How to write about someone whose work you admire?
That person was Gaston Paris (1903 – 1964), working French photographer, until recently a little-known, who is now showing in two venues in Paris, at Roger-Viollet until April 23, and in the prestigious space devoted to him at the Centre Pompidou until 18 April 2022.
Though his imagery is plentifully available online, biographical details, beyond the scanty timeline provided in the Pompidou press release, are hard to find — what I did discover is now in articles I’ve uploaded this week on the English and French Wikipedia.
What did he do after his military service during the ill-fated French Occupation of the Ruhr 1923–1925 in his early twenties and before, at age 26, he was publishing articles in Cinémagazine?
Apparently he was teaching himself the medium during that ‘dark’ period, and by 1931 was accomplished enough to feature alongside Brassaï, Roger Schall, Pierre Boucher, Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze), André de Diénès and others in Art et médecine : revue mensuelle réservée au corps médical (also titled La Revue du Medecin) a luxurious magazine produced exclusively for doctors and funded by the profits of pharmaceutical companies.
He may have worked in the 20s as a scene painter and set designer, so his sense of chiaroscuro might have been educated by his experience of stage lighting, rendered handsomely in Art et Médecine‘s photogravures of his theatre pictures.
Not limiting him to stage photography, the magazine commissioned him to produce travel photography, views of architecture and interiors including the Art Deco homes and offices of wealthy surgeons, reproductions of artworks, fashion photography, cabaret performances and circuses, portraits, and night scenes of Paris for which he experimented in double-exposure and camera movement.
Of his series on the circus performances by the Duart Sisters and Iris Kirwhite the captions rapturously describe
…the shimmering of colored lights that envelop in a kind of scintillating vapour those reckless trapeze artists the Duart Sisters. On the stage where an immense corolla of lace blooms, the shadow of the American dancer, Iris Kirwhite, draws a series of graceful figures. Here is accomplished the wonderful journey into the land of rays and shadows. Rich in its halos, its flames, its dreamlike brilliance, its indefinable gleams, the Art of Light has taken us into the realm of the fantastic and the unreal…the rare enchantment of illusion.
It is in La Rampe a theatre magazine, that we find Paris’s own tribute to an artist that he admired, in words that I might have used here about him, were I still as young as he. A regular article he wrote in the magazine saw Gaston visit an artist’s studio to make a portrait of them, while they in turn drew a sketch of him;
Don’t throw this letter in the waste-paper basket, please, Kisling, not right away at least, and since you are generous, think that the pleasure I took in writing it will outweigh the harm you will have in reading it…
That’s how it starts! Not a bad start to an article, eh? What? you say that this is neither new nor very clever, and that for twenty years (already!) that you have been receiving love letters and letters from friends, you are necessarily jaded.
But here I am completely at ease to declare here, that you are, Kisling, the coolest guy in Montparnasse, to say the very least, and that I would like to be rich, very rich, to acquire for myself all the canvases in your studio [ … ]
Don’t count on me, unfortunately, for Immortality, dear Kisling; that would take the quill of a poet, and I have only the paltry pen of a journalist. Just enough to express, but with what fervour, our admiration and my gratitude: day by day, we have less opportunity, as you know, to love what is moving in art: the torment of creation, not that we create less, but we no longer torment ourselves.
Heartfelt thanks. Your canvases are sumptuous in a time of constraint, and generous with inspiration at a time of such moral poverty as would discourage all the saints of Painting: you keep the sun in tubes, your blues are deep because they are pure, your reds dazzling because they are virgin, and your palette where the colours blend is a true rainbow.
In such traces are the rudimentary data from which to sketch a scant biography. We can know he mixed with the bohemians, writers and artists because “Serge” of Le Journal of 5 February 1937 reports seeing Gaston Paris at the Biron flea market in Saint Ouen where “artist Dignimont [subject of another “Les Maîtres du Dessin chez eux”] snaps up all the ships in bottles. We could still meet Marguerite Moreno, the painter Jules Cavaillès, the reviewer Pierre Varenne, the Moineau kid, the whimsical O’dett…” all subjects of the photographer.
