Photography in Paris

Focusing on the photography I enjoyed while in Paris.

The first and third museums are exclusively photography, and although the Centre Pompidou is mostly work other than photography, there is an impressive collection of Paul Strand photographs on display there. A couple of weeks ago, while in the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, I was impressed to come across some original Larry Clark photographs, including his iconic photo of the pregnant mother shooting heroin. After spending a week in Paris, I've lost track of all the iconic photographs I've seen. With France being the birthplace of photography, it is not surprising that Paris has so much wonderful photography on display.

Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Ville De Paris, is without hesitation the best photography museum or exhibit I've ever seen. It took more than three hours to see everything, and my only regret about Paris was not visiting this museum twice. Just when you thought you'd been wowed for the final time, you'd turn around and there'd be yet another iconic photograph. There was an extensive collection of works from American photographer Jane Evelyn Atwood, an exhibit covering four decades and at least five themes: prostitutes, blind people, women in prison, Haiti, and victims of landmines. It was incredibly moving, and at times disturbing, as was the Shadow of War exhibit, which featured nearly one hundred war photographs, from the beginning of photojournalism (Spanish Civil War) until 2007. If you've ever seen an iconic war photograph, chances are an original print is hanging in this exhibit: Robert Capa (Normandy, Spanish Civil War), Eddie Adams (execution of Vietcong prisoner), Nick Ut (napalm in Vietnam), Joe Rosenthal (raising of flag on Iwo Jima). And that was just two of the five exhibits on display at this museum. Incredible.

Centre Pompidou: Being the most comprehensive modern art museum in Paris, this museum features far more than just photography, which is only a small part of their collection. But it's an impressive part. Centre Pompidou features (or perhaps featured; I think, but am not positive, that it is part of the permanent collection, as opposed to a temporary exhibit) an extensive collection of Paul Strand photos, approximately 70 prints donated after the photographer's death in lieu of taxes. I thought it was interesting that the museum made it a point to call attention to this fact, that the artist (and/or his estate) donated the photos for tax purposes, and it left me with the feeling that somehow the museum was bitter to have not received these photos under different circumstances. Paul Strand was one of the first straight (i.e. objective) photographers, preferring to avoid manipulation or excessive abstraction. He worked with Henri Cartier-Bresson when Cartier-Bresson visited America, I believe in the mid-to-late 1930s. The Centre Pompidou also features an extensive collection of Duchamp, Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh. The Andy Warhol on display seemed boring by comparison. I thought the same thing about Warhol (i.e. overrated, boring) when exposed to Soviet pop art while in Russia.

Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume: This museum featured two extensive photography exhibitions, the first by Santu Mofoken, entitled Closing Shadows, which covered 30 years of his photography, and the second, featuring the work of Claude Cahun (born Lucy Schwob, 1894). The work by Mofoken was a bit disjointed and unsatisfying with its lack of an overall, cohesive theme: There were photos of Africans worshiping on buses while commuting to wherever it was they were going, and also many photographs of billboards across Africa. Many of the photographs were just not that impressive, as though he took snapshots of every billboard he could find. The photographs of the Africans worshiping on buses were full of energy, but there were even more photographs of billboards, and those felt terribly static and uninteresting. The work of Claude Cahun was confronting, intense, clearly talented, and at times uncomfortable even today. She was a lesbian who fell in a love with another woman (Suzanne Malherbe), two years her senior, as a teenager. Shortly thereafter the parents of the two girls married, making them step-sisters, which may have prompted the artist's name change to Claude Cahun. She took many self-portraits, and created many photo-montages that by today's standards and with today's computers would be considered boring, the type of thing to be hung on the bedroom wall of a teenage girl, but for her time, to have created them in a darkroom, it is quite impressive. Usually when I think of brave photographers, I think of war photographers, not people taking self-portraits in their bedroom, but there are few adjectives that better describe the work of Claude Cahun than brave. She identified and worked extensively with Dadaists, and especially Surrealists, which no doubt influenced her willingness to push the boundaries of convention.