Thursday, August 25, 2005

Cara interviews Leonard Pitt author of Paris Disparu

I met Leonard with a burning question concerning an enigmatic photo I found in Paris - a Luftwaffe officer caught on camera in front of bar des deux ponts during the Occupation - I couldn't find those buildings. Even that part of the street in the photo. Neither could my friends at the Marais Historic Society or the old brocanteur, who'd grown up in the Marais, and walked with me around the Marais and Ile Saint-Louis. I turned to the only person who could help and Leonard found the street, the buildings and the bar des deux ponts from photos in his huge collection. The bar and the buildings, gems, had been torn down in 1942. No doubt shortly after the photo.
There went a plot point down the drain but now I knew. Thanks to Leonard.
I wanted to ask him some questions because his work is amazing.

Leonard, one of your obessessions is Paris and you call yourself a forensic photographer. Your book ‘Paris Disparu’, a bestseller in France, is on my shelf and will soon be translated into English...but even if one doesn’t speak French the photo’s of then and now Paris speak for themselves. What led you to assemble this book and document the lost or altered architectual gems of Paris?

This book was born out of ignorance . I knew nothing about the subject even after having lived in Paris for seven years in the 1960’s. One day in 1996 I picked up Marville's book at Cody’s in Berekely which has hundreds of photos of pre Haussman Paris. Leafing thru the book I was shocked to see photos of the neighborhood where I had lived that resembled nothing that I knew. That's when Idiscovered the enormous transformation Paris had undergone in the 19th century. I wanted to know everything about its history. I read everything I could find - David Jordan’s Transforming Paris, David Pinkney - Napoleon the Third and the Rebuilding of Paris. I spent hours looking at tons of photos especially those of Eugene Atget.
I took copies of those Marville photos back to Paris and walked around finding the exact spot where he stood to take the photos. Seeing the difference was overwhelming. And they say if you wnat to learn about something, write a book about it. Paris Disparu took five years and twelve trips to Paris to write.

Any interesting things you discovered in your research that you hadn’t planned on?
The French are as bad as Americans They’ll tear down anything at the drop of a hat. It’s only because individuals have organized and protested and put cultural heritage on the map that buildings have been saved. I’m a member of Paris Historique Society in the Marais, like you, and they sell my book there.
Unforgivable crimes have been commited by the demolishing of developers and landowners and city agencies. In the Marais on rue Saint Paul near the Seine, Hotel de la Vieuville (an early 17th century hotel particulier, townhouse) was torn down in 1927 by Ernest Cognacq who replaced it with a warehouse for the Samaritaine department store. This sophisticated man who collected French art and has a museum in his name tore this down for a warehouse. Later it was converted into apartments. That to me is a crime.

Where do you find your photos?
I find photos in the museums; archives. I spend a lot of time in the archives of Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris and the Carnavalet Museum.I scour flea markets, photo dealers and postcard sellers around Paris and on-line.

Tell us how you research.
For my second book, it’s photo driven so I sift thru archives of hundreds of photos of a neighborhood that I can do something with.
Rue Beauborg, so well photograped and so compelteiy oblitered in the 1900’s that comparing the two together was phenomenal. A stunning difference.
I’ll be standing on a corner and so struck that I grab someone and they rarely seem fazed. They shrug.

What’s next?
More Walks Through Lost Paris comes out in Paris in 2006 and we’re negotiating with an American publisher for first two books. I concentrate on the Left Bank, Place Maubert and towards the Pantheon, construction on the bouleveard of Saint Germain in 1860’s. On the Right Bank, Les Halles, rue Beaubourg, ave de l’Opera where I used to live.

In your painstaking research, what architectural areas have have you discovered that’s been the best preserved?
Sections of the Marais; rue des Rosiers, rue des Guillemites
Rue de Seine, Rue Bonaparte,

Why is it important to you to document the past?
I'm not motivated to document the past so much as for a book like mine to inspire more Parisians to fight for their city, their beautiful buildings. That would make me happy.

What's the response you've had in Paris from the French?
It appeals to them because an American is showing them the past of their city. Sometimes after they take one of my walks through their neighborhood they shake my hand and I know their seeing thru different eyes now.tI show photos and talk. Visuals count. I always encourage everyone to look up, because good stuff is up above the ground floor. Down from the Brasserie Lipp is a wonderful sculpture and no one notices because they don’t look up.

Paris Walks with Leonard Pitt
Leonard Pitt, author of the bestselling Promenades dans le Paris Disparu, will be in Paris for one month, September 15 to October 16, and is now organizing groups for walks through the city.
Walks in Paris
The Left Bank, Ile de la Cite
Marais, Paris and Chocolate begin in the Louvre, the Palais Royal and the Passages, cross to the Opera and end up at Maison de Chocolate September and October
For information, contact Leonard at
To see his book, go to:

"Leonard is completely legitimate, he's impregnated with Paris. He sees things that we don't see."
  - Le Figaro -
"This American friend knows Paris like the back of his hand and illustrates clearly what the serious stroller would have a hard time deciphering on his own - the history that runs beneath today's buildings."
    - Le Nouvel Observateur -


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5:38 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I just bought Leonard Pitt's "Walks Through Paris" a week ago and cannot put it down. There is something about those old photos that resonates with me. The people in the photos, the advertising signs on the buildings, the debris in the streets. . . I cannot pinpoint it, but it reaches me in a way the new photos cannot. The old photos somehow teem with life.

I'll read the latest Aimee LeDuc mystery on the plane!

6:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I took the advice here and went down to the Marsais today and found the English translation in the first bookshop I stopped at, 'The Red Wheel Barrow,' on Rue St. Paul.

This book is a work of art that literally (through the oldest photography), shines a light into the dark past of a winding and narrow net-work of streets that is a Paris long, long gone and --almost -- forgotten.

Brilliant. Thanks for this blog. I'll never laugh at a mime artist again (at least not for a while...), I promise :-0

2:58 PM  
Blogger Cara Black said...

You said it perfectly, Mimi. The photos teem with life. I feel like I'm there or could be give or take 80 to 100 years.

Leonard and are doing 'A Night in the Marais' this week at the University Club in SF...He does an incredible power point presentation using photos from his book, offers great commentary and then I follow with a reading of Murder in the Marais and the story behind the novel...I'll pass on your compliments to him,

11:35 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

In May we caught the Eugene Atget exhibit at the Bibliotheque Nationale. We especially enjoyed the urban scenes, and we made a point to find some of those areas as we walked around this time. I hope Paris does not completely lose the vestiges of the past that are still left...

6:56 PM  

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