Degrés – The Shortest Street in Paris

IN FEBRUARY, I PRODUCED a blog piece about the Rue de Vaugirard, which at 4.3 kilometres is the longest street in Paris. Having explored that street, I thought it would be interesting to go to the other end of the spectrum and search out the shortest street in this city.

At 3.3 metres wide and 5.75 metres long the Rue des Degrés in the 2nd arrondissement has the distinction of being the shortest street in Paris. It’s been here since the middle of the seventeenth-century.

The Rue des Degrés comprises just fourteen steps linking the Rue de Clery and the Rue Beauregard. These two streets run along the former line of the Charles V wall, built between 1356 to 1383 and demolished in the seventeenth-century to make way for the Grands Boulevards.

The Rue des Degrés is so short that it’s hard to imagine that it is a formal street … but it is and like all streets in Paris it even has the street name affixed to the wall at either end of the street.

The Rue des Degrés also has the distinction of being one of the quietest streets in Paris. I went there in the middle of a Saturday afternoon yet there was no traffic, no people and scarcely a sound to be heard.

The Rue des Degrés may be the shortest and possibly the quietest street in Paris but the large Boulevards and characteristic city sounds are never far away.

A short walk from the Rue des Degrés led me to the grand Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle where I found, in great contrast to the quiet of the Rue des Degrés, this group of street musicians.

Street Music in Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle: