A modern place with an ancient past, Paris is somewhat of a conundrum. Although filled with twenty-first century people with twenty-first lives, the city is made up of streets and structures that have existed for hundreds of years. Near the Rue Saint Bon is one such place, a small passageway that divides a section of the repetitive Parisian urban façade. Photographed first by Eugene Atget in 1903 and then Christopher Rauschenberg in the 1990’s, a visit to this particular site reveals just how much and yet also how little Paris has changed over time.

Set in the Marais, a historic Parisian district that reaches across the third and fourth arrondissements, Atget’s photo captures a small passage stretching from the Rue Saint Bon to the road behind. A short flight of stairs leads from the cobblestone road to the corridor, bordered on either side by a plain, black railing. Advertisements for various businesses and products cover the walls of the surrounding buildings and the spiral of some impressive structure towers in the background. The corner of a dark structure is visible in the left-hand side of the picture, complete with the wrought-iron balconies so characteristic of post-Haussmannization Paris; a locksmith’s shop is situated next door in a square, light-colored building with a metal roof. A gas lamp lights the right-hand side of the passage. Although historically the French nobility’s preferred place of residence, especially during the 17th and 18th, the Marais lost its aristocratic nature after the French Revolution and by the time of Atget’s photo, had become an active commercial area. Consequently, almost everything in this 1903 picture clearly indicates that this is a business neighborhood, from the advertisements’ flyers to sign for the locksmith.
Surprisingly, despite the ninety-year disparity in time, many of the details, particularly the architectural elements that Atget captured are visible in Rauschenberg’s photo as well. The buildings on the left are almost completely unchanged; although the locksmith’s shop has disappeared, nearly every feature from the bronze, spiral balconies to the black metal railing along the stairs remains the same. The mysterious spiral still looms in the distance. Ironically even a gas lamp is still present, attached to the façade of the building on the right-hand side of the photo, although in a slightly different location. Overall, the structures themselves remain remarkably consistent although the effects time has had on the area are clear. Suggestions of twentieth century life are present: rather than cobblestones, the street is paved with concrete and a parked moped rests against the stairs’ balustrade. Interestingly, a more unexpected shift has taken place between Atget’s picture and Rauschenberg’s. Almost all of the indications of the nature of the surrounding area itself that were so evident in Atget’s work have vanished. Gone are the advertisements that covered the walls, gone is sign marking the locksmith’s shop. Instead, graffiti blankets the buildings’ facades. An awning is visible in the background, marking either a hotel or apartment complex, possibly indicating an accompanying shift in the nature of the surrounding district.
When visiting the site in 2018, no major shifts have seem to have occurred since Rauschenberg’s visit in the 1990’s. To be sure, a few minor changes are detectable: the stairs have been expanded, vines now cover the building on the right, and bushes and a pine tree have been planted between the steps and the complex on the left. And in some ways, the area appears even more anonymous now than it did in Rauschenberg’s photo. The graffiti has more or less been erased, save for a few sparse doodles. Although the hotel in Rauschenberg’s picture is still present, the awning that marked it is gone.
But overall, the features of the site that were prominent in 1903 are still present today. The iron balconies, the spiral in the background, the structure of the buildings, the placement of the windows, the black metal railing, even the edifice’s lamps are all still there. Indeed, the most remarkable part of these three photos, one from 1903, one from the 1990s, and one from 2018, is the incredible amount of continuity they display, despite the vast changes that have taken place in the years that separate them. This reflects a larger trend unique to Paris. In much the same way, both the Marais and the city itself have stayed structurally the same while internally shifting, the buildings remaining unchanged while the life they contain constantly mutates, becoming continually more and more modern.

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