Post-War Paris as seen by Robert Frank
Robert Frank’s Paris, 1951 is a fantastic example of the photographer’s unique eye for capturing nuanced and emotive pictures.
Having emigrated to the United States in 1947 from his native Switzerland, Frank returned to Europe in 1949 where he would spend the majority of the next few years travelling and photographing. During this time Frank worked freelance, and his work was published in numerous magazines, including LIFE, Look and Vogue. While taking on commercial assignments, Frank also occupied himself with documenting the cities in which he lived.
Frank’s photographs focused on elements of everyday life that expressed the character of each place he visited. In Valencia he documented the bullfights, on visiting Wales he focused on the coal miners and in Paris, Frank captured the street vendors and flower stalls that he found at every corner of the city. This lesser known body of work carries all the traits of his most renowned series The Americans (1958), in which Frank captures the often-overlooked moments of life in order to comment on the social landscape.
Frank saw city streets as a stage for human activity and his photographs of Paris invoke the tradition of the flâneur, which had been a popular trope in French literature and art in the nineteenth century. Collectively, Frank’s photographs of Paris present themselves as an ambling view of the city, taking note of the quieter moments of urban life. His photographs are also influenced by the work of Eugène Atget, who similarly photographed the shop fronts and vendors of Paris. Like Atget, Frank’s photographs celebrate the surreality of the city’s streets. This photograph, for example, focuses on a suitcase of tulips and other flowers standing in sand, used as a makeshift stall.
Though deceptively simple in subject matter, this early work shows all the nuance which Frank would develop in The Americans to point to social concerns. What at first glance appears to be a photograph of flowers becomes a subtler commentary on post-war France’s social and economic pressures when taking in the context of the shabby Parisian street.