Paris Journal: Hype Happens

Léon Gimpel, Issy-les-Moulineaux. Take-off of the military dirigeable "Le Temps" in 1911. Société Française de Photographie.

The modest proposal of the Paris museum Jeu de Paume's current exhibition — The Event: Images as Protagonists of History — is to demonstrate that we've all been had. Hype may be nothing new but it's hard to swallow the thesis that, for the last hundred and fifty years, what we call history has been "manufactured" by a gang of people wielding images. Having raised their conceptual circus tent, the curators recreate five world-historical acts to prove their point: the Crimean War; the first human flight; France's first paid holidays (1936); the fall of the Berlin Wall; and the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Ever since the invention of photography, we are told, technology has been "democratizing" information. Fast-forward to television and the Internet and you get today's "sense of wonder of democratic societies." History now "appears to us as a succession of events whose frantic rhythm is further accelerated by the media."

How much the media and its powerful images influence, or even cause, events is a legitimate question. But juggling our visual modern history in the cavernous halls of the Jeu de Paume, more or less for fun, doesn't provide any answers.

The Crimean War was the first conflict perceived through a camera's eye. But in this first "war of images," the roles of art and photography, as we know them today, were reversed. All the blood is shed in the paintings and illustrations and newspaper columns spinning one of the most senseless wars in Europe's history. The world's first war photographer, Roger Fenton, didn't do actual fighting. He needed exposures that lasted as long as today's soundbites. But the desolation and emptiness of his images — such as a valley full of cannonballs — tell us as much as we need to know.

By the time of the Wright brothers, film had been invented and magazines were illustrated with photographs taken from the air. Sitting in a darkened room at the Jeu de Paume, you are taken through the loops of the first aviation movies. Planes are captured on film breaking the contemporary speed limit for a flying machine — 50 miles an hour.

Photo by Thomas Ruff, jpegny02, 2004.
New York, galerie David Zwirmer.

Only a tall velvet curtain separates the Wright brothers from the Big Top — 9/11, the best-documented event in human history. Film may have provided the most immediate, hypnotizing experience of the attack on the World Trade Center towers but grassroots photography has the last word.

In the center of the room, a small module shows a scaled-down version of the exhibition — New York. A Democracy of Photography. It presents a collection of photographs taken before, during and in the aftermath of the September 11 tragedy, which were contributed in response to an open request for pictures from all sources. They have no captions or commentary. The images of professional photographers hang side by side with photographs taken by police officers, firemen, business people, bystanders, schoolteachers, construction workers and children. This is "democratized" image-making, bringing us much closer to the truth of the event than television or newspapers.

There is no obvious connection between terrorist attacks in New York and the first paid vacations in France. The 70th anniversary of the paid vacation was celebrated in France with great fanfare last year. A two-week paid vacation, seemingly an impossible dream to most French workers, was created in 1936 by the Front Popularie government headed by visionary Socialist Prime Minister, Léon Blum. The joyous spectacle of hundreds of thousands of pale-limbed French men and women sunbathing for the first time was recorded in a new way thanks to lightweight cameras wielded by the likes of Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. But a handful of images and a couple of newsreels, however evocative, hardly does justice to the subject.

Vu, 2 août 1939, n° 594
Coll. Musée de l'histoire vivante, Montreuil D.R.

The last act in the five-ring media circus is the fall of the Berlin Wall. There are loops of live broadcasts showing reunited German couples, chunks of the hated wall being carted away, the concert by Mstislav Rostropovich at Checkpoint Charlie, and the East to West crossing of German families in their little Trabant cars, powered by smoky two stroke engines.

If there is any message to all of this, it is in the medium and not the catalog. But for all its flabby conceptualizing, there is plenty of photographic catharsis in The Event.

Jeu de Paume
1 Place de la Concorde, Paris
Until April 1