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December 24, 2016


Rue Mouffetard – In the Footsteps of Eugène Atget

by soundlandscapes

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’

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. hmunro
    Dec 26 2016

    Amid the squeaking doors and the beeping registers and the spot of music from the radio, what I love about this recording is that it is so *human.* It’s the people of Paris who give the city its vitality, and this little slice of ordinary life captures that energy beautifully. Merry belated Christmas to you!

    • Dec 31 2016

      So sorry for my late reply, Heather. Yes, it is these ‘everyday’ sounds that that really give us a sense of ‘place’. I suppose that’s why I enjoy capturing them so much.
      A very Happy New Year to you and yours!

      • hmunro
        Jan 1 2017

        To build on your comment, I’m getting old enough to know that it’s really those “everyday” ordinary moments that become so extraordinary in hindsight. I wish you and yours a very happy and very healthy new year as well, Des.

    Dec 30 2016

    Come back on Sunday morning when there’s live accordion music and singing in front of the church. They’ve been doing that every week for as long as I’ve lived here over 22 years. 🙂

    • Dec 31 2016

      Yes, it’s wonderful isn’t it? I’ve made several recordings of the very lively rue Mouffetard on Sunday mornings.

  3. afarawayhome
    Jan 1 2017

    I’ve totally been here! I stayed in a hostel just a little up the road, and waited out a horrific hangover in the park by that church 🙂

  4. Jan 1 2017

    I love Atget. Was lucky enough to see his exhibition in Sydney not so long ago. Hope you had a good Christmas and New Year


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