Early in his career at La Rampe in 1932, Paris was profiled by journalist Robert Brisacq whose purple prose describes his brown eyes and his talk “of his children, his wife, [director] Abel Gance, [songwriter] Montéhus, an indescribable Vernon carnival, romantic music, [singer] Claudine Boria, [artist Jean] Dorville and the Cocteau film [Le sang d’un poète, released that year], Pabst [beer] and gas heating..;” recording his expression “It’s direct. It’s now…it’s my scene,” in appraisal of “any painting of a photo, a street corner, a face, a story that affects him;” and how the photographer unconsciously reaches for his camera, seized by the sight of a shining blue-green nickel siphon on the faux-marble table of the café booth — barely restraining himself from climbing onto the overstuffed banquette to photograph it;
“You see, Gaston Paris, young reporter for all the big weeklies, today can do what he wants; half-tones of opulent mansion interiors, or of humble barges, like the provocative hero of Mauriac’s Destins … Gaston Paris, you bridge the gap, you thrust the photographer’s lens through the thumbhole of the painter’s palette.”
After a sojourn at the ‘girlie’ Paris-magazine, he was hired in 1933 as the sole salaried photographer at French weekly illustrated magazine VU, launched in March 1928 and edited by Lucien Vogel. “Vu” is a past participle of the verb to see, so serves as a non-finite verb and an adjective – so “seen” as in “the thing seen,” a title and concept picked up quite late in America when Henry Luce turned the general interest magazine Life into a pictorial publication in 1936. Edmond T. Greville’s short film Un grand journal illustré moderne (1928) was thinly disguised promotion for Vu, and declared “The hectic life of today prevents us from reading ..,” and, “Seeing is what counts; we are in the century of the image,” repeating the sentiment of Kurt Korff’s 1927 ambitions for the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, founded in 1891 and by then the largest weekly in Europe by circulation.
“Things seen” is what Paris produced, covers [above] and article illustrations on a breathtaking array of subjects as their most prolific photographer, exceeding, in the numbers and scope of his 1300 images, all other contributors, among whom were famous names; James Abbe, Herbert Bayer, Ilse Bing, Pierre Boucher, Margaret Bourke-White, Bill Brandt, Brassaï, Michel Brodsky, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier Bresson, Blaise Cendrars, Nora Dumas, Alfred Eisenstaedt, E.-O. Hoppe, Pierre Ichac, Iris, André Kertesz, Isaac Kitrosser, François Kollar, Germaine Krull, Ergy Landau, Alexandre Liberman, Boris Lipnitzki, Eli Lotar, Dora Maar, Man Ray, Jean Moral, Martin Munkacsi, Nadar, Hans Namuth, Rogi-Andre, Erich Salomon, Roger Schall, Frères Seeberger, Charles Sheeler, Emmanuel Sougez, Maurice Tabard, Titayna, Umbo, Pierre Verger, and René Zuber. Quite an achievement for an ‘unknown,’ and it led to his freelancing for the Keystone agency.
Gaston’s first story drew on his skills in architectural photography that he had developed at Art et Médecine, but he soon diversified, and in 1936 and 1937 (the year he joined the professional group Rectangle) he participated in exhibitions, one at the International Exhibition of Contemporary Photography, and in two shows as part of the 1937 “Exposition internationale des arts et des techniques dans la vie moderne.”
Vu ran for more than 600 issues, but since it had vehemently opposed the rise of Nazism — Vogel’s own daughter Marie-Claude photographed the Dachau concentration camp in 1933 — it terminated with the occupation of Paris in 1940 but by then Gaston had left in 1938 for Paris Match and during the war was forced like others to work for the Vichy-sanctioned La Semaine, but his imagery of the French village did catch the attention of Life magazine editors who in April 1939 included his essay on provincial family life in topical coverage of British, French and Nazi German lifestyles.
As the Allies were about to enter the city, Gaston, with his colleagues from Rectangle, Marcel-Arthaud, Pierre Jahan and Jean Roubier, as well as André Bienvenu, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Cohen, Robert Doisneau, André Gandner, Roger Parry, Pierre Roughol, Serge de Sazo, Séeberger Frères, and René Zuber, photographed amongst the barricades alongside the insurgents as the people of Paris, urged by Colonel Rol-Tanguy and the FF command, rose up against the occupier and celebrated with the arriving Allied troops. The pictures appeared in Jacques de Lacretelle‘s 1945 book Scenes from the Liberation of Paris : Photographs, August 1944. [pictures from original edition below]
He then followed the Allied forces into Germany and documented its destruction. He portrays himself in uniform, with the Leica then favoured by European photojournalists, though his camera of choice would continue to be the square-format Rolleiflex or the French-manufactured Royflex.
