The changing face of Babylon

Pigalle invented the sex industry, but now the tourists gawk and walk past. Gilles Crampes' pictures reveal the sadness behind the glitter.
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The Independent Culture
IN A SMALL club in the Pigalle district of Paris, a procession of bored women is appearing in - and briefly, out of - exotic costumes. It's like an assembly line. Every few minutes, a woman walks into the club, hands the girl behind the bar a tape, goes behind the curtain to change, walks on stage, takes off her clothes to the music, walks off. None of the five or six sullen customers (pigeons) paying pounds 20 for a tinned fruit juice bothers to clap; they hardly bother to glance up.

The talkative young woman behind the bar is the club owner's daughter. When her father isn't listening, she makes it plain that she finds hers a dismal line of work. "When my father started here 30 years ago, Pigalle had a real buzz about it. It was an exciting place but also a friendly place, with a real family atmosphere - everyone looked after each other. The pimps would come here in their sharp white suits with a string of whores in tow. We used to have to push people out of the club; nowadays we have to drag them in. There are drugs and violence and dishonesty. We don't get the numbers in Pigalle any longer - the foreign tourists are sick of being swindled."

She pauses.

"Here we swindle people too, but we do it nicely."

Pigalle was the first place in the world to turn voyeurism into an art and an industry, but now it is down on its luck. I am visiting this club, one of the last family-run night-spots in the district, with Gilles Crampes, a young photographer who has spent four months capturing the changing scene in Pigalle. His photographs show the district from the point of view of the thousand or so people who make their living here: the prostitutes, transvestites, pimps, bouncers, striptease artists, club managers, sex-shop owners.

Unposed pictures taken inside the clubs and shops, and even outside on the streets, are rare, because the people of Pigalle are extremely reluctant to have their pictures taken. For the first month that he haunted Pigalle, Gilles hardly took a photograph. Instead, he spent his time befriending people. Finally, some of the street and club workers became so used to his presence that they allowed him to take photographs freely. Gilles worked entirely in black and white, partly to achieve an effect reminiscent of classic Parisian street scenes of the Forties or Fifties, but also because, he explains, "in colour photography, the emotions of the viewer are engaged by the colour, not the form. It's only in black and white that you really notice the expressions on the faces of the people, and their real characters, and the sadness behind the glitter."

On the street, we meet a woman in her thirties who is employed as a chasseuse, a person who plucks the pigeons off the streets and delivers them inside the club. She greets Gilles as a long-lost friend. "Apart from him, I never let anyone take my photo," she says. "The tourists, they want to snap us like animals in a zoo but I always scream at them until they are embarrassed and go away."

It is a century since Pigalle gave Paris its reputation for being the naughtiest city in the world - the "Babylone du Monde" familiar from the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec. Pigalle was also the setting for Jacques Offenbach's operetta La Vie Parisienne, the libretto of which contains the following verse: "We come, we arrive from all the nations of the earth, by land or by sea. Italians, Brazilians, Japanese, Dutch, Spanish, Romanians, Egyptians, Peruvians. We rush, we dash to know, Oh, Paris, the drunkenness of your nights."

Pigalle invented a relaxed, consumer-oriented sex industry which was presented as an enter- tainment spectacle. While, elsewhere, commercial sex was regarded as sordid, as something to be concealed and denied, Pigalle put it to music. Even when similar industries appeared in Britain, America and Germany, Pigalle remained just that bit more daring, original, exuberant, innocent.

Not any longer. Its economy has been in decline for years: not because sex has gone out of fashion, but because the rest of the world caught up and overtook. "All of our best new fashions come from London," said one owner of a sex shop, pointing at his racks of rubber dresses, leather knickers, hand-cuffs and whips. Pigalle offers nothing that cannot now be found in any other city in the world.

The tourists still come from "all the nations of the earth", particularly from eastern Europe. But most just want to walk along the Boulevard de Clichy and remain safely outside the clubs. Or they want to sit in the circling road-train which takes in both the Sacre-Cur and Pigalle: the sacred and the profane in one convenient trip.

Farid, the floor-manager of a club called Le Sexy, shakes his head. "You see them arriving in buses which are falling apart, and eating a bit of dry baguette for their lunch. They want to say they have been to Pigalle but they have no money to spend in a club like ours. Our only good customers nowadays are French."

Pigalle is suffering the same creeping fate as the intellectual ghetto of St-Germain-en-Laye on the Left Bank: a handover to respectable tourism. An indication of how mainstream the area has become was given when scene-shifters at the Moulin Rouge went on strike recently. And several sex clubs have been converted into music bars or fast-food restaurants. Le Divan Japonais, a cabaret made famous by Toulouse- Lautrec, has become Le Divan du Monde, a club devoted to "new music".

Pigalle remains the epicentre of the Paris sex industry. Many of those who ply their trade in other areas - the transvestite prostitutes of the Bois de Boulogne or the high-class call-girls who operate in the respectable 16th arrondissement - live in Pigalle. "They feel safe because there are no freaks here," says Gilles. "Everyone is accepted: all races, professions, sexual preferences. In a way, it is still a family in which people look out for one another. But Pigalle also has a darker side, and that shows more and more as it declines." !