I/Eye: On Photography

Juxtaposition: Jacques Yonnet and Brassaï

Posted in Juxtaposition, Other Photographers, portraits by Sheila Newbery on February 20, 2010

Jacquet Yonnet‘s 1954 masterpiece Rue de Maléfices (Witchcraft Street) is set in war-time Paris (WWII) in the left-bank quartier along Rue Mouffetard. It’s an extraordinary book, with a certain after-the-apocalypse detachment that could only be the work of one actually walking daily through an unimaginable collapse, witnessing his fellow creatures with wonder and a piercing fatalism. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read — though it seems to me we hear the distant echo of Boccaccio’s Decameron, which immerses itself in tales of human comedy, oddity, and tragedy in the midst of the 14th-century catastrophe of bubonic plague.

A review by Alexis Lykiard of an English translation of the novel (by Christine Donougher) captures the flavor accurately, I think:

Anyone interested in the uncanny and the occult will doubtless find much to ponder, since this mysterious genre-bending work is fascinatingly informative as well as thrilling: in its pages can be found curses, betrayals, torture, murder and even cannibalism – all the day-by-day extreme experiences of a crowd of mainly doomed, tragicomical derelicts, surviving as best they can in the direst circumstances, wandering ghosts indeed.

In a catalog of photographs picked up by friends who went prowling recently among the second-hand bookstalls along the Seine, I found this Brassaï portrait — a gaze as if straight out of Yonnet’s world, though from a different quarter (Montmartre) before the war: Bijou confronts the camera with an acerbic confidence, and I find myself wondering how she (he?) survived the calamities that followed…

Bijou au Bar de la Lune, Montmartre, c. 1932, Brassaï

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