This man was a poet with his camera

IN 1956, Edouard Boubat made a photograph of a young woman. Wearing a muslin shirt and a dark skirt, her hair a little disordered, she resembled a heroine of some far-off revolution. Boubat’s portrait of Lella, which paid homage not only to beauty and youth, but also to strength and determination, became one of the icons of post-war European portraiture. “I love music, painting and above all, life,” Boubat insisted. “Life gives me my photos. I need other people. Photography is a profession for encounters!”

Boubat made his first appearance as a photographer at the age of 23. in a group show at Galerie La Hune in 1951. Fellow exhibitors included Robert Doisneau, Izis and Brassai, photographers who had already established significant reputations as humanist documentarists. Like them, Boubat encountered a city which was still traumatised by the German occupation of the Second World War, and determined, through photography, to re-establish it as a place of vigour and desire, to reinstate its pre-war gaiety.

In the Paris of Boubat and Doisneau, couples kissed on the street, bakeries and cafes bustled with life, people looked to the future rather than grieving over the past. Paris was deeply scarred, humiliated and beset by guilt, politically and socially troubled, but Boubat and his contemporaries directed their cameras towards the renewal of Parisian life, the reassertion of a national identity.

As did Doisneau, Boubat began his career as a printer, studying at the Ecole Estienne in Paris in the late 1930s. Throughout the war, he worked as a photogravure printer, and began to work as a photographer in 1946. For some years, he worked freelance, selling photographs to the press. His talent was recognised by Realites magazine, who gave him his first job as a staff photographer in 1951.

He stayed with Realites for the next 15 years, documenting the world around him with a loving and highly individualistic eye. Though he travelled extensively for the magazine, he had no desire to report from war zones, or to photograph the celebrated or the monumental. Boubat’s stock-in- trade was the serendipity of everyday life, a glance, a gesture, a beam of light falling across a city square, old men passing the time of day, graceful young women, elegant young men, children playing, the changing tableaux of urban life.

Although Boubat’s photographs were featured in numerous exhibitions and publications, throughout Europe and the United States, he never achieved the status of the great French documentarists – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassai and Doisneau himself. For a new generation which had begun the rejection of romanticism which was to gather pace as the Sixties approached, Boubat’s view of the world was perhaps a little too kind, his vision of the human comedy lacking the ambiguity which Cartier-Bresson and Brassai injected into their finest work.

His photographs of women, for which he became so well known, lacked both Sixties edge and the realisation of changing sexual identities. But Boubat always had an audience for his work: he showed and published from the Sixties to the Eighties, with solo exhibitions at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris in 1973, the Musee d’Art Moderne (1980) and at the prestigious Witkin Gallery in New York (1982).

Books appeared throughout the Seventies, including his best known, Femmes/Woman, in 1972. His photographs were included in a number of major survey exhibitions at the beginning of the 1980s, notably “Counterparts: form and emotion in photographs” (which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1982), and “Subjective Photography: images of the Fifties”, which began an extensive tour at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1984. Boubat’s work was supported by distinguished curators and editors such as Rune Hassner in Sweden, Claude Nori in Paris and Ute Eskildsen in Germany.

It is now some time since we have seen Boubat’s work in exhibition or publication. The decline in interest in post-war European documentary reportage diverted the gaze of galleries and magazines from what had become almost a photographic cliche. Though associated with the Rapho Photo Agency, Boubat had become a figure from the past, his gentle photographs unable to answer our questions about the past.

The genre of photography within which Boubat worked became demeaned by countless posters and reproductions. The questions asked after the revelation that certain iconic pieces of street reportage were staged rather than taken from reality, further diminished the popularity of such work.

But, whatever our caveats, to see a Boubat photograph from the 1950s is to glimpse an elegance and style which has disappeared from our world. He shows a Paris uncluttered by cars and consumerism, where young women dressed every day like fashion models, a city of smells and sensations, redolent with social history writ large in the everyday. The Paris we still search for is altogether present in the photographs of Edouard Boubat, a man who saw his work as a series of encounters, a constant source of wonder and delight.

Val Williams

Edouard Boubat, photographer: born Paris 13 September 1923; married (one son); died Paris 30 June 1999.

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