Privacy, photography, and Paris, Part II (Community and history)

In Paris this month is a noteworthy photographic exhibit at the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire de Judaisme, in the Marais.
The prolific Magnum photographer Alecio de Andrade, born in Brazil, moved to Paris upon winning a cinematography fellowship in 1964, and lived there — as much as international photojournalists live in any one place — until he died in 2003. Like many other artists, Andrade had several seemingly disparate passions. Early in his life he published poetry and studied the piano; but he committed himself to photography in the early 1960s.from Andrade's web site,

Before he settled himself permanently in the Marais — the old Parisian Jewish quarter — in the 1980s, he spent much time photographing its streets, businesses, and of course most importantly its people. A series of photographs he took in 1974 and 1975 bring the Pletzl (the “little place”) to life at a time when it was still defined by post-Holocaust, post-Israel Jewish life (and ten years after Cultural Minister Andre Malraux had committed France to restoring the quarter).

Individuals pop out of the prints in this series of black and white views of the Rue des Rosiers, the heart of Jewish community in Paris. Often they look at the photographer, usually in a benign or — in the case of the children — mischievous acknowledgement of his gaze.

He also caught people in moments of argument, persuasion, revery, and celebration. A young man in what must have been very loud plaid bellbottoms rests his foot triumphantly on a soccer ball. Owners and workers pose in front of kosher butcher shops and restaurants. The famous Jo Goldenberg’s restaurant appears. Despite the bombing and shooting in 1982 that killed six and injured 22 more the restaurant survived until 2005.( The building’s owner honors the legacy of Goldenberg’s with a banner that nearly replicates the one that hung over the shop door for so long (see below).

Some of the photographs are grouped in series. Notably, there are three photos of Talmud students with their teacher at the synagogue..

There is a series of wedding photos from a marriage ceremony at the synagogue in Place des Vosges. The longest series records the 30th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, where Nazis murdered thousands of Pletzl residents during the war. In that series is a remarkable candid photograph of a profoundly sad Simone Veil (former Health Minister and President of the European Parliament).

There are children and youth. The young men are mostly in traditional clothing, joking and negotiating like the teenagers they were. Some challenge the camera or horse around.

Captions identify a number of the individuals in the photographs. Though a few are community notables, most are just people of the Pletzl, identified by the photographer or other residents. (In fact the website viewers are invited to scan the photos online to see if they can name anybody not yet recognized.) Here is their moment of fame. Caught in lively engagement with each other, their faces represent, not recovery, but the persistence of life. Ironically and significantly, Andrade captured his future neighbors at a moment of profound change. Within a decade the Marais’ Jewish identity would begin slipping as it morphed into a haven and core community for Paris’s gay population, and then in the twenty-first century for international upscale brand boutiques and coffee shops. Yet the first day I left the exhibit I walked toward the Seine by way of the rue des Rosiers and found the Jewish community still present, still vital, if overwhelmed numerically by tourists, hip residents, and globetrotting youth.

The Musee has done an extraordinary job with this exhibit, and for those of you who will not visit Paris before early October, the curators have mounted a diaporama(slide show) that seems to contain just about the entire exhibit. They did this in part to encourage the public to continue identifying the subjects in the photos.

I visited the Musee two days in a row: the first to get a sense of the exhibit, and the second both to enjoy the details, and to understand more deeply the place of this remarkable exhibit in the geography and mission of the museum. On my first visit I moved conscientiously, though superficially, forward through time to be rewarded at the end with the Andrade exhibit. The second time around I wanted to see the exhibit first, so I moved backward through the museum. This had the unexpected effect of putting the museum’s treatment of the Holocaust — specifically, the roundup (the *rafle*) of the Paris Jews — at the end of my experience rather than the beginning. It is possible to feel an even deeper grief and rage at this ghastly and irreversible destruction after immersing oneself in the vitality of Jewish history over centuries. The museum’s mission is not just to document Paris’s or even France’s Jews, though those groups get primary billing, but all Jewish history and culture.

Appropriately, antisemitism and waves of attacks on Jews by non-Jews feature prominently in the museum’s displays. The Dreyfus Affair takes up a gallery. But in addition, the theme running through the museum’s collections, particularly for the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is the richness of Jewish artistic achievement, specifically the visual arts. Andrade’s photographs join several other collections of photographs, some in the permanent exhibits, and a few temporary. Some of the photo collections are meant to be illustrative, and some are meant to be appreciated aesthetically. All in fact are artistically exciting. Among the temporary exhibits is Didier ben Loulou’s series of color portraits of contemporary French Jews. Most of the larger than life head shots are accompanied by excerpts from the subject’s statement about what it means to her or him to be a Jew in France. These photos are scattered throughout the museum, adding an arresting dimension to the historical exhibits.

Another series of photos in one of the stairwells pictures Jewish artists that lived for a time or for their whole lives in Paris. The photos are largely from the 1920s and 1930s, and they have varied provenances, some provided as snapshots by the artists’ families, while others were clearly formal portraits, though most *in situ* either in the studio or with a spouse or partner (the vast majority of the photographs picture men — surprise). When I first saw this exciting though understated display I had the impression that many of the artists had been murdered during the Holocaust, but on second viewing I decided to count the instances, and in fact of twenty-something artists pictured, only four are identified as having perished in one of the camps. Most lived into the 1960s or 1970s — a few into the 1980s. The museum holds a few of the artists’ works.

Heartbreaking is the portion of the permanent photographic exhibits that represents the Pletzl before and during the Nazi occupation. More exciting photographically, and less agonizingly sad, is the small collection that in a sense leads into Andrade’s exhibit: prints of glass plates of the Pletzl in the 1910s and 1920s. Though the photographer is not acknowledged and thus probably not known, the photographs are accomplished. Interestingly, although they are NOT Leica street photographs (they predate the mass production of the Leica), their subjects are in motion — one man for example smiling at the camera as he strolls by.

Deeper and more coherent than street photographs, though sharing much of the street photographer’s mission, Andrade’s collection of Marais photos from the 1970s records and celebrates a hardy multidimensional community of place and religious identity. Was Andrade an insider in any of the Marais’ communities? The records available on the internet do not make that clear. It seems likely that he was drawn to the rue des Rosiers for the same reasons many of us are today: its vitality, its color, its village air. Thank heaven for Andrade’s journalistic genius. Thank heaven for his love, respect, and curiosity. Thank heaven the group lives of these Jewish Marais residents did not remain private, walled away from our eyes. When we take this kind of photograph, we record and preserve the history of a community and celebrate its arrival and, implicitly, its changes and its passing. Photographers violate people’s privacy not when they turn the camera on their subjects, but when they don’t turn their hearts in the same direction. Yeah, that’s corny and vague. More later.

NOTE: After I first published this I wandered down rue des Rosiers again and came across the old Jo Goldenberg restaurant site. The current owners have reproduced a banner similar to the old one as a memorial to go along with a plaque on the wall; inside now is a boutique. Here is what the outside looks like now:

The Goldenberg restaurant today

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s