x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Paris: present and absent

For three years, Memphis-born photographer has been photographing the City of Light through a grant from the Fondation Cartier. Now, the pictures are on display.

With its iconic landmarks and monumental architecture, Paris is a city synonymous with national pride, triumphalism and beauty. It's a city that has been immortalised in film and art, famously through the eyes of Eugène Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassaï. A new exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Paris documents a new series on the city by the Memphis-born William Eggleston.

For the last three years, Eggleston has photographed the city as part of a Fondation Cartier commission. Taken throughout different seasons, these photographs, many of which are accompanied by never before seen abstract sketches, are the first of a series that will continue over years to come. Those expecting to see shots of chic Parisians parading around the Jardin du Luxembourg or the bustling Champs Elysées or even the Tour Eiffel by night, will be disappointed. As the curator Grazia Quaroni says: "You won't find postcards from Paris here."

What you will find is a series of images of the disused, the forgotten, and the neglected. This is a city in focus; an everyday, living, working city. Eggleston famously only ever photographs a subject once, and his "shotgun" approach whereby a subject is targeted, then shot, explains the odd angles and off-kilter point of view. He never plans his compositions, they just happen, and that spontaneity is key to his project.

Eggleston's Paris is, for the most part, populated by a cast of blurred or peripheral figures. Recordings of Eggleston's piano playing are broadcast over the exhibition so that the artist himself becomes a phantom presence. A photograph of a lecture theatre in the Sorbonne shows empty rows of seats; yet on closer inspection, the seats are covered in chalk marks and patterns where the students habitually sit. Though absent from the photo, they are very much a physical part of the image.

Eggleston's work, with all of its myriad emphasis on presence in absence, whether in the children's clothing discarded on a park bench or a hose hidden behind a line of bushes, challenges the viewer to provide not only a typographical specificity but also one of narrative and process. The Paris he presents inhales and exhales, it rains and doesn't drain properly; it generates waste and disposes of it in translucent bins.

As part of Eggleston's Parisian tour, the Cartier team arranged for him to visit The Ritz. As one of the capital's most elegant hotels, there was plenty of fodder for photography. Eggleston, however, chose to visit the kitchens and then the gift shop, where he proceeded to photograph a row of "chef" teddy bears in the window. Although the photographs do not at first seem to embrace politics, Eggleston's art is deeply politicised. He sees himself as a democratic image-taker. For him, everything is a potential picture and all subjects are equally important. Eggleston's exhibition demonstrates that a city's depth and profundity extend beyond the instantly recognisable. Paris is a sum of all its parts, however insignificant or hidden. In the artist's democratic gaze, there is neither one stable meaning nor one authoritative interpretation.

"I approached it and am still approaching it as if it is just anywhere," the photographer says in the exhibition guide. "You're not quite sure: is this Paris, Mexico City, elsewhere?" The neon signs and puddles of water show a Paris that is both recognisable and utterly alien; unique and generic. "It is exactly Paris", Quaroni says of the exhibition, "but it is also Memphis."