Romance. Paris is about romance, and romance is about moments. Any single person wandering through the streets of Paris will notice the physical romance, won’t be able to help but notice. In a way, Paris is a city that punishes the lonely by making them feel more so. But it is the romance for the city itself that can give the lonely solace—simply by taking note, by sitting upon the upper steps of La Basilique du Sacré Couer watching a messy spring storm roll over the ageless city, by spending time creating moments removed from time.
Flashes like these, the moments captured within the architecture of a city—within its shops, cafes, tenement houses, landmarks, weather and the like—provide the focus of the exhibit, Revisiting Atget’s Paris: The Photographs of Joe Marotta, which juxtaposes the work of two artists. Photographer Eugéne Atget spent his life capturing those flashes—the allure, the mystery and the romance of old Paris. In more than 8,500 photographs, taken between 1898 and 1927—mostly in the wee morning hours before the city awakened, as the fog and mists slowly began to give way to the daily hum of urban life—Atget methodically documented cosmopolitan city’s layout.
After nearly 100 years and countless hours of research, University of Utah art professor Joe Marotta chose to deliberately revisit 20 to 30 of the same sites Atget captured on film. In 2000 Marotta spent eight weeks wandering the same streets of Paris, digital camera in tow, searching for and attaining pieces of the city. But, due in part to hasty modernization and urbanization, the face of Paris has dramatically changed over the lengthy time span between the two photographers. Alleyways have given way to spanning boulevards, dilapidated buildings razed for parks, storefronts and façades once reconstructed as modern buildings, revised a second time in attempt to capture the beauty of the original design. So, in certain images all Marotta could capture was an address where a building once stood—as in “rue Saint-Spire, rue Saint-Foy”—or an advertising billboard where a beautiful Sphinx relief once adorned a wall—as in “Maison du Sphinx, rue Saint-Denis.” Placed side by side with Atget’s original images, Marotta’s photos capture the passing of time—and eras—in Paris.
Other places remain seemingly untouched by the rough hand of time, like the large ornately carved wood doors that reside at “rue Vielle-du-Temple, 47” or the sidewalk café “Le Dome, Boulevard Montparnasse.” Perhaps the most telling of the paired photographs are the ones where the modern landmarks carefully mask the original landmarks that really no longer exist. Only through the photographs can you glimpse the initial creation and its modern counterpart, side by side. It’s images such as “Shop Magassins du Bon Marché” that features a store window and fashions of 1926 versus a modern ’60s retro display featuring a book covered in Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe. Or Atget’s Moulin Rouge, a photo taken when the streets where nearly empty and the mind is left to romanticize the location, versus Marotta’s photo that captures the Vegas-esque exterior of the modern structure surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the present city.
Most of the exhibit reads as a document and accompanying modern testament to that document. Yet, set apart from the others sits a larger framed photo, yellowed by age, depicting a part of the city taken from perhaps the top floor of an aging apartment building. A hand-written title marks the bottom left and a date at the right, 2000. Over the top, scribbled in thick black writing, is a journal entry, a few words by which to remember a romanticized moment. It reads more like a lonely letter, addressed simply, “Dear M,” and signed off even more so with “J.” The beginning—abrupt, succinct and filled with one of those Parisian moments that make those lasting memories—reads, “Rain every morning, every afternoon all night sometimes, I keep the window open just to smell it.” A city, a moment and romance timelessly captured.