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’
CHARLES FRANÇOIS BOSSU (1813 – 1879) was a French photographer who photographed architecture, landscapes and the urban environment. He is much better known though as Charles Marville, the pseudonym he adopted around 1832.
Charles Marville, photographic self-portrait, c. 1861
Marville worked as an illustrator of books such as Histoire Pittoresque de l’Angleterre and La Seine et ses Bords (the Seine and its Banks) before taking up photography around 1850.
In 1858 he received his first commission from the Paris authorities, to photograph the renovated Bois de Boulogne − the first of Baron Haussmann’s modernising projects for Emperor Napoleon III.
By the early 1860s, Haussmann’s urban development scheme to transform Paris was gathering pace. Although Haussmann was keen to eradicate parts of old Paris, he wanted to preserve their memory: ‘The City of Paris must disregard nothing, forget nothing, neglect nothing of its past.’
In 1862, Marville became the official photographer of Paris and he was commissioned to photograph the pre-modern city before its demolition. He made 425 photographs of the narrow streets and crumbling buildings, which collectively became known as the ‘Album du Vieux Paris.’ The complete series of photographs are held by the Musée Carnavalet and the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris.
One of Charles Marville’s photographs that fascinates me is one he made of Place Saint-André des Arts in the 6th arrondissement.
Place Saint-André des Arts: Charles Marville
The remarkable thing is that, despite the destruction and reconstruction that occurred in the surrounding area in the 1860s, this little corner of Paris, which takes its name from the ancient church of Saint-André-des-Arts which was demolished during the French Revolution, remained completely untouched by Haussmann’s wrecking ball.
Place Saint-André des Arts: August 2015
Like Charles Marville and his successor, Eugène Atget, I too document the city of Paris, but in my case in sound rather than in pictures. Whenever I come across a photograph of a part of Vieux Paris that has survived almost untouched I can’t resist recording the contemporary soundscape around it.
Place Saint-André des Arts in Sound; August 2015:
Charles Marville died in Paris in 1879. His ‘Album du Vieux Paris’ allows us to see Paris as he saw it before its late nineteenth century transformation and we can compare what he saw with what we can see today.
But when it comes to the sounds of Charles Marville’s Paris we lack a reference point. There are no recordings of the urban soundscape of the time and descriptions of the sounds of Paris in literature during Haussmann’s transformation of the city are few and far between.
So, while we can capture and archive the contemporary sounds of Paris we can, alas, only imagine the sounds that Charles Marville would have heard while he photographed Place Saint-André des Arts.
THE AREA TO THE EAST of Bastille, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, was traditionally a working class neighbourhood with a focus on craft industries. Its proximity to the Seine with its plentiful supply of wood saw the area develop into an important centre for the furniture industry, which it still is today.
Many of the skilled craftsmen didn’t work in the main streets preferring instead to set up their workshops in the plethora of small, cobblestone, passageways leading off the main thoroughfares. Many of these passageways survive today and some still accommodate skilled craftsmen.
A set of double doors at N°26 rue de Charonne lead into one of these surviving passageways, the Passage l’Homme.
Stretching for 122 metres the Passage l’Homme is lined with ateliers on the ground floor with apartments above. In prime position close to the entrance is an amazing toyshop.
Further along the passage is the atelier of Alain Hollard whose family firm was established here over a hundred years ago. He specialises in a traditional craft long associated with this part of Paris, Vernissage au Tampon, known in English as French polishing.
For me, the most striking thing about the Passage l’Homme is not the sights, delightful though they are, but the sounds.
Sounds in the Passage l’Homme:
Sandwiched between rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, rue de Charonne and l’avenue Ledru-Rollin the Passage l’Homme is surrounded on all sides by busy streets awash with heavy traffic and yet deep inside the passage a curious calm prevails. Such sounds as there are represent life being lived in the street uncluttered for the most part by noise pollution and so each sound seems to take on an extra significance.
Just as Eugène Atget would have set up his large-format wooden bellows camera to photograph this place a hundred years ago, I set up my microphones half way along the passage and with a much longer exposure time than Atget would have used I pressed ‘record’ and walked away leaving the microphones to capture the scene.
