Paris Mortel: Photobooks of Paris from the 1950s to Today
Slipping between the protected library archive of ‘rare books’, piled into the open shelves of art and photography books, or simply going unperceived as photographic illustration within a miscellaneous variety of scientific, artistic and periodical publications, the University Library has recently and seriously turned its attention to what is increasingly seen as an independent category – photographic publications – and even a medium in its own right, the photobook. Slowly, over the course of the twentieth century, the photobook has been validated as an object, or even a medium, meriting its own special attention from photographers, designers and collectors, and now, from historians.
Amongst the French “humanist” photographers was, of course, Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose photobooks Images à la sauvette (1952, translated as ‘The Decisive Moment’) and Les Européens (1955) never cease to impress. Cartier-Bresson’s Les danses à Bali (Dances at Bali, 1954) photobook, together with George Rodger’s Le Village des noubas (the Village of the Nubas, 1955) and Doisneau’s Les parisens tels qu’ils sont (see previous post) are a trilogy of small-format photobooks published by a newcomer to the Parisian world of editions, Robert Delpire (for more on these three books, see: Elisabeth Dearden’s Highlight post from last year). With encyclopedic ambitions, Delpire took the initiative and founded a publishing house in 1951 with Pierre Faucheaux which specialised in the expensive but passionate production of photobooks; Delpire is perhaps best known today for taking on Robert Frank’s now-famous photobook, Les Américains (1958).
Paris is newly hectic, blurred and cinematic in the highly personal photographic visions of two Dutch photographers, Ed van der Elsken and Johan van der Keuken, and in the saturated colour work of the Japanese photographer Kishin Shinoyama (Paris, 1977, pictured above) and the gathering-together by Danish photographer in Krass Clement of his images from the ‘60s and 70’s in Paris: carnet de recherche (2010); not to forget William Klein, who after an amazing photobook debut with New York (published by Editions du Seuil in Paris in 1956) had his Parisian images collated for the first U.S. edition of Paris + Klein in 2002. Turning the photobook towards a self-reflective, “stream-of-consciousness” narrative style, and serialised in Picture Post (whose archive is held as a recently acquired electronic resource) prior to its book publication, Ed van der Elsken’s Een Liefdesgeschiedenis in Saint Germain des Prés (1956; in English as Love on the Left Bank and held by the Library in a recent reprint) diaristically documents the bohemian life of his friends and loves amongst the postwar youth in the “existentialist” Left Bank neighbourhood of Saint-Germain-des Prés.
Paris mortel by Van der Keuken, held by the Library in a rare and under-studied first edition from 1963, equally portrays the city and its denizens with an off-hand, jazz-like perspective. The recent exhibition displaying all of the hitherto unseen prints leading up to one of Paris mortel’s most iconic single-images, Quartorze juillet (Amsterdam, 2010), and rated equally as a significant photobook, has also been added to the collection. In both books, we see how much Keuken’s film-making studies in Paris between 1956 and 1958, as well as William Klein’s work, impacted upon his radical aesthetic in both political and artistic ways to present a vision of Paris intended to disabuse us from our romanticism.
As recent scholars such as Shelley Rice, Michel Frizot, Gerry Badger and the photographer and collector Martin Parr, have noted, the book is seemingly a ‘natural’ format or ‘housing’ for the photograph; within it images are sequenced into narratives with which we become involved in an intimate encounter. But when we look more closely at Ed van der Elsken’s Love on the Left Bank, we observe a visual dynamic contrasting full-page bleeds with small pictures, where the designer Jurriaan Schrofer paced images in a filmic rush and with a flashback narrative. In Johan van der Keuken’s Paris mortel, a method of chance-driven, ‘random’ sequencing permitted new image conjunctions to emerge; as Parr notes, the photographer made no less than three maquettes before the publisher (C de Boer Jr., Hilversum) agreed to go to press. In Couleur de Paris, Peter Cornelius’s use of a new colour film, Agfa CN17, revolutionises our previously monochrome vision, while Shinoyama deepens the colour dramatically to re-envision Atget as never before. The medium-specificity of photography as a reproducible visual technology, dependent on the printer’s ability to replicate by gravure and paper quality; the invisible skills of the photo-editor who selects and sequences the images; the designer who thinks about the perfect mis-en-page layout, scale, bindings, fonts and typefaces, jacket design and reproduction quality; the collaboration of the writer, who may be famous and a selling-point, whose text might be integrated with the images or segregated; all add up to a publishing history of a fundamentally hybrid medium whose elements cannot be separated from the content of the images – itself endlessly re-interpretable according to the viewer’s historicised gaze.
Natalie Adamson is a scholar of twentieth-century culture in France. She is Senior Lecturer in the School of Art History, where she teaches Honours and postgraduate classes on interwar modernist photography in Europe and postwar art and politics in France.