Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Some Things Change

And, of course, some things stay the same.  Never did I realize how much today's Paris is still very much the Paris of one hundred or more years ago until I attended the fantastic Eugene Atget exhibit at the Musee Carnavalet this past weekend.  Atget was a French photographer who many credit with giving birth to modern documentary-style photography. He took photos of people, scenes, and buildings in Paris around the turn of the 20th century. 

First, please picture this man lugging this around Paris:

Once I got past the mode of dress, I realized that the physical streets and buildings in the heart of Paris are not so different today.  Children still play in the Jardin du Luxembourg, we still walk on the same cobble-stone streets, and in the early morning light, Paris has that same magical quality that Atget captures. 
Luxembourg Gardens. Credit: Eugene Atget

Luxembourg Gardens. Credit: Eugene Atget

Even the street signs are exactly the same today. Credit: Eugene Atget

Naturally Atget's photos also serve as an invaluable source of historical context and information.  Turn-of-the-century Paris comes to life in his photographs as you see respectable shopkeepers, women in brothels, peddlers, ragpickers, children rich and poor, living out their daily lives.  He also made sure to capture parts of the city that would not remain, including buildings destined for demolishing and the ragpickers' shanty-towns from which residents would be evicted.
Credit: Eugene Atget

Ragpickers. Credit: Eugene Atget

Building that will be torn down. Credit: Eugene Atget

The Musee Carnavalet has a tremendous collect of Atget's work - something like 10,000+ prints - that they began purchasing from him while he was creating his photographs in the early 1900s.  You have to appreciate a city that founded its history-of-the-city museum in 1866.  It may be trite for me to pull the "stuff is way older in Europe than it is in America" card, but I think this exhibit really did pull this into focus for me.  That the Paris I know and love is not just the Paris of 2012, and of movies and literature.  It is a real Paris that has seen generations of children playing in its gorgeous parks, and centuries of women shopping at the boucheries, where the same streets that I push my stroller down saw horse-drawn carts and puffed sleeves.  It is an imperfect Paris, with its share of squalor and poverty, no less true today than a century ago.  Eugene Atget's photos remind us why Paris occupies the special place in our hearts that it does, and why for many, many years it has been a focal point for lovers, dreamers, eaters, and adventurers the world over. And will be in one hundred or two hundred years from now as well.

[Disclaimer: If this post seems a bit heavy on the Paris love, please recall that I am working on overcoming this weekend's bout of homesickness.  Though the arrival of a wedding invitation today that I can actually accept is certainly helping!  As are the chocolate chip cookies that I made as promised, and which scored big points in Mr. Oil's office today as well.]