Paris: Portrait of a City by Jean-Claude Gautrand

The spectacular breadth and quality of the iconography spawned by Paris is, alone, a demonstration of the importance of this city in human culture.

Taschen has published an imposing photographic portrait of Paris, bolstered by an excellent text. It is a volume indispensable to anyone who wants a definitive – or as definitive as one can be in the limited space of 572 pages – iconographic recounting of the last 150 years in the life of Paris.

The Helmut Newton shot on the cover had led me to the erroneous assumption that the book would be much more edgy than it is, that it would be oriented toward the iconography of glamour and decadence in the French capital. It turns out this book is broader, more inclusive, and a much more complete chronicle of the multiple forms of experience of the city since the invention of the photography, an art whose history is so closely intertwined with that of Paris.

The story begins in the 1840s, when Daguerre began using his invention to capture the world around him. The first images in the book, which date from a bit later, wonderfully capture the Paris of the time before the transformation of the Second Empire years. We see, for example, the cafés and theaters of the Boulevard du Temple destroyed only a few years later by Prefect Haussmann, as well as a breathtaking panorama by the Bisson brothers looking east from the Île de la Cité.

The photographs chronicle Paris through the second half of the nineteenth century: the grands travaux that transformed the city, the death and destruction of the Commune, the Universal Expositions… but also the streets full of traffic, working class children on a balcony, people attending an outdoor show at the old Moulin Rouge. The great names of Paris’s early photographic history, such as Marville, Atget, Nègre, Baldus, Nadar, are well represented, alongside others whose names were never recorded or have been forgotten.

Démolition des Halles de Baltard, August 1971 (Copyright : Jean-Claude Gautrand)

After the turn of the twentieth century the focus tends to shift away from buildings toward people and events. A new batch of names come to the fore, one that will include Brassaï, Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson, Ronis, Capa…

The early part of the century is reflected in pictures of artists, of the intellectuals of Montparnasse, of the famous dancer Gisèle and her orchestra in action, and a marvelous image of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec showing a painting to the women of a brothel that he used as models.

The World War II era is a source of powerful images, from Hitler posing in front of the Eiffel Tower to the FFI fighters, hearts tight with emotion, singing La Marseillaise in the courtyard of the recaptured Hotel de Ville.

It goes on, with a splendid Gjon Mili shot of a raucous cave in Saint-Germain-des-Prés of the 1950s, an image of a very young Brigitte Bardot balancing on a roof over the city, pictures showing the newest fashions or just refections in the night, until the final photograph, by Ellen von Umwerth, of a woman being carried off in the sky of Paris by a big bunch of colorful balloons.

A small sample of the pictures in this volume are visible by clicking on the main image on the page of the Taschen web site dedicated to the book.

Taschen has achieved the tour de force of underwriting a patient documentary search by an expert in the field, giving the project the appropriate level of editorial attention, and producing a high-quality graphic object. It is hard to imagine a genuine lover of the Paris mystique who will feel he or she can do without this volume.

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