10 Photographers Who Captured the Romance of Paris, from Brassaï to Cartier-Bresson
There is an undeniable romanticism surrounding France’s capital city as it inhabits the collective consciousness—from the centuries-old buildings worn by time, to the expat-filled avant-garde circles of the ’20s, to the colorful characters in the city’s seedier districts. Over the decades, the spirit of Paris and its people has served as subject for some of the most influential photographers, who have in turn immortalized the city through their images. Here, we celebrate 10 of those photographers and the city that inspired them.
After book illustrator Charles Marville turned to photography in 1850, he produced calotypes of medieval buildings for France’s Commission for Historical Monuments. Twelve years later, Marville was commissioned by the city of Paris to become its official photographer, and he worked to systematically record—in remarkable detail thanks to new photographic technology—Parisian buildings and streets slated for destruction as part of Haussmann’s urban renewal project. His images of water-slicked cobblestone streets and cracked facades, tinged with nostalgia, capture a city in transition.
In his own words, Jean Eugène Auguste Atget created “documents for artists,” images intended as source material for other creatives. Shot heavily in working-class areas, his photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are carefully composed records of Old Paris’s shops, people, and historic architecture—unmanipulated scenes from Parisian daily life that bucked the trend of the then-fashionable, staged style of Pictorialism. Branching into the disorienting and the uncanny, his later work shares affinities with Surrealism, and was popularized by Man Ray and Berenice Abbott.
Born Gyula Halász in the Hungarian town of Brassó, Brassaï moved to Paris in 1924 and befriended the city’s cultural intelligentsia, including Henry Miller and Pablo Picasso. Called “The Eye of Paris” by Miller, Brassaï is known for penetrating the city’s underbelly and capturing the people living at its margins. With unflinching directness and photographing mainly at night, he immortalized the prostitutes, artists, and petty criminals of Paris’s seamy Montparnasse district, and turned graffiti and weathered carpentry into considered studies of form.
Jacques Henri Lartigue began photographing as a child, capturing the games he played with his brother and friends, and injecting his own vision and personality into the instant, or action-based, photography that was popular at the time. Naturally gifted, Lartigue was an amateur photographer who considered himself primarily a painter. As such, his photographs are characterized by humorous informality, depicting fashionable women and the city’s denizens engaged in leisure activities like kite-flying, skiing, and car-racing, and showcasing the freedoms enjoyed by people of a certain class during the ’20s.
Compelled by Paris’s thriving avant-garde community and the work of Florence Henri, in particular, Ilse Bing relocated from her native Frankfurt to the French capital in 1930. Working as a photojournalist and fashion photographer for prominent French, German, and American publications, Bing also remained dedicated to her personal work. Through the unorthodox perspectives, geometric abstraction, and high-contrast lighting associated with the New Photography movement, Bing wrung a balance of theatricality and subtle harmony from everyday Parisian life.
Budapest-born André Kertész lived in Paris from 1925 to 1936, before settling in New York. While in Paris, Kertész worked as a photojournalist during the boom of the nascent profession. He aimed to capture his subjects without interference but was intensely interested in composition, creating images suffused not only with documentary clarity but also with aesthetic experimentation. Shot from unusual angles and often inflected with the surreal, his ephemeral moments and unstaged subjects—from banal objects to fellow artists to architecture—brim with poetic intimacy.
Germaine Krull’s 1928 photobook Métal introduced radical images of Paris’s steel constructions, shot from unexpected angles that imbued the visual vocabulary of New Photography with poetic beauty. The same year, Krull was included—alongside André Kertész—in the Salon de l’Escalier, France’s first show of modern photography. A former fashion photographer for Sonia Delaunay, Krull eventually traveled the world as a photojournalist and political activist. At home, she captured working-class Parisians with energy and compassion, and snapped innovative architectural studies.
Although Paris native Robert Doisneau photographed fashion for Vogue and wartime images for the French resistance during his career, he remained steadfastly dedicated to photojournalism and, with it, street photography. Whether training his lens on children at play, women window-shopping, or prominent fellow artists, Doisneau captured his subjects with a combination of humanity and humor, juxtaposing the mundane with the unexpected. It is the combined, paradoxical quality of keenly planned tableaux and informal snapshots that animates Doisneau’s images of mid-20th-century Paris.
For Henri Cartier-Bresson—who co-founded Magnum Photos and pioneered the blend of content and composition in photojournalism—photography was the “yes…yes…yes” that concludes Joyce’s Ulysses: presence of being, enjoyment, and affirmation. He relished creating aesthetic order through geometry and shape, aiming to concretize and strip down a situation for legibility in a single glance. Influenced by Surrealism, the dynamic and often strange, candid moments he captured on the streets of Paris and beyond are the products of patience, rather than sheer chance.
Henri Cartier-Bresson—whom Elliott Erwitt has cited as a formative influence—once stated, “Elliott has to my mind achieved a miracle” in his ability to bring personality and heart to his work, even after a lifetime of traveling the world on commercial photojournalism campaigns. Born in Paris, Erwitt returned to photograph his home city after moving to the United States as a child. Casual yet composed, his images celebrate the City of Light with wit and unbridled playfulness, by turning, for example, the Eiffel Tower into a backdrop for ecstatic human emotion.