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Picturing 100 Years of Life Aboard the Paris Métro

A new photography book captures the cultures that collide underground.

Place Monge, 1987 (Dolorès Marat, © Courtesy Dolorès Marat & Galerie Françoise Besson–326, 332)

The construction of the Paris Métro, in 1900, coincided with the spark and spread of photography, which emerged halfway through the previous century. A new book, Paris Métro Photo ($55 from Actes Sud), couples the two to track 100 years of life and culture below Paris’s streets.

The volume holds 250 images snapped over the last 100 years, from architectural and street photography to fashion shoots, and spans work by Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, and Robert Capa, among others.

An in-progress tunnel beneath the Seine, photographed in 1910. (© Maison Roux/Collection RATP)

There are handfuls of images of the system in progress—tunnels bored, tracks laid, above-ground portions fit together like the bones of an articulated skeleton as the system lengthened its reach.

But many of the most intriguing photos capture the verve of life on the street, and of the people who routinely dip beneath it. Look, for instance, at the pictures of people scanning the system map posted in Pigalle, or of couples splashing in puddles, or crowds climbing down out of the snow, their hats pelted with big, wet flakes. Then there are the figures in the crowds who gaze at something just outside of the frame, knitting together the subterranean world and the bustle above.

(© Robert Capa/International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos)

There’s a woman surveying a cart of flowers, carnations and tulips eclipsing any sign of the subway entrance. Near the Rambuteau stop were a few of Paris’s famous open-air booksellers, inviting riders to pick up something to read on the way to their next destination.

Many images capture the habits that commuting engenders, and the means by which we bear it. The photos depict waiting—in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer beneath glowing lamps and between palm fronds—or canoodling. Couples nuzzle on a car’s smooth wooden benches or while looking for a train to rumble through.

The streetscape around the Rambuteau stop in 1960. (© Estate Ervin Marton)

There are moments of studied quiet, like a precisely coiffed woman descending an escalator, purse strap placed neatly across the crook of her elbow. Doisneau’s comic shot of the cellist Maurice Baquet, reaching through the shutting door of a sardine-tight train to retrieve his instrument from the platform, offers a cheeky reminder that the pace of life underground can be frenetic and disorienting, too.

The glimpses of those surging and milling masses offer a metric for tracking cultural shifts: newsboy caps giving way to bouffants and mod suits, then sneakers. Advertisements pasted to the tunnel walls peel off to reveal shredded layers beneath them, recalling the system’s long memory.

Some of the book’s moodiest shots consist of faces looming large in the train’s windows, holding the scene beyond in its reflection. But, as the book makes clear, the train itself is a reflection, too—a self-contained theater that recasts life unfolding beyond its doors and up above the tunnels’ stairs.

Paris Metro Photo, $55 at Artbook.

(© Robert Doisneau/Rapho)

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.