Graham Robb's "Parisians" and Yvon's Paris, photos of Pierre Yves Petit

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By Michael Sims
Sunday, July 11, 2010


By Robert Stevens

Norton. 144 pp. $40


An Adventure History of Paris

By Graham Robb

Norton. 476 pp. $28.95

The French word flâneur refers to one who thoughtfully strolls the boulevards, appreciating, observing without destination or at least with no urgent need to arrive. Two elegant new books follow in the long tradition of Parisian flânerie. In "Yvon's Paris," Robert Stevens's exhibition-in-a-book, the French photographer Yvon (Pierre Yves Petit) comes across as the ideal flâneur, a loiterer who happens to have brought along his camera. The English writer Graham Robb presents an equally relaxed persona in "Parisians," like a weekend tour guide who never mentions that he happens to be a famous authority on the history of Paris.

"Yvon's Paris" offers dozens of glorious photographs, many filling two pages -- flat paper magically alive with moments stolen from time: flower sellers, bargemen, weary blinkered horses, a boating party in the Bois de Boulogne. Yvon's masterful framing and atmospheric perspective can turn the Palais du Luxembourg ghostly behind the garden trees or contrive a lively photo from the sight of a man perched atop an extendable ladder to water flowers in the Tuileries. In Yvon's peek down an alley in Montmartre, a struggling tree becomes a symbol of tenacity, but what matters is the touchable history of crumbling brick and the wrought iron lamp-post stenciled on the air. The photos seem to start between the wars and go into the 1950s -- Yvon lived from 1886 to 1969 -- but Stevens merely identifies sights and ignores dates, an omission that undermines the value of such a retrospective.

Obsessed with atmosphere and texture, Yvon avoided midday glare, choosing instead to capture fleeting moments at dawn and dusk or on rainy days. Oblique lighting caresses every marble muscle and lunar pockmark in the gargoyles that, from atop Notre Dame, contemplate flâneurs below on sinful Earth. These photos may remind you of Boris Kaufman's delicious cinematography in Jean Vigo's 1934 film "L'Atalante." "Poetic realism," the term often applied to that movie, also describes Yvon's photographs.

Robb's new book deserves the same label. Internationally acclaimed for "The Discovery of France" and his biographies of Rimbaud, Balzac and Hugo, he is an encyclopedia of French history. But this is no ordinary history book. Although the form varies -- one chapter, for example, is presented as a film script -- the book is a series of character portraits in chronological order, evolving into a rich and layered history of one of the great mythological cities of the world.

Robb's and Yvon's work stand congenially together. For one thing, Robb writes brilliantly about photography. In conjuring photographer Charles Marville, Robb could be describing Yvon: "He feels quite at home in a city devoid of people, at the hour when the sun shines for no one but himself and his assistant." Elsewhere Robb says of a photo, "Here at the dawn of the visible past, the buildings look almost radiant in their grime, as though they haven't yet learned how to pose for a camera."

I could not possibly have read Robb's novel-like opening chapter, about the young Napoleon's first arrival in Paris and his encounter with a prostitute, without turning the page immediately to see where Robb would take me next. When Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette try to flee their palace for refuge in Vincennes, Robb manages to make three different points with their experience of getting lost in the labyrinth of medieval streets: the royal family's disconnection from the lives of the not-yet-citizens around them, the unplanned organic growth of the ancient and literally unmapped city, and the cinematic ironies of history.

Robb's gift for analogy is pitch-perfect. He writes of Proust's initial disappointment with the théâtrophone, which permitted subscribers to listen to opera over the new telephone lines: "A live performance of Pelléas et Mélisande reached him like something precious that had been smashed and sullied by the post." This simile opens the way for Robb to inhabit Proust's imagination during moments of static: "Yet without that intermittency, the remote performance would have lost its power: his memory would not have been forced to rush about the orchestra pit, playing every instrument, until the musicians returned from nowhere."

Charles Dickens once complained that an essay lacked "the elegant play of fancy." Robb could never be accused of this shortcoming. His fancy plays across Parisian history, darting down every alley and into the minds of kings, novelists and painters.

One of Yvon's photos immortalized an early morning on the Place du Tertre in Montmartre. Both the man sweeping the gutter and the youngster watching him are blurry from movement, their features forgotten by time, while behind them the white-pastry façade of Sacré Coeur basilica stands tall and firm. Robb's words and Yvon's photographs beautifully remind us that our own fleeting lives are the motion lost in slow exposures.

Michael Sims is the author of the National Geographic Society book "In the Womb: Animals" and the editor of "Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories."

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