“Doisneau / Paris / Les Halles” Photography Exhibition
Runs 8 February – 28 April 2012
Hotel de Ville, Paris
Free Entry

This exhibition presents 205 original photographs by French photographer Robert Doisneau. On show at Paris City Hall (Hotel de Ville) is a collection of vintage shots in black and white, as well as some larger, colour images, of the bustling market and social hub that was ‘Les Halles’ before and after it was destroyed in 1971 under President Pompidou (whose government considered it unhygenic and outdated).

Doisneau is best known for his classic black and white shots such as the iconic picture The Kiss at the Hotel de Ville, which has become a romantic staple of many Parisian postcards, key-rings, stationary and other tourist trinkets. However, this newly arranged collection is a veritable chronicle of Parisian life around ‘Les Halles’ during the period between 1933 and 1979.

The earliest picture of Les Halles, taken in 1933, is called Les filles au diable (The devil’s daughters), and shows two girls being wheeled backwards in a hand-cart across the market place. Later photographs, taken through the 1940s, 50s and 60s, allow us to glimpse the larger-than-life characters of the marketplace.

Market tradesmen and women are a feature of the exhibition, with one notably from 1968 (L’échaudoir de la rue Sauval) of a butcher’s blasé expression as he holds an enormous knife in one hand and a cow’s head in the other. La Marchande des Halles (1953) is an image of a large, burly woman with cropped hair and rolled-up sleeves, by her market stall. Her characterful, no-nonsense expression is touching and nostalgic, and you can almost hear her booming voice advertising her wares.

There is also La Marchande des fleurs, (The flower-seller) taken in the same year, which shows a bright-eyed young woman tying up flowers for her customers. Her expression is alert, humorous, almost mischievous.

But Doisneau does not only show us the respectable tradespeople of Les Halles: prostitutes, smartly dressed and leaning against the walls of Les Halles’ side streets, have surprisingly care-free expressions. La Fete (1968), taken in the year of the student riots, shows see a young man and two female companions on their way home from what we can imagine to have been a night of partying, laughing together, one wearing a fairy-tale-princess-style hat with tassels, as the market stalls are set up for the day.

Heart-wrenching shots from 1969 show traders being moved out of the market to be rehoused in the new purpose-built complex in Rungis, south of Paris. Rungis is now the largest farmer’s market in Europe and is where most Parisian markets, grocers, supermarkets and restaurants buy their produce.

A highly relevant exhibition considering the new developments at Les Halles currently taking place (the modern, underground shopping mall that replaced the original market is being renovated, and new gardens and pedetrian areas added), “Doisneau/Paris/Les Halles” is a beautiful, nostalgic homage to what Doisneau himself described as the “belly” and “soul” of the Paris.