Shots from the heart

Edouard Boubat - who died on 30 June, aged 75 - remains one of the unsung greats of French photography. A love of Paris enabled him to capture the city's post-war magic with a unique clarity.

Robin Muir
Friday 20 August 1999 23:02

The dynamic, exuberant photographs of Edouard Boubat, who died in June aged 75, are indelibly linked with mid-century Paris, a city striving to recapture, after the privations of occupation, its pre-war vivacity. Boubat's is an innocent, sometimes sentimental, but entirely unfeigned vision of the city where he lived and worked for most of his long life.

He was born and raised in Montmartre, which is probably as vrai Parisienne as you can get, and this evocation of Paris is entirely typical: "I often used to go along the Avenue des Epinettes, with its trees, birds, seasons, clouds and children's voices. Today, there is a circus top at the end of a small street off the avenue. I hear the sound of a gypsy violin ... "

Boubat's Paris, though, is also that of Robert Doisneau, of Izis, of Andre Kertesz and, to an extent, that of the great Henri Cartier-Bresson. But Boubat never achieved their reputation. In Britain, his work has been allowed to slip from view, which is shaming, as his lyrical caught moments are the equal of any contemporary. A show earlier this year, at the London gallery Hackelbury Fine Art, went a little way to re-establishing him.

Boubat was a kind and decent man, and he might have quietly accepted his low public profile. His was a humanist approach to the medium, he had little stomach for the political gesture. His rule was, "No bodies, no blood, no war", and he shunned the attention that the depiction of awfulness secured for others. Not that he hadn't seen his share. Drafted into a forced labour unit in 1943, he recalled years later, "I saw the Nazi crimes. I saw the horrors."

For around 30 years, he was associated with the press agency Rapho - a measure of the man: although well known, it lacked the clout, or the opportunities for self-promotion of, say, Cartier-Bresson's Magnum agency.

Boubat was accomplished at an early age. As a young man he met Picasso, who told him that his photographs held promise and admonished him for continuing in his job - he was a photo-technician - and for not devoting his time and energy to his self-evident talent. He took the advice for a while until faced with starvation. His first photograph of note was "Girl Among Dead Leaves", a pictorial impression of mercurial innocence taken in the Jardins Tuileries. "I was young at the time. I was a poet. I was in love."

In 1947, while still in his 20s, he was given the prestigious Kodak Award. This was astonishing, for he only ever photographed on Sundays, having taken a job again in a factory. He held his first one-man show in 1949 at the Bibliotheque National and some 40 years later, in 1988, he was awarded the Hasselblad Prize.

Despite the Paris photographs for which he is best known, he was well travelled, contributing reportage until the mid-Sixties for Realites magazine. He produced numerous books from his archive - mostly wistful, sometimes whimsical, surveys of everyday life around the world, perhaps best summed up by the title of one of his last, published in 1997: It's a Wonderful Life.

His pictures were a celebration of life. He never expected to change the world but, more modestly, sought to explain with the camera "how the common mysteries of life draw us closer to nature and to our fellow human beings".

Eglise Saint Roch, Paris, 1952What makes itself so apparent in Boubat's singular and charming vision of Paris - and so touching too - is the affirmation of life. As Elizabeth Smart once wrote of John Deakin's Paris photographs, he "squeezes his heart through his lens". Boubat celebrated the urban landscape in numerous books, including Jardins et Squares.

Montmartre, 1948

An early example from Boubat's archive. At this time he had sold many of his books to buy a square-format, low-angle Rolleiflex and, every Sunday, took to the streets to capture the spontaneity of la vie Parisienne. He was steeped in its gestures, having been born in the bohemian, artists' quarter of Montmartre, where this picture was taken.

Florence Sous la Neige, Paris, 1964

As this picture shows, Boubat had a particular affinity with children. His first successful photograph was "Girl Among Dead Leaves", taken in 1946. Another famous image was of two girls, their arms intertwined, walking along a Parisian street. This documentation, demanding extraordinary patience, reached its apogee with Agnes, a book published in 1974, which showed children preparing themselves for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in Oporto. He also celebrated his love of children with another book, Mes chers Enfants (1991).

Portugal, 1956

Boubat was dogged by critics who, in an increasingly politicised age, failed to see the relevance of his lyrical, elegiac pictures of everyday life. His rule, "No bodies, no blood, no war," led to accusations of apathy, or a detachment from reality. But Boubat felt that humanity was as prevalent as evil, and just as worthy of documentation. Perhaps more so, since many photographers overlooked it.

Nazare, Portugal, 1956

Inspiration came easily to Boubat. He once wrote, "My camera is merely a pretext for being there ... When I take a photograph, I feel like a young man again, ageless." A colleague, Jean-Philippe Charbonnier, recalled that on assignment, Boubat made a point of "not `covering' his subjects". He would "take just a few photographs and return when he felt like it, but there were always three images that you could not forget".

Porte d'Orleans, Paris, 1960

An unassuming man, Boubat blended into the life of the streets, able to capture it with a nonchalance born of an intuitive feeling for the Parisian sensibility. The photographer likened the moment of choosing to take a photograph to archery: "There is the tension of the bow and the free flight of the arrow."

A la Terrasse des Deux Magots, Paris, 1955

In Boubat's world, it always appears to be snowing gently, churchyards are silent and unpeopled, old men reflect on municipal benches, girls smoke behind cafe windows and, in the background, fairgrounds spring into life ... This tableau of a Parisian gent enjoying a quiet drink with his dog is typical of his street photography.

Nazare, Portugal, 1956

Boubat's assignments inspired some impassioned meditations, sometimes suffering a little in translation, perhaps: "For the wise man, for the artist - for us also - everything is renewed, everything is new; posing, pausing. Stop for one minute before life, your own life. Who will capture it? Neither you nor I, we can only dare to live it. `Don't shut things in,' says the master. So I bring them back in a postcard, an exhibition, a book ... "

Lucette portant Clemence, 1971

Boubat became well known for his pictures of women. As subject matter, he loved them above all - with children running a close second. His best were taken of Lella, his first wife. But, as the writer and historian Val Williams has pointed out, by the Sixties they lacked "edge" and the "realisation of changing sexual identities". However, he always had a hardcore of admirers for his books, for example Woman, published in 1972, and 1987's Lella. In 1992, he published Comme avec une Femme. His penultimate exhibition in Paris, during the Mois de la Photographe last year was, fittingly, devoted to Lella again. n

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