The bouquinistes and the photographer of shadows

To quote from last week’s blog by Norman: “The sense of continuity is part of the fascination of learning more and more about Paris.”

But it’s not just about the continuity of major monuments and landmark buildings. It’s also the year-in, year-out sight of sidewalk cafés and Wallace fountains or the smell of the Metro (some people hate it; I am not one of them) or the yee-haw sound of police cars fighting the traffic. And among these elements of continuity there is one that never fails to surprise me in its persistence: the bouquinistes by the Seine.

Every year, I am amazed that in the days of iPads and eBooks and all those other things that start with single lowercase vowels, there is a place for the sale of faded copies of Paris Match, dog-eared pulp fiction, and recycled editions of the classics. How do these people survive?

From a book called Paris: Discovering the City of Light,* I learned that there are about 250 bouquinistes, all of whom are officially registered with the City, as they have been since 1891, although the open-air booksellers were operating long before this regulation took effect. The city stipulates the colour of the boxes (dark green), the dimensions (8.2 metres long and 1.1 metre high), and requires the concession holders to be open at least four days each week.

But it was the information uncovered by David Downie in Paris, Paris, that really surprised me. There is a waiting list for those 250 spots, and people spend an average of four years waiting to get a box of their own. And the average age of the bouquinistes is going down, not up. Downie suggests that this is “proof of the profession’s stubborn vitality or, perhaps, an indication of a desperate economic situation that drives the young toward marginal businesses.”** Maybe it’s a bit of both.

Downie regularly frequents the bouquinistes’ stalls and has talked to them about their lives. One, a fourth-generation example of the species, told him that they really survive by selling souvenirs and tourist knickknacks, but they are required by law to devote a certain proportion of space to books nonetheless. The books come from flea markets and yard sales in suburbs and small towns. Some of the bouquinistes specialize – one focuses on books about jazz, for example, another on books on his native Brittany, still another on books published by La Pleïade.

About 90 years before Downie published his book, another flâneur took an interest in the bouquinistes. The photographer Pierre Petit, better known by the single name “Yvon,” one day came across an old bookseller wearing a shapeless hat, a cloak over his shoulders, and wooden sabots on his feet. He was sitting on a folding stool and smoking a pipe. Yvon asked if the bookseller would pose for a photograph. Times weren’t good then either (this was just after the First World War), and the man, who was tired and about to close up for the day, asked for payment. Yvon gave him five francs and proceeded to take what is probably the most popular and frequently reproduced image of the bouquinistes.

Actually, there are at least two very similar images, one in landscape format showing the length of the sidewalk with people browsing in the book boxes in the background, and a second in portrait format taken closer to the subject and showing him alone, with Notre Dame behind him. I have postcards of each the two images both in black and white and after colour has been applied to each image.

The landscape version shows evidence of retouching (in the days before PhotoShop, this was done on the negative). There must have been a barge on the river with some kind of hoist that was visible just beyond the man, and Yvon has made an effort to minimize it. You can just see a sort of triangular shape in the gap between the boxes. Obscuring it made the man’s profile a bit clearer.

In the portrait version, Notre Dame seems to be wreathed in mist. This is a typical Yvon hallmark. Photographers of the day who took landscape shots for use as postcards tended to shoot in full sunlight. Come to think of it, most contemporary postcard photographers still do this, with bright blue cloudless skies (when people use the term “picture postcard view,” this is what they mean).

Yvon, however, went for the mood shots – early mornings or dusk rather than noon, rainy and misty days rather than sunshine, and off-seasons rather than high summer. He was one of the first to photograph the fierce gargoyles on the top of Notre Dame against a turbulent sky, creating images that have inspired generations of gothic mystery writers and film noir cinéastes.

Yvon bought his first camera at the age of 12. He stole some money from his father to do so, but his father recognized passion when he saw it and apparently forgave him. He went to work for an electric company before the First World War, but spent his free time as an amateur photographer. A bout of polio as a child had left him with a deformed foot, so he was not sent to fight when war broke out. After the war, he began to provide photographs for a magazine called l’Illustration. He used the pseudonym Yvon (a family name) because there was already a well-known portrait photographer who shared his real name, Pierre Petit.

Yvon’s work in l’Illustration was popular, and the editor suggested Yvon use his images for the hot new medium of the time – the postcard. Yvon invested his own money in printing a series of postcards of his distinctive views of the city, and he took the unusual step of including his name on each image. These were not the routine shots of famous buildings typical of postcards at that time, but artistic images born of Yvon’s wanderings in the city, looking for unusual angles or juxtapositions, and playing with the effects of shadows, mists, clouds, and reflections.

Yvon eventually quit his job at the electric company and founded his own company, Editions d’Art Yvon. At first he did it all – managing the printing, the shipping, the sales, and the accounts. Later, he hired some assistants for the office work so he could devote himself to photography. Apparently he was not much of a family man (he had a wife and three daughters) and preferred to be out with his camera. As his business grew, he travelled all over France taking images for his distinctive branded postcards.

In the 1930s, the postcard business was booming, and Yvon did well. During the Second World War he began to experiment with colour photography. In the 1950s, he sold the business, but he continued to take photographs right up to the end of his life in 1969 at the age of eighty-three. The company, Editions Yvon survived until earlier this year, when it merged with a company called La Carterie.

Yvon’s shot of the old bookseller was not his only image of the bouquinistes. There are several others in the only book devoted to his work.*** He even took a wonderful shot of the closed boxes covered with snow in winter. Maybe he wondered, as I do, how those people kept going year after year.

Text and contemporary photograph by Philippa Campsie.

*Kurt Ulrich and Dominique Lesbros, Paris: Discovering the City of Light, Bucher, 2007, p.17.
**David Downie, Paris, Paris, Broadway Books, 2011, p. 128
***Robert Stevens, Yvon’s Paris, W.W. Norton, 2010.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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12 Responses to The bouquinistes and the photographer of shadows

  1. Alison says:

    This is amazing. The text is always stellar but the photography this time is stratospheric. I absolutely love it and it speaks loudly to me today. Thank you.

  2. Again, you’ve outdone yourself by providing some of the best content about Paris on the web! I am also a huge fan of David’s book and found it a great companion on our recent trip to Paris.

  3. You’ve out done yourself! Fantastic content.

  4. Ken Bowes says:

    Well done Philippa! That’s some atmospheric photography!

  5. Meg Morden says:

    Thank you for a wonderful blog. I loved the photographs and the text. Well done!

  6. Alex says:

    Fascinating blog – I love the bouquinistes as well and have also wondered how they manage to survive in difficult economic times. Love the pictures and the background on Yvon too.

  7. Simply lovely photos! I wrote about the bouquinistes on my blog They are a fascinating group! The information about Yvon was all new to me. Thanks for sharing.

  8. I so look forward to your blogs…always in-depth and informative….this post is one of the best. I love that you include old photos in many of your posts….these are simply incredible. Merci beaucoup!!!

  9. Pingback: On reaching 100 – blogs, that is | Parisian Fields

  10. GarryN says:

    Very interesting article, love the old photographs — thank you.

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