The array of portrait subjects that Paris photographed during his career is significant, most of them French and from the arts; writers, performers, movie stars, painters, sculptors, amongst some dignitaries, military personnel and politicians.
What is it that I admire about Gaston Paris? It is his admiration for his subjects.
A favourite device was the convex mirror that appears in many of his portraits, and which incidentally gives us a further glimpse of this otherwise inscrutable photographer, and indeed, he was magnetically attracted to any circular form which might remind him of the pupil of the eye and its reflection.
By the 1950s we see that, as in this mirror portrait of the 20-year-old Bardot, his medium-format camera habitually had a flash unit attached. A lover of light, his use of on-camera flash, the stand-by for newspaper photographers of the era, but to which he resorted only in his late reportage and portraiture — before his tragic death at sixty-one, from alcoholism — results in a flattening of its quality.
Nevertheless, the Pompidou exhibition opens the the exhibition with a section titled “Gaston Paris, a surrealist eye ?” That is certainly the attraction of the distorting mirror. However, by the time Luis Buñuel‘s L’Âge d’Or (in which female lead Lya Lys’ own mirror fills with clouds) infuriated French fascists in 1930, artists were questioning whether Surrealism had become too mainstream.
Consequently Gaston Paris’ apparently metaphysical images need to be seen in their context in mass media. For instance, on their own these body parts — a pair of stockinged legs that relax next to a stiffly upright woman’s head which with a studied fixed gaze ignores the arm circling snakelike around her absent shoulders — is decidedly bizarre, cryptically captioned as it is within by signs forbidding smoking, directions to the toilet, and the mysterious woodgrain panel inscribed “Stavisky” propped casually against the ladder à la Paul Nash.
Stavisky, the infamous embezzler, perpetrator of a fraud that scandalised France in 1934, discomfortingly trespasses into ‘Uncanny Valley’ in the photographer’s Vu cover of that year where ehe is apparently being interviewed. Turning to the inside spread, we discover the truth that he, and the discarded body parts, are from displays of the Musée Grévin, the 1882 waxworks, which itself houses a hall of mirrors.
That same year, in photographing at the Paris Opera, Gaston exercises a surrealist eye to photograph the chandelier and spiral staircase [above], and most convincingly in this backstage spectacle of a stagehand peering intently through a grubby peephole while balancing on a flimsy box inscribed with mysterious runes, while another leans, bored, on a flat. In this case the starkness of on-camera flash conveys a sense that we too are spying, unseen by the protagonists.
Like the monthly feature ‘Spectacle’ that he illustrated in Art et Médecine, it is journalistic impact that is his motive, supported by deliberately off-kilter ‘Dutch tilt’ compositions, dazzling light, vertiginous viewpoints and disorienting multiple exposures in his most creative efforts.
These are perspectives that are put into play in his in his abiding fascination with crime, which led to his (mostly uncredited) contributions to Détective magazine from the late 1930s well into the 1950s, and which licensed his penchant for melodrama kindled in his twenties, when as a stage hand, he witnessed its illusion constructed.
At the same time, Gaston remains a reporter, ever ready to flex his reflexes! An incident occurred during the filming of the Société Commerciale Cinématographique’s Blow For Blow in 1943 when on October 8, as Pierre Mingand was acting a fight scene a head-butt to the chest swung the actor into the set which, under this blow, collapsed. Seriously injured, he was immobilised for months, then set about claiming one million in damages from the producers of the film. The latter, when served notice, believed it done in a mere fit of pique and refused to take the suit seriously. Trial after trial went on for six years as it was argued whether it was the scenery which fell on Pierre Mingand , or had Pierre Mingand knocked it over? Détective magazine published his photo of the accident taken by Gaston Paris, whose instinct fired the shutter.
There is a further mystery. Amongst the holdings of the Centre Pompidou are album pages by Paris that gather series of images into narrative sequence, which perhaps he intended to publish, such as the group “Unhappy Loves” drawing together existing images: a bathing-costumed woman is ready to fire an arrow into a boy’s chest; a couple peer at a sleeping, or dead, woman; a naked woman makes love to a robot; boys cringe in dread and whisper; a nude woman stands at a window; a warder guards ranks of fortified pews in the prison church; a woman’s face melts into the night landscape.
There is so much more to be discovered about the enigmatic Gaston Paris.