Bar Floréal was gone before I knew it existed. In fact, I may never have known it had existed at all if I hadn’t gone looking for museums yesterday and happened upon the Pavilion du Carré de Baudouin. Its current exhibition is “Le bar Floréal.photographie: ‘Un soir j’ai assis la Beauté sur mes genoux’”, which translates as “One night I sat Beauty on my lap” and comes from the prologue of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell (1873). I would hazard a guess that the quote was chosen to invoke ideas of bearing clear-eyed witness, and perhaps to walking a path between hedonism and despair, idealism and the devil.
I learnt on my visit that Bar Floréal was a bistro, yes, but also a collective of roughly 20 photographers based in Belleville. Three photojournalists began the project in a derelict restaurant in 1985 with shared goals of capturing life as it is lived, events, people and politics, but also of controlling how their work was used, the context in which it was shown, working as individuals and together, pooling the proceeds. Their home – studio and gallery space – was in the 20th arrondissement (on the corner of rue des Couronnes and rue Julien Lacroix), but their scope spanned the globe, from Senegal to the suburbs. This ideal endured for thirty years, before financial difficulties forced the enterprise to fold last year. And yet here was the work, finding new audiences still.
History opens up in this city, even after the fact. What the 20th lacks in official museums, of the artifact or heritage ilk, it more than makes up for in cultural spaces. Carré de Baudouin is one of these, a white edifice with an ever-changing graffiti wall that conceals a quiet garden and classical 18th century façade. Visitors pass through the green wrought-iron gate, across the threshold between its four columns and into the foyer. Built as a folly and (hard to believe this now in sprawling 21st-century Paris) a country retreat, it was acquired by the State in 2003 and has been open to the public, hosting temporary exhibitions and lecture series, since 2007.
Obscure exhibition title and ideas of reportage in my head, I stepped into the first room to be met, immediately, by a wall of black-and-white five-by-sevens, overlapping scenes of struggle, happiness, reality. It would take hours to study them all. More images wrapped around the other walls of this high-ceilinged gallery. I loved a close-cropped portrait of a young man in red cap, blurred, urban background crisp behind him. I continued to a room of exhibition posters pulled from the collective’s archives (which are now in the care of the national library). Their design evolved from DIY paste-up style to the sleek computer-assisted possibilities we now take for granted. I felt a pang of nostalgia for uneven type and font limitations.
The exhibition led me up the gently spiraling staircase to top-floor galleries where, to the left, a projection flicked through images from signature shows – Return to Lorraine, South American prostitutes in Bois de Boulogne – and, to the right, the final space housed larger individual collections. A notice warned visitors of sensitive content, referring to, among others, frank photos of childbirth. Less confronting but equally fascinating works showed construction of a métro line. I paused at self-portraitist Sophie Carlier’s large-format images. In the first, she was posing naked with the French flag, stretched out on a barely made bed, the colours and light lovely. I cursed myself for not allowing enough time to linger over these, and other work.
I wished I had discovered Bar Floréal earlier, and resolved to open my eyes wider to local offerings. The windows of the new-ish café near the Place de la Réunion market are always plastered with posters for art shows, theatre, workshops and performances. There’s no lack of cultural possibilities.
I felt sad, too, that this little utopia had been lost. In a 2013 interview with photographic website lesphotographes.com, co-founder André Lejarre explained that he met Noak Carrau (photographer, reporter and director known for his work documenting Chernobyl) and Alex Jordan (photographer, artist, teacher) during protests to save the Lorraine steelworks in 1979, and they later decided to work together documenting the world, in all its miseries and marvels, and present the work in a human, intelligent way. At that time, Bar Floréal was working towards establishing an independent photo library network, but competition from the giants seemed insurmountable.
Photo: Le Bar Floréal.photographie
In the end, I left grateful for this portal to the world on my doorstep, and to the wider one that twists and turns far beyond. Take it in now – you never know how long it will be there.