I went to see the photographs Robert Frank took when he visited Paris in the 1950’s after he had moved to the United States. Even though I have seen much of his work, including some of his exhibited photographs, I was impressed again by the intensity of his vision which makes the technical imperfections of some of his small prints completely irrelevant. Photography from the heart, the way it should be. And Paris, impoverished after the war, has become a silent, shy old lady in his pictures, tired, scarred and wrinkled, of another time and full of memories. Frank, expatriate, reminded of his own past, sees himself in its inhabitants, survivors of the hard years, picking up their inglorious lives amidst the remnants of history. Soft trembling greys fill out these photographs, lots of empty space in the suburbs where an old horse endures the playful children, walls, cobblestones, old building in the morning mist. In the park the chairs await sunnier days, the stuff that chansons are made of, a few flowers in an improvised vase, left alone, Paris stuck in its past, the fifties.
The Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam, added a smaller series from its collection of Ed van der Elsken photographs, also Paris in the 1950’s. Worlds apart from Robert Frank. Ed, who was a friend of mine, wasn’t looking for the past, but found a new freedom in the group of rebellious young outcasts that hung around in the cafés and jazz joints of the rive gauche. He was fascinated by Vali Myers, who was an excentric free soul from Australia. Ed built her a monument in photographs (“Love on the Left Bank”), which also became a portrait of Paris. His photographs are noisier, wildly romantic and printed in dark contrasts, celebrating youth and the promise of the new freedom that was in the air. Both Ed and Vali have died, but they live on.