We’ll Always Have Paris
Yvon’s Paris By Robert Stevens (W.W. Norton, $40)
“For the perfect flaneur,” wrote Charles Baudelaire in The Painter of Modern Life (1863), “for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.”
Paris, Baudelaire’s city, has probably spawned more flaneurs—the word literally means stroller or wanderer—than any other place on earth. While the poet and critic had in mind a literary type, the role soon came to be inhabited by the street photographer.
One of the talented (but unsung) flaneurs of the lens was Pierre Petit (1886–1969), who used the single name “Yvon” to sign his work. That he signed his work at all is significant, because he plied the traditionally anonymous trade of postcard-maker. Robert Stevens, a former picture editor for Time magazine, writes in this book, “When I started to visit Paris I sought out unusual postcards of the city.
From the beginning, I noticed that one photographer stood out: Yvon.” What makes his images stand out, more than anything else, is their dramatic use of light. Yvon’s Paris is moody and changeable, and his favorite effects come from sun breaking through dark clouds, from fog and mist, from reflections off the water of the Seine, all rendered in black and white with an exquisitely long tonal scale.
There are plenty of people in these pictures, but the protagonist of Yvon’s picture story is Paris, the physical city, which he unabashedly romanticized. The cobblestones of a crooked Montmartre street catch the sun, then catch your eye and draw it toward the vanishing point, where a mist-shrouded church spire waits. Three bargemen are silhouetted against the river, which shimmers with a diffuse light while in the foreground the branches of a sycamore tree drop like a curtain over the scene.
Like his predecessor Eugène Atget, Yvon had great affection for those who practiced old Parisian trades, such as the bookstall man he snapped with his back to the river, pipe clenched in his teeth, oblivious to the passage of time. His photographs of Notre Dame’s gargoyles are unforgettable: The grotesque creatures lean watchfully over their parapets, poised between the stormy sky and the smoky streets. At such moments, the city becomes supernatural.
To get those pictures, Yvon had to drag his heavy camera, glass plates and tripod up 400 steps. One time, onlookers called the police, thinking he was intending to jump. When Yvon was on a photographic mission, nothing could stop him, not even a severe limp due to polio that might have rendered a lesser man unfit to be a flaneur.
Stevens made it his mission to bring the photos of Pierre Petit out of obscurity and to reproduce them in a way that does justice to the finesse of their technique. It took him seven years to locate the owners of the images and procure the rights, a true labor of love. —John Dorfman