Geoffrey James

Centre Culturel Canadien

Who hasn't wanted, just once, to be alone with Paris? One of the great laboratories of modem sociability, the City of Light also awakens, at least in certain foreigners' hearts, the intermittent desire to merge, unaccompanied, with the weight of its past. Canadian photographer Geoffrey James seems to have felt something of the sort. The far-from-picturesque images he shot there in 2000 suggest that, if he worked in the pale light of early morning when no one else was around, it wasn't only because he wanted to capture the pure forms of architecture without human obstruction. One can't even speak of his subjects as overlooked comers of the city, since in most of the images there is nothing to overlook. Atget, as Walter Benjamin said, photographed Paris as a crime scene; James may take Atget as his model, but here even the clues have been swept away.

James's Paris is a city somehow detached from both commerce and habitation. He is drawn to places where the walls seem to close in on themselves to form a tomb, as in the blank facade of Rue des Cascades, 20ème. Elsewhere, street signs, billboards, and graffiti evoke a universe of discourse that seems completely external—so many epitaphs. With the crazily cracked building in Bd de la Chapelle, 19ème, his sepulchral closure seems about to shatter. Another closed-in little edifice, in Rue des Haies, 20ème, looks as though it had been sheared off from a larger construction and plunked on the spot by some maladroit assemblagist. But James's few pictures of the grander parts of town (e.g., L'Opéra, Rue Auber, 9ème) feel emptiest of all, deprived as they are of even the uneasy dreams that seem to haunt the sleepy mornings of the drabber arrondissements.

James manages to identify his medium and his subject: One sees an absolutely gray city rather than a place that has been rendered by means of black-and-white photography. And the layout of the streets is ruled by a harsh geometry that's almost a parody of linear perspective. These crisp, chilly images tend to lead the eye far back into a distance that's anything but poetic. This Paris is a labyrinth, and thus uninhabitable. We can understand why, as Hubert Damisch observes in the catalogue, James's subject is “the resistance the city opposes to different forms of occupation.” But like one of Calvino's cities, James's Paris is imaginary. Minutes after leaving the exhibition, I happened to pass the Pont Neuf. As I now rediscovered it, the bridge was not the sinister monument it seems in one of these photographs, but something lovely, in which extreme solidity becomes a novel form of grace. James has been alone with Paris indeed—a Paris that exists only in his photographs.

Barry Schwabsky