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  • Alvin Langdon Coburn. Roofs, Paris. 1913. Gelatin silver print, 1913–55, 8 9/16 × 10 7/8" (21.8 × 27.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther (MoMA 1655.2001). © George Eastman House

    “The twentieth century needed the background of Paris, the place where tradition was so firm,” wrote Gertrude Stein.[1] Long a center of the arts, Paris also became a hub of fashion, high life, low life, and nightlife in the Roaring Twenties, and consciously, if somewhat hesitantly at first, a center for modern photography. The central figures of Parisian photography in the 1920s were an American, Man Ray, and a Frenchman, Eugène Atget. Man Ray moved to Paris in 1921; his creativity in the darkroom, where he concocted photograms and solarizations, was in and of itself a one-man avant-garde movement. His brilliant inventions made him famous and drew to him not only the Dada-Surrealist group, but also his assistants Berenice Abbott, Jacques-André Boiffard, Bill Brandt, and Lee Miller (see Man Ray Studio). Man Ray was responsible for discovering Atget, whose work, when published in the journal La Revolution surréaliste in 1926–27, was seen as an uncanny illustration of the Surrealist concept of the city as a site of a fantastic strangeness, of the marvelous within the ordinary. The immediate heirs of Atget’s photographic vision of the poetry of the street were André Kertész, who moved from Hungary to Paris in 1925; Henri Cartier-Bresson, who took up photography in 1929; and Brassaï, a Hungarian who followed Kertész’s lead in the field.

    Paris was a city of publishers, and most of the activity in photography was naturally associated with their trade—with magazines such as Arts et métiers graphiques, Jazz, L’Art vivant, and Vu, which were major conveyors of photography from 1928 on; small galleries such as the Galerie de la Pléiade; and books. The first group show of modern photographers was the Premier Salon indépendant de la photographie moderne, also known as the Salon de I’escalier, at Théâtre de la Comédie des Champs-Élysées, also in 1928; the independence it claimed was to be modern, freed of the retrograde Pictorialist style still favored by many at the Société Française de Photographie. By 1930 the interest in modern photography had swelled to allow for the publication of a luxurious annual of photogravure reproductions of contemporary photographs, La Photographie, and the first monograph on a photographer, Atget: Photographe de Paris.

    As the 1930s progressed, Paris became the primary haven for political refugees fleeing from the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the rise of Nazism. Many of these immigrants took up photography, which could be practiced without much training or a common language. Paris now took over from Berlin as the cosmopolitan center of artist-photographers and photojournalists. Among those represented in the Walter Collection who were drawn to Paris from Eastern Europe are Bill Brandt, Brassaï, Marianne Breslauer, Robert Capa, César Domela-Nieuwenhuis, Raoul Hausmann, Kertész, Germaine Krull, Dora Maar, Lisette Model, Eli Lotar, Jaroslav Rössler, Jindřich Štyrský, and Raoul Ubac.

    Outside Man Ray’s studio, the experimental approaches typical of the New Vision movement were seen mostly in applied photography, especially in commissions for illustration and in advertising. In this realm Deberny & Peignot, the advertising studio headed by Maurice Tabard (assisted by Roger Parry), was preeminent. The dominant mode of Parisian photography until the mid-1930s was neither the acrobatics nor the clean-edge precision of the New Vision, however, but rather a resourceful exploration of the hidden marvels and mysteries of reality, the poetic trademarks of Surrealism.

    —Maria Morris Hambourg

    [1] Gertrude Stein, Paris France (1940; repr. New York: Liveright, 2013), p. 19.

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