I first read about les Halles in Emile Zola’s famous novel, Le Ventre de Paris, where he describes with vivid intensity the bustling central marketplace of 19th century Paris and the working-class Parisians who made their living there. Les Halles was indeed Paris’ stomach, as Zola called it, so full of vegetables and meats, crates and merchants, flowers and fruits, that it had become a living entity crucial to the survival of the city.
In 1933, French photographer Robert Doisneau took his first photograph of les Halles, and was hooked ever since. For forty years, he photographed his friends the butchers, the flower sellers, the fruit and vegetable merchants, even the gleaners picking up leftover heads of lettuce and bruised apples after the market. It’s these photos that you will find at the exposition.
In the 1960s, les Halles faced the threat of demolition. Dense and dirty, the market was now considered inadaptable to the needs of the growing modern city of Paris. Determined to save the memories of this sacred place, Doisneau got up every morning at 3am in order to capture images of the merchants unloading their trucks and displaying merchandise. Against the obstacles of fatigue and darkness, Doisneau refused to let this part of Paris disappear forever.
With the destruction in 1971of the pavilions that had been constructed by Victor Baltard between 1850 and 1870, Doisneau was there with his camera. He snapped the different phases of the gaping hole where the belly of Paris had been ripped out, and traveled all the way down to Rungis, the new ventre outside of Paris, to understand what had become of all of his merchant comrades.
Currently, the area where les Halles used to exist is being turned into a modern outdoor mall with large open spaces including parks, play areas, and fountains. Additionally, there are plans for music, dance and media venues. The exposition provides visuals and explanations of this project as well.
Although the wait for this exposition can be quite long, I urge you to visit before it’s gone. Le ventre de Paris lives on in Doisneau’s photographs, just as he had hoped.
Doisneau Paris Les Halles: l’expo événement
Hôtel de ville
29 rue de Rivoli 75004
Metro : Hôtel de ville
From February 8 to April 28 2012
© 2012 Pasa’s Paris