Midnight In Paris: Meeting The Photographers Behind The McMullen Museum’s ‘Paris Night & Day’

The scene: Paris, emerging from the violence and social upheaval that corrupted Europe throughout World War I. A chance for a blank slate-not only politically, but artistically as well. An opportunity arose to break from the past and portray society with a new perspective, one built upon a sense hope and renewal. Photography was one of the mediums which artists used to foster this newfound creativity, and to explore the possibilities of innovation within a single snapshot of reality

Paris Night & Day: Photography Between the Wars is the latest exhibit to be featured at Boston College’s McMullen Museum, opening on Feb. 15. Photographs from 1918 through 1939 are included in the collection, displaying the various ways in which photographers utilized new technology and dark room techniques to convey the faces and streets of Paris in unconventional and unprecedented styles. 

Photographers of this time period rejected the more contrived aestheticof pictorialism, the dominant form of photography in Europe during the early 20th century that attempted to emulate the paintings of fine art through the intervention of the human hand. In contrast, French photographers between the wars embraced photography that actually looked like photography, focusing on objectivity rather than on the subjectivity that was often thought to be the source of tensions in Europe in the first place.

The Scene gathered insight on these photographers from Boston College art history professor Asher Anderson-who is the curator of the upcoming McMullen exhibit-and Elizabeth Bayoff, one of his students and A&S ’14. Anderson described the time period as a “magical moment” when a circle of artists were able to feed each others’ creative energy, leading to many innovations in the realm of photography. Three photographers in particular-Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Dora Maar-had individual approaches to photography that culminated in an overall exploration of representing reality. The Scene explores their stylistic and thematic interpretations of Paris between the wars-and their contributions to the field that continue to influence modern photography.

Man Ray

For Man Ray and other American artists who made significant contributions to Dada, Surrealism, and the avant-garde, photography may have seemed like an odd choice. It was his skillful manipulation, however, that allowed for his photos to take on a surrealist edge, as Anderson explained.

“Surrealism, in a very simple way, is interested in the unconscious rather than the conscious, and the unseen and the dreamt or the imagined rather the seen and the recorded,” he said. “In a way, photography is a bad choice for someone interested in surrealism. However, Man Ray’s genius was using photography to invent things that we don’t see in the real world using darkroom techniques.”

After moving to Paris in 1921, Ray opened up a portrait studio and began exploring these stylistic possibilities of photography, eventually leading to several innovations such as solarization-a technique in which a photo is exposed to light midway through the development process, which reverses some of the light and dark tones in order to defamiliarize the subject.

“He didn’t invent [solarization], but he tried to make it his own,” Bayoff said. “He tried to call a photogram a rayograph, and that’s an image made by placing objects directly on top of the photographic paper and then exposing it to light.” Also known as “camera-less photography,” the rayographs and solarization had the effect of “making the mundane seem absurd or fantastic,” Bayoff added. Ray’s intervention in the development process, Anderson explained, could also be seen as a precedent for modern-day photo experimentation with programs such as Photoshop.

Ray’s portraits took on a more dream-like quality with the addition of these manipulations, such as his “Self-Portrait with Studio Camera” (1932) and “Portrait of Dora Maar” (1936). The self-portrait contains a recognizable profile shot of Ray’s face, as well as the camera itself, but his use of solarization creates a slight distortion in the image, resulting in a somewhat abstract reality. Maar, who was a friend of Ray, posed for an unconventional portrait, as seen in the placement of her hands and fingers within the frame of the photo. While Maar’s hand rests delicately on her forehead, a set of smaller doll hands are cropped into the bottom corner, creating a striking contrast that is grounded in reality while maintaining an illusionistic effect.

“She’s absolutely beautiful,” said Bayoff, who noted that the portrait of Maar is one of her favorite photos taken by Ray. “It’s an unexpected portrait. You don’t really think about how she got into that position and notice that the hands are repeated.” Ray even challenges the idea of the traditional nude portrait and experiments with various angles, draping, and solarization-evidence of his unique ability to balance a stripped-down reality with imaginative creation. -M.T.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

“Sometimes the pictures disappear, and there’s nothing you can do,” remarked French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. “You can’t tell the person, ‘Oh, please smile again. Do that gesture again.’ Life is once, forever, and new all the time.”

Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908 to one of the wealthiest families in France-this was a point of embarrassment to him, as he was known best for his common touch and interest in the everyday. He was a “street photographer,” to use modern terminology. Cartier-Bresson’s work has been extraordinarily influential to photography, even during his own life-he is often considered the inventor of photojournalism. As far as his methodology goes, Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” has gone on to be one of the most influential ideas in photography today. (Ironically, Cartier-Bresson had mixed feelings about this phrase.)

“It seemed to be almost magical, that you pick these moments out of everyday life that seem to have this natural logic to them and that became very influential,” Anderson explained. “Especially in the years after the war, there was a movement called humanist photography that used his approach to capture delightful moments from the everyday, but not always with his ‘decisive eye.'”

Unlike his surrealist contemporary Man Ray, Cartier-Bresson did not manipulate his photographs, but rather he took them to resolve the chaos of the world, identifying forms within it. He believed there were no new ideas out there, just new arrangements of them.

Cartier-Bresson’s brand of street photography, and generally spontaneous style, interestingly was only made possible by technology invented during the early years of his adulthood.

“During the 19th century photographers used large, heavy cameras with glass plate mechanisms, so they were lugging around 40 to 50 pounds of material throughout the world or around the city that they were traveling,” explains Anderson. “In the 1920s cameras started to become smaller, but the Leica camera was developed, which is handheld-it takes roll film rather than glass plate film, so it’s much lighter, and it can take photographs quickly with a much shorter exposure time.”

One of Cartier-Bresson’s most iconic photographs shows the silhouette of a man jumping into a puddle. Named the photo of the century by Time magazine, the image was taken at the last possible moment the man could be suspended over the puddle without making a ripple-in regard to his perfect ordering, Cartier-Bresson was a surrealist photographer. He went to an art school in Paris at the same time as surrealist pioneer Dora Maar, and like her, he met and became involved with the Surrealist circles during the first 10 years of his career.

Paris Night & Day focuses predominately on this surrealist stage of Cartier-Bresson’s career, which took place during the period between the wars. In World War II, Cartier-Bresson was a prisoner of war in France, and he only escaped after three unsuccessful attempts. He worked for the resistance as a photographer-the McMullen exhibit will also feature some of these photos, taken around 1945 as the war was ending. These photos were especially documentary in nature, and later in his career, Cartier-Bresson leaned strongly toward the photojournalistic end of the spectrum. -J.W.

Dora Maar

Although she was an artist in her own right, Dora Maar always lived in somebody else’s shadow-she’s often recognized not for her poetry, painting, or even photography, but rather for her passionate, nine-year affair with cubist painter Pablo Picasso.

“Maar is probably best known for being Picasso’s lover and muse and being the model for his ‘Weeping Woman’ paintings,” Anderson said. She also had a close relationship with Man Ray, posing for several of his famous pictures. “But she was an extraordinary photographer, too,” he said. “And I think her skill as a photographer is insufficiently appreciated.”

Maar’s work exhibits not only raw talent, but also refined and practiced expertise. While most other artists featured in Paris Night & Day learned from experimentation or through friends, Maar was formally educated. She had art history, graphic, and photography training, “so that kind of sets her apart,” Anderson said.

Like other photographers of the period, Maar’s pictures have a surrealist quality to them. “The exposure of the subconscious and how it exposed itself in the world,” Bayoff said, was a major theme that defined surrealist art. She relied on similar motifs as her contemporaries-mirrors, reflections, and even shadows-but distinguished her work by her manipulation techniques in the dark room and by “looking for a unique perspective out in the world.”

Her photo of a shop window, for example, is “emblematic of surrealism” in that “it’s very ambiguous,” Bayoff said. Because of the angle of the shot and the lighting, the viewer can’t tell the difference between inside and outside, between the passersby and the mannequins. This piece, like her others, is about making the audience a “little more uncomfortable about what they’re looking at,” Bayoff said.

Maar’s “serendipitous” photograph of a man on the street, crouching down and peering into a manhole, is also representative of her trying to “thematize sight” and “confuse our perceptions,” Anderson said. “It has this implication that he’s looking into another world,” he said. “Because he’s upside down, we get the sense that the street is upside down, so everything is kind of reversed.”

In and of herself, Maar inspired Picasso, Man Ray, and others in the Parisian artistic circle, but Anderson said that she “should be better known for her own creative production,” which, as Bayoff described it, focused on “making the every day a little bit more fantastic.” -A.I.


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John Wiley was the Editor-in-Chief of The Heights in 2015. Follow him on Twitter @johnjaywiley.