The most-photographed city in the world? Has to be Paris, the French capital of 2 million that's inspired generations of photographers to genuflect before its towering monuments and distinctive arrondissements. Who can forget Henri Cartier-Bresson's Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, the 1932 image of a man leaping across a flooded walkway by Paris' central railway station, or Robert Doisneau's Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville (Kiss by the Town Hall), the 1950 image of a young couple locked in embrace astride Paris' municipal mansion? But Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau helped unleash a flood of copycat image-makers who traffic in what the French would call terribles clichés. Does the world really need another panoramic photo of the Eiffel Tower?
Four new San Francisco exhibits cast Paris in a dramatically different light, and all four minimize the number of Parisians in frame while emphasizing odd vantage points of a city that can be as strange (and unnerving) as any other urban metropolis. Michael Wolf, whose previous photo series have been mostly centered in China and Japan, wandered along Paris' rooftops to find an architectural side of Paris that is cracking and atrophying out of public view. Wolf — as he did with his acclaimed "Architecture of Density" series from Hong Kong — squeezes the skyline out of each scene, condensing what could be sprawling vistas into tight layers of metal and cement. Dotting Wolf's roofs are scores of orange, red, and blueish vents that look like patterns of pottery or even engorged Lego pieces. The title of Wolf's exhibit, "Paris Abstract," advertises his photos' location but also his aim: to disconnect Paris from its idealized reputation — to, in a sense, "de-Paris" Paris.
"When I went up on rooftops, I realized that it's a perspective that most people don't see," says Wolf during a visit to Robert Koch Gallery in downtown San Francisco, where his exhibit is on display through Aug. 30. "If you see Paris from the foot perspective, it's all polished and perfect, and there's nothing improvised or broken or damaged. The rooftops are totally different. The people who work up there say, 'Oh, no one's going to see this anyway,' and they dump something, or the chimney is broken. In that sense, it was a Paris that I found very sympathetic."
Wolf had to make pleas to get his rooftop access. "I asked my wife to reach out to all her friends," he says, "and I asked my gallerists in Paris to reach out to all of their friends. And every arrondissement has three or four churches, and each church has a spire, and you have to talk to the priests and finagle your way up there."
Wolf, who has lived in Paris on and off since 2008, deconstructed the city once before, in a series of photos snapped from Google Street View. Wolf's "Paris Street View" images captured Parisians in oddly candid moments — the stylish man who's pulling up his sock, the obese smoker on the sidewalk waiting to take another puff, and the homeless figure passed out next to a container of liquid. "Paris Abstract" completely depopulates Paris. The city can feel that way in August when — to escape the heat and the tourists — moneyed Parisians leave the capital en masse.
Emptiness is rooted in Nina Dietzel's "Paris Series" diptychs at Fouladi projects in the Upper Market area. One of Dietzel's sets features a laundromat devoid of patrons and a storefront window with a mannequin's white legs practically touching four unattached mannequin arms. Another set features a stark underground passageway with cracked beige walls next to a beige sculpture of a nude figure from behind. Colors and patterns unite the different photos in the seven diptychs, which, the gallery says, "reveal the universal tension between masculine and the feminine archetypes." They also reveal a Paris of contradictions. Beauty side-by-side with isolation. Playfulness side-by-side with deterioration. But these contradictions were always there, judging by "William Odiorne's Paris," an exhibit at Robert Tat Gallery in downtown San Francisco that showcases the work of an American photographer who lived in the city in the 1920s. One of Odiorne's most indelible photos is of a clothesline in the back of a Paris apartment building. The towels and shirts are exposed to everyone who might walk by. No one does. No one is in the image. The buildings are atrophying. The scene is beautiful and empty. Just like Dietzel's work. Just like Wolf's work.
For a more traditional view of Paris, there is the Robert Koch Gallery's "Paris and Its Environs: Atget, Baldus, Brassaï, Durandelle, Duval, and Marville," which is running simultaneously with Wolf's exhibit (and another outstanding photo exhibit, "Ljubodrag Andric: Visible Cities"). With "Paris and Its Environs," we get one of the most memorable photos ever taken in Paris: Brassaï's Amoureux dans un Cafe from 1932, which shows a gazing couple clutching each other in a cafe corner. The couple are reflected in two adjoining mirrors. Everywhere you look, there is amour. But "Paris and Its Environs" also reveals a quieter, people-less Paris, as in Eugene Atget's 1926 image of a waterway, The Marne at La Varenne, and Charles Marville's 1865 image of an empty thoroughfare, Rue Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre de la Rue Galande.
In their own way, all four of these San Francisco photo exhibits humanize Paris. Instead of a kind of fantasy land where everyone and everything is stunning and worthy of adulation, the photographers give us the Paris that was always a bit rough around the edges. Paris' reputation can intimidate first-time visitors. The photographers whose work is displayed at these exhibits spent considerable time there and got to know Paris in all its dimensions. The Eiffel Tower is mostly missing in these photos. So is Catherine Deneuve. But these images still make you fall in love with Paris. There will always be Paris. Always.