One hears a lot about the use of surveillance cameras in England. Indeed, when we returned from Greenwich, I spotted a few lurking in photographs I had taken. Can you spot the camera in the picture below? (There may even be two, I’m not sure.)
Paris has its fair share of security cameras and protective devices, but there hasn’t been the same sort of publicity attached to their use. After all, the Parisians are accustomed to being observed. For decades, their comings and goings were watched by concierges.
The stereotype is a middle-aged or elderly woman, single or widowed, lurking in the loge, constantly spying on tenants (there were some male concierges, and even a few couples, but in the mid 20th century, the ratio was something like nine women to one man on the job).
In 1974, the now-defunct journal Horizon published an article by Ormonde de Kay, Jr. titled “Adieu aux Concierges” that described this once-familiar figure:
From her lair off the vestibule she observes all their comings and goings—and those of their visitors. Distributing the mail, she learns more: that Monsieur Fifth-Floor-Left is being dunned for taxes, and that the gentleman who comes to see Madame Third-Floor-Right on Tuesdays and Thursdays is in Zurich. And as the rent collector, often, for the landlord or his agent, she knows just who is in arrears.
I found the photograph below in the Roger Viollet collections. I suspect the surprisingly young concierge is a model (or perhaps the daughter of the real concierge). Still, this rather stagy shot shows the letter boxes that concierges used: not much room for confidential communications here.
Another photo from the archives shows a more typical example of the species.
Concierges were a growth industry when the big apartment houses were being created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The buildings were designed so that one could not enter or leave unobserved by the hawk-eyed crone in the loge. Indeed, in the paranoid Second Empire, the authorities deployed them strategically to keep an eye on certain public figures.
Mind you, it wasn’t an easy life. A concierge’s duties were tightly regulated, as de Kay describes:
If she is a tyrant, she is also a slave: her humble home-cum-office, the loge, is often one cramped room; she is on duty, theoretically, six days a week from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and even after midnight has to awaken—or did until recently—to admit homecoming tenants by tugging on the cordon, a rope that releases the door catch. In addition to keeping out intruders and emptying the garbage, she must keep the stairs and hall clean; she also has to clean the courtyard once a week, devoting, in the maniacally precise language of a government decree, “one and a half minutes per square meter for the first forty meters and thirty seconds per square meter for the remaining surface.”
Not a job many people would want, surely, despite the advantages of a roof over one’s head, and the power that comes with knowledge of others’ lives.
For years, concierges were a fixed feature of Paris life. Robert Doisneau did a series of photographs of them. Here is an example.
This link will take you to a whole portfolio of his concierge portraits. It’s all there — the overfurnished, ill-lit apartments, the pot plants, the cats…
Today, concierges have been replaced by functionaries known as “gardiens” or “gardiennes,” who accept deliveries and deal with cleaning and maintenance, but are not necessarily the eyes and ears of a building as the concierges used to be. This transition began years ago, and was noted by de Kay in 1974:
Today the concierges are fast disappearing from the Paris scene. Of the 40,000 to 50,000 in the city, most are over fifty… some 20,000 will die or retire in the next decade. They are being replaced in many new buildings by buzzers, intercoms, and mailboxes; and in older buildings, increasingly, by live-out doormen.
The concierges may be gone, but there are still eyes on the street. They have been there for decades. Every move one makes on a Paris street is observed.
I am thinking of the countless faces on Paris facades. They gaze down at us, unblinking, noting our comings and goings.
Some have kindly faces; others seem disapproving.
A few appear demented.
Rarely does one walk down a Paris street unobserved by these countenances.
My father grew up in Malta, where it is traditional to paint eyes on the front of a boat so it can see where it is going. I can’t help thinking that the eyes on Paris buildings allow the buildings to watch the comings and goings of everyone on the street, just as the concierges used to do.
Who needs security cameras when the walls have eyes?
I’m impressed by yet another brilliant article; saying everything that went through my mind many a times and expressing my feelings as well in words as in pictures. Some of your photos I’ve too in my own archive! Thank You!!!!
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Loved this post – what an interesting topic. In Paris, as in most other cities, it definitely pays to look up while walking the streets!
liked reading this post, especially your take on the photographs! I also took a set of images inspired by Robert Doisneau’s street photography, check it out on my blog if you like.