TRAWLING THROUGH MY Twitter feed the other day I came upon this photograph by Eugène Atget made in 1898 entitled ‘La Place Saint-Médard’.
La Place Saint-Médard by Eugène Atget 1898
The original photograph is an 18.1 x 21.9 cm albumen print created from a finely divided silver and gold image dispersed in a matrix of egg white. Albumen prints were the most common photographic printing process from 1855 until around the turn of the nineteenth century.
This Atget image chimes with me because I know this area of Paris particularly well, but when I saw the photograph I was struck by two things: First, the title, ‘La Place Saint-Médard’, and second, what did this place sound like in 1898?
The title of the photograph, ‘La Place Saint-Médard’ is curious because that name does not exist in this spot today and, so far as I know, it never has. I can quite see why Eugène Atget might have thought that the space he photographed bore that name: It is at the foot of rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest streets in Paris dating back to Roman times and it is adjacent to the Eglise Saint-Médard whose origins date back to the 7th century. The space that Atget photographed does have the attributes of a typical Parisian ‘Place’ but as far as I can establish it is, and in Atget’s time was, part of rue Mouffetard.
Eugène Atget’s ‘La Place Saint-Médard’ on December 24th 2016
So what did Eugène Atget’s ‘Place Saint-Médard’ sound like in 1898?
Thanks to his large-format wooden bellows camera, rapid rectilinear lens and glass plates we know what Atget saw as he stood in this place but we have no record of what he actually heard.
And that’s not surprising because for most of our history we have used artefacts, architecture, pictures and words to create a vision of our past. It’s only in the last few seconds on our historical clock that we’ve been able to capture and archive sound, which means that almost all our sonic heritage has passed by completely unrecorded.
We could create a late nineteenth century soundscape of this place from our imagination of course and we might not be too wide of the mark, but we cannot create the actual sounds in that place on that day.
I admire enormously Eugène Atget’s painstaking documentation of a nineteenth-century Paris undergoing great change and I consider it a great privilege to follow in his footsteps documenting contemporary Paris in sound.
Eugène Atget’s ‘Place Saint-Médard’ – Recorded on December 24th 2016:
A Christmas Eve queue for the boulangerie close to Eugène Atget’s ‘Place Saint-Médard’