Dany le Rouge | Gilles Caron


The upheavals of 1968, which at its peak sent eleven million Frenchmen and women into the streets began quite mundanely in Nanterre, the dreary Parisian suburb which was slowly evolving into a demimonde of student radicals, drug-sellers, and squatters.

The demonstrations began after an eviction of a squatter and disciplinary measures against a student Daniel Cohn-Bendit that January. The latter had provoked a minister visiting to open a new sports hall by asking why the Education Ministry was doing nothing to address “‘sexual problems” in the universities (his demand was that boys and girls should be able to sleep together).  The Minister suggested that if Cohn-Bendit had sexual problems, he should jump into the new swimming pool. ‘That is what the Hitler Youth used to pay’, replied the part-German Cohn-Bendit.

Gradually, with further demonstrations, attacks, and arrests, a movement was formed with Cohn-Bendit among its its leaders. When the Nantrerre campus was finally closed down, the movement shifted to the central Paris, a revolution unfolded through the historic boulevards of Left Bank. Here, in front of the Sorbonne, Dany le Rouge as he became known, more for his flaming hair than for his politics which were more anarchist than communist was photographed confronted the riot police with an elfin grin.

The photo by Gilles Caron (who had just returned from Biafra) was just one among many iconic photos from that May. Enormously telegenic, politically-savvy, and articulate were the student leaders, all conspicuously male. In photos and newsreels, girls could be seen on the shoulders of their boyfriends, but as historian Tony Judt put it, ‘they were at best the auxiliary foot soldiers of the student army’.

For all psychological impact it would later claim, the events of May 1968 were far from pivotal. The movement mimicked the style and the props of revolutions past, but their demands never strayed from their parochial beginnings, and unlike earlier tumults, no senior official of the state nor its institutions were assaulted or denounced.  No students were killed, perhaps telling sign in a country where its army mainly composed of provincial lads was all too happy to crack a few heads in such a Club Med affair. The French Communists, which awaited its moment from the sidelines, delivered the movement’s eulogy, “This was a party, not a revolution”.

As for the man who started all this, Daniel Cohn-Bendit was expelled from France that May, and went on to become a respected politician in Frankfurt, and eventually a Green Party representative for the European parliament.

Gilles Caron Scrapbook

Un Coin, Rue de Seine

Eugène Atget (1857-1927) who documented the Parisian street life in the 1890s and the 1900s foreshadowed many street photojournalists of the 20th century. During the sleepy hours of the morning or night, Atget portrayed cobblestone courtyards, public-squares, parks, shop-fronts and buildings with a flair and a style that would transform plain documentary photography into high art. Even though Atget’s storefront images are devoid of people, there are unmistakable human qualities about them, and they captured the very essence of the Belle Epoque.

Although he also left behind street portraits of tradesmen (whose images he took for money), Atget devoted his energies to desolate public squares and winding back alleys. He inspired many Cubist and Surrealist painters, and influenced Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Leni Riefenstahl and Irving Penn. Meeting Atget shortly before his death, American photographer Berenice Abbott was so inspired that she purchased his estate and spent the next 50 years popularizing Atget’s work.

Eugene Atget’s Un Coin, Rue de Seine is one of his most reproduced images. It is thought to be made in 1924, to document the street before the building in the centre was demolished. Atget rarely dated his prints, relying on arcane, but self-evident system of numbering negatives. This led to one of the most frustrating obstacles in analyzing his work.

The Countess Castiglione

The French court photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson took more than 400 portraits of the Countess Castiglione, considered the most beautiful woman of her time,during a 40-year collaboration. The photographs,commissioned by the countess and created under her supervision,were both self-advertisement and self-expression as well as revolutionary. They covered three distinct periods—her first entry into French society, 1856–57; her return to Parisian life, from 1861 to 1867; and toward the end of her life, from 1893 to 1895.

Virginie Oldoïni who married the Count di Castiglione was notorious for being Napoleon III’s mistress, a scandal that led her separation from her husband. During her two years relationship with the French emperor (1856-1857), she was known for her flamboyant manner and elaborate dresses at the imperial court. In July 1856, a few months after her arrival to Paris, the countess made her first visit to the studio of Mayer & Pierson, one of the most sought-after portrait studios of the Second Empire. Most of the photographs depicted the Countess in her theatrical outfits, including depictions as Beatrix, Salambo, Judith, 18th century marquise, nun, prostitute, Queen of Etruria, Queen of Hearts and Chinese woman. A number of photographs exposed her bare legs or feet–the features that she was most proud of–and were very risque for her time.(In these photos, her head has been cropped out.)

Her affair with Napoleon III ended and bankrupt, she exiled herself to Italy in 1858, where she was involved in the Italian Unification. Three years later, she returned to Paris, once again as an influential fixture and a femme fatale. After the fall of the Second Empire in 1870, she lived an increasingly reclusive and eccentric life in an apartment on the Place Vendôme, venturing out only at night, shrouded in veils–her beauty slowly deteriorating. Senile and bewrinkled Countess again commissioned 70-year old Pierson to take more photos of her, replicating the poses and dresses she modeled thirty years earlier.

“The hair was thin and the teeth were gone, only the costuming was the same. The confident gaze is replaced by a deep sadness. Her Baroque grandeur has decayed into a listless parody of herself. One can almost hear a small still voice reciting, “mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all” — all to no avail…” wrote Max Henry. She dreamed of showing her oeuvre at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in a retrospective titled “The Most Beautiful Woman of the Century.” She died on November 28, 1899, at the age of sixty-two.