Words,Pictures Peter Coles
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:18

LOOK for a moment at these photographs of urban litter-bins and ask yourself where they were taken. There can only be one answer: Paris. The clue lies not so much in the metal lids - installed all over the city centre as a security measure following last summer's series of terrorist bombs - as in the casual elegance of the arrangements on top of them. They're chic, they're "retro", they hint at passion and sophistication - in short, they are quintessentially Gallic.

I started to notice them last October, shortly after the Paris authorities first decided to seal off the city centre's 15,000 poubelles. (The name comes from the 19th-century administrator who invented them.) And, the more I saw, the more fascinated I became. Far from being random accumulations of debris, they were, I realised, created: transient tableaux offering surprising, beautiful and often poetic suggestions of everyday Parisian life.

I decided to photograph them. A similar project in London - where, for similar reasons, usable public litter-bins are hard to find - would most probably have yielded a sordid trail of discarded snack wrappers. But these compositions had an irresistible charm. The scrunched-up bits of paper, metro tickets and orange peel were not tossed willy-nilly: every item was placed. I started off photographing just the bins that caught my eye; then, one morning, wanting to record their diversity, I photographed over 40 bins, from the Latin Quarter to Pere Lachaise cemetery three miles away. After that, I kept to a more restricted circuit around where I live in the 13th arrondissement, taking the same bins again and again. By January, I had collected some 80 poubelle-tops.

Just as Paris sewer workers claim that they can identify a quartier by its waste, so I found that the piles of objects on the poubelles took on the spirit of their surroundings. A couple of stubbed-out cigarettes at the Louvre transformed an ornate bin into a bistro table; around the corner, a handful of pistachio-nut shells showed that someone else had had the same idea. And where else would you find two tortoiseshell butterfly- clips and a Winston packet but outside Sartre's old haunt, the Deux Magots on the Boulevard St Germain? Over at the Place d'Italie, the cinema-goers piled up Coke cans and popcorn wrappers each evening, while a minimalist at the Bastille placed a ball of chewing-gum on the anodised lid, like a tiny brain. When I didn't have my camera with me I saw on one bin a child's glove with the word "stop" written on it, weighted down by a small stone. By the time I came back with my camera, someone had added an empty plastic cup.

Part of the charm comes from the poubelles themselves. Most are plastic, but in historic areas, such as the Marais or around the Louvre, expensive metal bins have been installed to blend in with the architecture.

Today, after several months of peace, the poubelles are reopening. More than half are back in use and the remainder - mostly near important buildings - will open in the next two months. Londoners resigning themselves to a renewed bout of vigilance against terrorism may feel a twinge of envy, but the Parisians will probably miss their ephemeral street sculptures. If nothing else, they have revealed some interesting facts about the habits of Parisians. They eat a lot of bananas, for one. !

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