Occasional birdsong, the clatter of lunchtime crockery, anonymous footsteps and distant conversation paint the canvas upon which the more prominent sounds can shine. A young lady collects a large sheet of artwork from the graphic designer’s office and rolls it up as she leaves, doors open and close, two French middle-aged men busily clicking their cameras walk by, the apartment gardien emerges and sits on a step taking a phone call, someone whistles, a young child in a buggy passes by proclaiming something obviously very important to the world and Monsieur Hollard returns from his lunch, unlocks the door to his atelier and goes inside to continue with his vernis au tampon.
In the bustling streets of Paris noise pollution is a constant companion and quiet places are hard to find. That’s why I find it so refreshing to visit the Passage l’Homme. For sure, it’s an interesting place to see but it’s so much more interesting to listen to. In this verdant corner of the city the noise pollution subsides and the ordinary sounds of everyday life take centre-stage. Like a fine wine these sounds deserve to be savoured and enjoyed.
ANY SELF-RESPECTING TOURIST can’t visit Paris without snapping a picture of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris from the Quai de Montebello. It’s one of the ‘must do’s’ on the Parisian tourist itinerary.
The Quai de Montebello, in the 5th arrondissement, stretches from the Petit Pont to the Pont de l’Archevêché on the Left Bank of the Seine and it’s a popular place for visitors not least because of the spectacular view of the cathedral.
Taking advantage of the gorgeous weather we have in Paris at the moment, I went to the Quai de Montebello the other day and like just about everybody else there I couldn’t resist taking the obligatory photograph.
I don’t consider myself to be a serious photographer, I’m more of a ‘snapper’, but I do have an interest in photography as an art form and I’m particularly interested in the work of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Parisian street photographers. In fact, the work I do recording the soundscapes of Paris is inspired to a great extent by the work of these photographers. When I’m recording Parisian soundscapes I often think of myself as a street photographer but with a much longer exposure time.
Street photography is all about the art of observing. From Eugène Atget’s painstaking photographic documentation of a Paris being torn down in the late 19th century to make way for Baron Haussmann’s massive urban development scheme, to Robert Doisneau’s evocative street photography and pioneering photojournalism, Parisian street photographers have always spent much more time observing than shooting.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, the doyen of street photography and photojournalism often used to spend hours observing, searching out a scene, or a ‘frame’ for a picture, and then with camera in hand he would wait for something to happen within the frame. Some of his most iconic photographs were made using this technique.
Any sound recordist intending to record urban soundscapes would do well to study the work and techniques of Atget, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson.
While these giants of Parisian street photography are a great inspiration for me in the Parisian soundscapes work I do there is also someone else who has inspired me.
The French novelist, filmmaker, documentalist and essayist, Georges Perec, was fascinated by the notion of ‘ce qui se passe quand il ne se passe rien’ – what happens when nothing is happening. In fact, it was reading Perec’s essay, ‘Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien’, a detailed written record of the minute observations he made of what he could see happening in a Parisian Square while sitting in a café opposite, that launched me on my work to observe and record Parisian life through the city’s soundscapes.
Which brings us neatly back to the Quai de Montebello.
Taking up a position on the Quai I took this picture. It took a fraction of a second to capture the scene.
I then took another picture to the left …
… and one to the right.
But what would happen I wondered if, instead of a using a camera to observe the Quai, I used a pair of microphones? Instead of capturing the scene in a fraction of a second I could observe it for much longer and what might the microphones reveal that the camera didn’t? How would my sonic observations of a quintessentially Parisian ‘street’ scene compare to the observations captured on film by Atget, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson or in words by Georges Perec?
Unashamedly using Cartier-Bresson’s technique of framing the scene and then waiting for something to happen, I set up my microphones, switched to ‘record’ and waited.
A Soundscape of the Quai de Montebello:
Thankfully, capturing scenes of Paris is not a competition between pictures, words or sound. The important thing I think is not the medium but the art of observation.
In our modern world where we’ve got used to being informed by instant pictures, newspaper headlines, 140 characters on social media and 20 second sound bites, it seems to me that we are in danger of losing our ability to stop, look and listen and to make time to observe the real world around us.
Quai de Montebello – Eugène Atget
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:
23, rue de Sévigné
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