Doisneau's Photographic History of Les Halles

Trip Start Sep 15, 2005
Trip End Mar 05, 2014

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What I did
Robert Doisneau's Photographic History of Les Halles at the Hotel de Ville

Flag of France  , Île-de-France,
Friday, February 17, 2012

Robert Doisneau paintakingly photographed the life and the spirit of Les Halles from the 1930s until it's closing in 1969, and its subsequent demolition in the 1970s. My memory of seeing Les Halles once as a teenager is suspect--I think we visited the area in 1969, but I truly do not remember if it was before or after the market itself was torn down. I know we ate at one of the traditional eateries in the area, but I think my visceral memory of Les Halles is mixed in with my memories of my grandfather taking me to a kosher kill floor at the Eastern Market in Detroit when I was around six. The memory of those chickens being killed has never left me. I have since always associated wholesale food markets with fear and butchery.

Use the link Doisneau's Les Halles to view a series of photos that give you a sense of the photographic exposition currently on view at the Hotel de Ville. I went with a friend and stood in line almost an hour to get into the free exhibition, but we enjoyed the camaraderie in the queue, and happily the weather in Paris, although cold and blustery, is no longer bitter and hovering around zero. The guard who slowly let around ten people at a time in, took pity on the older woman who was right behind us when he cut the line off behind me  (I had met up with my friend and therefore had cut in line) when I insisted she was with us, and she was exceedingly grateful when he let her join us inside.

The Les Halles market had been situated in the center of Paris since the 1100s, and was covered over with a glass and cast iron enclosure by the architect Victor Baltard in the 1850s during the Second Empire. The market became known as the underbelly of Paris (Emile Zola coined the term in his book, Le Vente (stomach or belly) de Paris in the 1880s.) The underground shopping mall which replaced it afterwards is known as Le Forum des Halles. Constructed in the 1970s, it is a dismal failture (the mall area is known as a dangerous place for tourists, and the shops are decidedly low-brow). More successful are the pedestrian-only streets that are filled with shops in the quatier. Today the city is considering reinventing the whole area again.

Luckily, a few of the old-time restaurants--known for their onion soups their meats, or their poule au pot still can be found in the neighborhood. They are small and cluttered, usually with a zinc bar, displays of their meats behind glass, tiled floors, rickety stairs to a second level, and with limited sitting room. Anthony Bourdain, who I love following on TV, has a restaurant in New York that tries to replicate the ambiance of an old-time Les Halles resto.

With mostly black and white photographs, Doisneau's photographs document the market culture that existed going back centuries, much of the action taking place starting around two am: the butchers,vegetable and flower vendors, barmen, prostitutes, and the restaurants that served them, as well as the gleaners, who scavenged the grounds prior to the water trucks that sanitized the streets each morning after the market closed.

By the end of the 1960s, Les Halles was no longer economically viable. In modern times there just wasn't the kind of infrastructure necessary to manage a wholesale market in the middle of the city. Doisneau documents the demise of the market, its demoliton, and the exhibition ends with a few photos of the new market which was relocated outside of Paris in Rungis in the 1970s, a place I've been told has absolutely no character but functions today as the major food distribution center for Paris and its environs.

Progress may come, but more often that not, the character of a place is often lost.
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