Rebecca Schall has published several fascinating photographic histories of Paris with stunning black and white photos that once again prove the important role of photodocumentation in our understanding of the past several centuries. While art may render history on its own terms, photojournalism has its special place in preserving another record of history, especially in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century prior to special effects when perception of reality could once again be altered beyond recognition. Using photo archives from the Roget-Viollet Agency and the City of Paris, among other sources, Schall has captured a compendium of events that few living remain to remember in personal experience yet events that are nonetheless vital.
Schall has carefully selected photos and provided informative captions for these large-scale books. One can stand in local places today and see the dramatic changes that have taken place while better understanding what stood in the same place over a century ago. Including Paris and San Francisco, Schall has now published five books of photographic history.
Since Paris was one of the first places in the world where pioneering photography and its antecedents were conducted, it makes sense that some of the earliest photos in existence derive from urban Parisian life of the mid-nineteenth century. Louis Daguerre (1787-1851), physicist and artist, was one of these pioneers, hence”Daguerrotype” is derived from his name and technique patented in 1839. Even earlier in 1822, Joseph Niepce made his “heliographs”; as Niepce’s collaborator and successor, Daguerre’s famous 1838 image of a Paris street “Boulevard du Temple” shows the first known human image. Many have suggested that the rise of photography contributed to dramatic changes in art that brought about such movements as Impressionism partly because mimetic realism in painting was possibly perceived as superseded by photographic realism.
Schall’s 2006 book also chronicles major events in Paris. One of the most interesting sections is on the Eiffel Tower construction, an eventful time in Paris when not everyone welcomed this new addition to the landscape. Now, of course, the Tour Eiffel has become synonymous with modern images of Paris, but this reception from critical resistance to acceptance and awareness – that Paris would not be Paris without it – is typical for architectural innovation through world history.
Schall is to be congratulated for bringing to life through these photographs an era few remember but many will better understand through her books.