Paris and the Cliche of History


Paris and the Cliche of History –
The City and Photographs, 1860-1970
By Catherine E. Clark
Oxford University Press – £47.99

The most compelling of the photographs taken in the mode of the anthropologist or reporter do exactly what the editors of Realites had looked for in 1951.They do not just bring Parisian architecture and streets to life by including human figures in them but turn these figures into allegories of contemporary civilization. A young boy and girl play hopscotch in the construction site beneath the new Bercy interchange. A schoolboy complete with knee socks and leather satchel walks indifferently past a series of posters for the Harlem Globetrotters […]. These figures embody French defiance in the face of both the disruptions of urbanization and the threat of American imperialism.

                                                                         (‘C’etait en Paris 1970’)

Like London, Paris is an extraordinary city.
Only more resolute.
And without question: far more beautiful.

Don’t get me wrong,
I’m well aware of les many concrete ridden banlieues surrounding the city, but when one thinks of historic (central) Paris and such a former, charismatic outlying area as Montmartre, there can be no real comparison.
And there isn’t.

Likewise, Parisians – or the French as a whole – appear to have never lost any of their vivacious viv. Nor defiance; especially when compared to their British (or at least, English) compatriots.

Hence describing Paris as more resolute.

That’s not to say Londoners aren’t.
To a degree, they most undoubtedly are.
Or (at least) were.
One need only re-call the years of The Blitz. Or ‘The Blitz Spirit.’
But said spirit has since subsided amid a definitive quagmire of catastrophic, xenophobic hogwash. Indeed, since the cancerous onslaught of the ruinous Brexit years triggered in 2016, England, has truly, and without any shadow of any doubt, lost its way.

To be sure, France obviously has its problems (one need look no further than the vile Le Pen), but as a whole; there’s an unequivocal spirit about the place, Paris in particular, which an assortment of myopic Brits would be wise to embrace.

Paris and the Cliche of History is a wide-eyed, most definitive reminder of this.
Throughout its 220 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography and Index) there are countless examples which ”embody French defiance in the face of both the disruptions of urbanization and the threat of American imperialism.” As the authoress, Catherine E. Clark, continues to make clear when following on from the opening quote with: ”Alice Aubert’s portrait of curly-haired children in ankle socks playing on scaffolding or aiming pistols at the photographer from the ruined wall of a hotel particular provide hope that this new generation might successfully navigate the obstacles created by the present.”

It is both the awareness and acceptance of this present, that more than anything else, is majestically brought to bear herein.

Especially from the perspective of photography.

After all, the second part of this book’s title, The City and Photographs, 1860-1970, does resoundingly make clear, that visual proof – if any were ever needed in relation to Paris – is something of an unquestionable currency.

Clark already makes as much perfectly clear in the very opening chapter (‘Imagination and Evidence’) where she writes: ”University-affiliated historians rejected whimsical romantic imaginings and reconstructions of the past that had dominated nineteenth-century historical practices from Salon painting to lectures at the Sorbonne. Instead they placed an increasing emphasis on scientific evidence, proof, and rigor in historical research. This often meant no longer using paintings, prints, coins, and medals, since these sources presented subjective representations of the past whose ties to romantic forms of history made them unreliable. Collectors, municipal officials, and non-university historians, on the other hand, embraced images as never before.”

Catherine E. Clark thus, analyzes the importance of photography’s effects on historical interpretation, by thoroughly examining the trajectory of their idiosyncratic influence on the city – which partially explains why Paris and the Cliche of History – The City and Photographs, 1860-1970 makes for such an astute, vibrant and altogether fascinating read.

David Marx

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