On Location: A photographers’ guide to Paris

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La manche, Flora, Porte d’Aubervilliers, Paris, 2012 © Myr Muratet.

The French capital is rich with photographic history and the subject of some of the medium’s most iconic images. Writer and editor Rémi Coignet guides us through the city’s contemporary photographic scene

Photography is everywhere in Paris. The French capital is where Louis Daguerre unveiled his daguerreotype method of photo-making in 1839, and photography has been written into the city’s fabric ever since. There is the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, where Robert Doisneau (1912–1994) staged his 1950 photograph Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville, picturing a couple kissing in a busy Parisian street. And in the suburb of Gentilly one can find Maison Doisneau, an art centre named after the French photographer and dedicated to the genre of humanist photography he pioneered.

Elsewhere, the Place de l’Europe, behind Saint-Lazare train station, marks the spot where Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) captured his famous photograph of a man mid-leap, his feet hovering over a pool of water. Meanwhile, the Cirque d’Hiver set the stage for Richard Avedon’s (1923–2004) iconic image of the model Dovima dressed in an elegant Dior gown posing alongside circus elephants. Closer to home, the curious intersection of Rue Beauregard and Rue de Cléry, near where I live, inspired several photographers: Eugène Atget, André Kertész, Roger Schall, Brassaï, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson. Institutions dedicated to photography also fill the city. Every day, images pour into the Agence France-Presse (AFP) ’bunker’, located in the Place de la Bourse, before a fraction of them appear in newspapers and on news sites.

Excellent selections of photobooks can also be found at most cultural institutions. The bookshop at the museum Jeu de Paume is exceptional, and smaller art bookstores are on the rise, including La Comète (29 rue des Récollets, 75010) and the iconic publisher Delpire & co’s outlet (13 rue de l’Abbaye, 75006), which also showcases exhibitions.

Photography events punctuate Paris’ cultural calendar. Circulation(s) festival, which recently held its 12th edition, occupies Le Centquatre-Paris for two months each spring, showcasing the best of young European photography. In November, the annual Photo Saint-Germain festival, which started in 2010, presents a route through exhibitions in museums, cultural centres, galleries and bookstores on the Left Bank. The international Paris Photo at the Grand Palais Éphémère, and its many satellite events, also happen during this month, marking the end of the French capital’s photography season.

However, there are perennial highlights to discover, the most enduring of which we feature below.

Le Bal

6 impasse de la Defénse 75018 Paris 

Nestled in a charming cul-de-sac, a stone’s throw from the Place de Clichy, Le Bal’s building has had several lives. In the Roaring Twenties, it was a dancehall – hence its current name – and later, the largest horse-betting shop in France. In 2010, having been abandoned for 20 years, the building was transformed under the impetus of Raymond Depardon and Diane Dufour into an art centre dedicated to photography, video and cinema. Its exhibitions showcase the work of an international roster, including Paul Graham, Dirk Braeckman, Wang Bing, and currently Judith Joy Ross. The exhibition space doubles as an educational platform, La Fabrique du Regard, which aims to engage young people. Le Bal also contains a bookshop with vintage and contemporary titles, and hosts a rich programme of book signings and lectures. Even its charming Café Otto has become a popular meeting place for image professionals and Parisians alike.

Le Plac’Art Photo

12 rue de l’Eperon 75006 Paris 

If you visit only one bookshop in Paris, make it Le Plac’Art Photo. Located on the Left Bank between Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Le Plac’Art Photo (a pun that roughly translates as ‘the Photo Wardrobe’) takes its name from its first location, which was no bigger than a cupboard! Today the bookshop is housed in a beautiful shop where shelves slide out to transform it into an exhibition space. Owners Clément and Nobue Kauter present a selection of contemporary books. However, their central focus is vintage publications, including those from Japan, where they regularly travel to unearth treasures.

