Thursday, March 22, 2012

Doisneau Les Halles at the Hôtel de Ville, Paris

The main problem with the free exhibitions at the Hôtel de Ville is their popularity. Queuing becomes a test of stamina and often by the time you’re at the front of the line you long for a cup of coffee and a seat. Nonetheless, if you’re interested in Parisian history or in photography, the Doisneau exhibition running until the 28th of April is fascinating. Robert Doisneau is a photojournalist best known, interestingly enough, for his 1950 photograph of a couple kissing outside the Hôtel de Ville. You can now find inside the building his attempts at documenting the market at Les Halles, central to Paris life for over a hundred years, before it was moved to Rungis in 1969.

The difficulties Doisneau had photographing Les Halles are noted at the beginning of the exhibition: “lack of light, reflexes slowed down by tiredness, so many possible images! And it was intimidating.”

“But I stuck with it,” Doisneau’s quotation continues, and the result is a record of Les Halles as it was in 1968, its last year as Paris’s wholesale market.
The exhibition begins with details of Victor Baltard’s pavilions, built between 1852 and 1870 and demolished in 1971. It must have been hard for Doisneau to capture the intricacy of the iron rafters and ceilings, some areas of which would have been naturally lit and others receding into shadow, but he succeeds both in showing the buildings clearly and in giving visitors a sense of the space’s majesty. This is all the more impressive given he was working in an era before digital photography and instantaneous adjustments.
With the stage set, the exhibition is given over to photographs of the people at Les Halles. Vendors are shown alongside their products, some smiling, some laughing, some more serious. Proprietors of the bars and bistros that surrounded the market are shown behind counters. Girls are shown eating snacks in the street. There are men, women and small children; all manner of characters who once would have met at Les Halles are documented. A butcher, severed pig’s head beside him and knife in hand, stares directly at the camera. This photograph has been blown up to a large size and, in the context of the much maligned loss of the market, feels accusatory and menacing.
A series from 1953, earlier than most photographs in the exhibition, entitled ‘Le Saut du Caniveau’ (The Jump of the Gutter) captures a variety of people in motion leaping over rubbish in the gutter. It’s a clear nod to Henri Cartier Bresson’s 1932 photograph of a man in the Place de l’Europe, used to illustrate the idea of the ‘decisive moment’ at which the shutter clicks. It’s also an amusing reworking of Cartier Bresson’s photographs, taking an image with a somewhat magical aura and illustrating the movement as it is replayed for practical reasons in daily life. The series seems popular with visitors; more visitors lingered here than in any other part of the exhibition.
Halfway through the exhibition, a small room of colour photographs bursts out at you. Butchers in blood covered white push red carts against the dark, rain soaked pavement. Green vegetables are spread across the ground. A lit pavilion at night has a fairground atmosphere to it while lines of flowers, clumps of colour and light, have their transience captured through ill-defined, impressionist forms.
After this, it’s back to black and white, but forward to the demolition of Les Halles. ‘Les Oiseaux’ (The Birds), from 1973, is especially effective, casting the hole that Les Halles has become as a wilderness, abandoned by humanity. Nearby are photos of people lined up to look at the hole, seeming slightly comical in their interest in the abyss.
The exhibition ends at Rungis, where Paris’s wholesale market moved in 1969 and remains. Here, things appear to be all business and no life: there is no produce to be seen and serious expressions have replaced smiles on the faces of Doisneau’s subjects. The light is still beautiful, but in a sombre way, suggesting the sun has set on the world of Les Halles and these are the last rays lingering.
Alongside these are photographs from the 1979 opening of the Forum des Halles, filled with people who, in sunglasses and sandals, seem very different to those from the market days. Coming after the earlier photos, these crowds seem rather unreal. Doisneau has shown the market in sunshine and in rain, in daylight and at night, and photographed workers both with produce and at the pissoir; it’s Les Halles of 1968 that seems permanent.
Doisneau’s photograph’s, many of which are much livelier in reality than in reproduction, succeed in evoking the sense of Les Halles. It’s hard to believe something that feels so real can have disappeared. Leaving the Hôtel de Ville and seeing again the queue outside, I felt I’d been to an altogether different place than an exhibition hall.

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