Avant/Après

April 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

I bought this postcard two years ago at a flea market in Pasadena. I suppose I ought to have bought a vintage LA postcard instead (there were certainly more to choose from) but for some reason (quite possibly just my inordinate love of all things Paris) this one called my name.

It’s a view of the place Denfert-Rochereau. I would guess from what little I can discern of the clothes of the passersby that the photograph was taken sometime between 1900 and the start of the First World War. What struck me about it was the very ordinariness of the scene – it isn’t a hackneyed shot of a Great Monument, just a square in a somewhat out-of-the-way corner of Paris, albeit a large square with a reduction of Bartholdi’s Lion of Belfort presiding over it, with pedestrians going about their daily business. Were they aware they were being photographed? I doubt it. Did they take any notice of the massive sculpture of the lion in their midst? It seems not. Even the gendarme whose back seems to serve as a keep-out warning to the viewer stares off in a different direction. The only figure who seems to cast a glance at it is a man in what looks like an apron and chef’s whites at the left – a cook or a dishwasher from a nearby café? Maybe a butcher’s boy from the market in the rue Daguerre (assuming there was a market there then)? Perhaps he’s the only one who’s noticed that the lion actually moves a muscle now and then, shifting a paw or yawning a little, partly to stretch but mostly to see if anyone hurrying across the place will detect the change.

This past weekend I was staying with a friend who lives not too far from place Denfert-Rochereau, and just on a lark I got off the métro there and snapped my own photo:

The view has changed more than a bit since the photographer of my postcard passed through: the two old tax barriers on either side of the top of avenue du Général Leclerc hemmed in the vista, so I couldn’t replicate it exactly (I suspect the original photographer had the luxury of standing in the middle of the street, something that today would require you to have a death wish), to say nothing of the changes in fashion and transport – the lion now sits at the centre of a whirlpool of Citroëns and Renaults. But like my predecessor, I couldn’t help capturing a few passersby in my viewfinder. This time there’s a single man standing right in front of the lion’s plinth, actively looking (though perhaps more at the inscription than the sculpture), and another – he’ll have to stand for the rest of the pedestrians in the original photo – in jeans and a windbreaker, striding purposefully across the street with a Celio bag.

I can’t help but ask myself: if, by some chance, someone comes across my photo decades from now, will they, too, muse about what lives the people whose paths crossed my viewfinder led, as I now wonder about those in the postcard?

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