MEP Library Maison Européenne de la Photographie

5–7 rue de Fourcy 75004 Paris 

Maison Européenne de la Photographie was inaugurated in February 1996 and run by Paris Audiovisuel: European House of Photography, an organisation founded almost two decades earlier, in 1978, by the then-mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac. These days, Simon Baker, the former senior curator of international art at Tate in London, is the director of MEP.

One of the major institutions dedicated to photography in Paris, MEP occupies a former mansion with an added contemporary wing in Le Marais district of the city. It houses a collection of 24,000 photographic works, an auditorium, an excellent photobook shop, and has exhibitions by both young and established artists. However, MEP’s real treasure is its library, which is open to visitors from Wednesday to Friday. The library’s collection comprises 36,000 titles, which makes it one of the largest photo libraries open to the public in Europe. It was conceived following the acquisition of the photography historian Roméo Martinez’s collection and has grown from there.

The collection features 4000 titles published before 1980, some of them very rare. European and American publications are well represented, and there are thousands of Japanese titles, many of which are difficult to find elsewhere. Nearly 450 international reviews and magazines are available, and the library also recently acquired 3000 titles from the Self Publish, Be Happy stable.

Maison européenne de la Photographie

Polycopies

Bateau Concorde-Atlantique, Berges de Seine, Port de Solferino, 75007 Paris 

Every autumn (this year 09 to 13 November) during Paris Photo, Polycopies transforms a barge moored on the Seine into an ephemeral bookstore dedicated to photography books. The satellite event creates a space for dozens of independent publishers to exhibit and sell their publications during the fair. It’s an excellent place to meet and converse with fellow photobook enthusiasts.

Artist-in-residence: Myr Muratet

Numerous photographers reside in Paris and the question of how to represent one of the most documented cities in the world preoccupies many of them. Myr Muratet has been working on this for more than 20 years, like a modern-day Lewis Hine or Eugène Atget, the latter one of his reference points.

The epicentre of his work is the Gare du Nord, the train station where the Eurostar leaves and arrives. In a profoundly political approach, he is interested in state structures, as defined by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, both ideological and physical, that aim to guide or more often than not constrain behaviour and people. For example, a bench on which it is impossible to lie down. At the Gare du Nord, he began by photographing homeless people. Then, little by little, he observed marginalised populations: drug addicts, migrants from Africa or Eastern Europe who, beyond the station, are trying to make a place for themselves in the north-east of Paris.

Muratet highlights fragile, precarious existences and the tools implemented to counter and constrain the disorder in the lives of the most deprived. Both empathy and cold anger imbue his work, simultaneously chilling and upsetting. However, it frames the general picture of the social and spatial – and therefore political – organisation of the city of which the inhabitants of Paris Nord, or hurried passers-by, perceive only fragments.

Paris-Nord, Laurent et Patrick †, 2004

Galerie Jean-Kenta Gauthier

4 rue de la Procession, 75015 Paris (Vaugirard location)
5 rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie, 75006 Paris (Odéon location)

Jean-Kenta Gauthier gallery, founded in 2014, spans two spaces, developing and presenting projects in these and in major public and private institutions. The gallery represents an impressive list of artists, including Daniel Blaufuks, Raphaël Dallaporta, JH Engström, Mishka Henner, and Daisuke Yokota.

However, it is perhaps most significant for positioning itself as both a gallery in the traditional sense, and a laboratory and platform for artistic production, helping the creatives it represents to develop their practices. For example, The Days are Numbered, the visual diary that Daniel Blaufuks has been keeping since 2019, was first exhibited in 2021 in the main Vaugirard location. A new exhibition is planned for June 2022 in the smaller Odéon space before a monumental show in early 2023 transfers to MAAT in Lisbon. These changes of scale allow for artists to experiment with different exhibition formats directly in the gallery space. So what better reason to visit if not to observe the art of our time being made and considered

Installation view of The Days Are Numbered (May) by Daniel Blaufuks at Galerie Jean-Kenta Gauthier, Vaugirard, Paris, 2021 © Jean-Kenta Gauthier, Paris