Obituary: Elie Kagan

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The Independent Culture
THE DETERMINED and adventurous photographer is not a very popular figure. He is usually seen as a menace; at best, a nuisance. It is ironical therefore that Elie Kagan is now being hailed as a great photographer precisely because he was determined and adventurous.

One episode involving Kagan has almost become a major event in French history. On 17 October 1961 there was a large demonstration of Algerians in Paris. Some 30,000 began a peaceful protest against the night curfew that had been imposed on them by the Prefect of Police. But they were attacked by the French police with extraordinary ferocity.

Kagan was at the centre of the conflict, taking pictures. He seized every opportunity to photograph examples of police brutality and Algerian injury and death. Other photographers were present but none of them captured the intensity of the event.

With the police subsequently asserting that they had acted after they had been attacked by the Algerians (although the numbers of corpses recovered from the river Seine cast doubt on this), the publisher Francois Maspero decided to publish an account of what had happened, using Kagan's photographs. But the police confiscated all the material and the book could not be produced.

The question of what exactly happened on 17 October 1961 has constantly been revived. In particular since Maurice Papon had been the Prefect of Police at the time, when he was put on trial in October 1997 for crimes against humanity committed during the occupation years, the issue of 1961 came up again. The administration had admitted to some 40 deaths but other estimates suggested at least 300. No progress was made then, nor subsequently have the archives been made satisfactorily available as promised.

October 1961 was an experience that Kagan never forgot. It was, he said, the painful return to his childhood. He was born in 1928, the son of poor immigrant Jewish parents, the mother Polish and the father Russian. He spent the war in hid- ing, living in terror. He emerged with the Liberation ready to celebrate and to protest.

He was naturally attracted to the Communist Party but equally naturally he did not accept all its ideas, nor was he prepared to accept its discipline. In 1948 he achieved a certain fame when he threw contraceptives at the Communist leader Maurice Thorez. It was after this that I met him. With some fellow- students, I went to a noisy celebration in a basement cafe off the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

I gathered that he was with the Communists since he was violently anti- American, but he saw no reason why anyone should be opposed to birth control, or why he had to accept the dictates of Jeannette Vermeersch, Thorez's companion, who condemned birth-control as an American perversion.

It was not until the 1950s that Kagan began to work as a photographer. He took pictures of student protests and of the anti-de Gaulle demonstrations of the 1950s and he came to an agreement with Louis Aragon, who published them in Les Lettres Francaises. But he already had the reputation of being difficult, insulting German tourists, picking quarrels, disagreeing violently with editors who published articles that he disliked. He had a formidable presence, with red hair and a bristly beard and it is not surprising that some of his colleagues were frightened of him.

He preferred to work alone. He did not collaborate with any agency, he never had a contract with a particular newspaper. His photographs were published in left-wing papers, such as La Vie Ouvriere and Le Nouvel Observateur, but he also worked for Temoignage Chretien and La Tribune Juive.

At times Kagan was very short of money, obliged to go from newspaper to newspaper, desperate to sell his photographs. For many he was a nuisance, always indignant, never modernising his technique. He once was prevailed upon to write about himself, and published, with a co- author who was essential, Patrick Rotman, Le Reporter Engage (1989). But never again.

He had many successes. He penetrated ministries that were supposedly under heavy guard. He caught Pierre Mendes France on 27 May 1968 on his way to the controversial anarchist meeting at Charlety. He arranged to be photographed side by side with Francois Mitterrand, a picture that was used both for and against Mitterrand during his campaigns. In a different area he became friends with Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg and took their pictures.

Elie Kagan, photographer: born His last photographs were of the illegal immigrants in the Parisian Church of Saint-Bernard few months ago. He is said to have died in the same small apartment where he was born, in the 10th arrondissement.Paris 1928; died Paris c 24 January 1999.