Luc Sante teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard. His most recent book is The Other Paris.
 (April 2016)

On ‘Paris Vagabond’

One of the dozens of photographs of Paris taken by Patrice Molinard for the 1954 edition of Paris Vagabond
Paris Vagabond, first published in 1952, is one of the most extraordinary books ever written about that city.* It follows in the lineage of great narratives by champion walkers—Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s Le Tableau de Paris (1781–1788), Nicolas-Edme Restif de la Bretonne’s Les Nuits de Paris (1788–1794), Alexandre Privat d’Anglemont’s Paris …

The Birth of Bohemia in Paris

A production in Beijing of Puccini’s opera La Bohème, based on the novel Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger, 1986
In Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), a bookseller rescues from the Seine an uncivilized free spirit named Boudu, who proceeds to call down chaos upon the bookseller’s tidy existence. Boudu, large, hairy, and inarticulate, is a clochard—a word, derived from cloche (bell), signifying a bum or hobo. There …

A Roomful of Death and Destruction

A dead body in front of a church on 86th Street, Queens, May 13, 1926

Three years ago, The Municipal Archives received a call from the NYPD, wanting to know whether they could help dispose of a roomful of photographic material stored at One Police Plaza. The final yield amounted to about 180,000 images from perhaps 50,000 cases, ranging from an uncertain point prior to 1914 all the way to 1972. These pictures are of undeniable photographic significance.


New Year's Eve, 1980

Let me play you “Arleen,” by General Echo, a seven-inch 45 on the Techniques label, produced by Winston Riley, a number one hit in Jamaica in the autumn of 1979. “Arleen” is in the Stalag 17 riddim, a slow, heavy, insinuating track that is nearly all bass—the drums do little more than bracket and punctuate, and the original’s brass-section color has been entirely omitted in this version. I’m not really sure what Echo is saying. It sounds like “Arleen wants to dream with a dream.” A dream within a dream. Whether or not those are his actual words, it is the immediate sense. The riddim is at once liquid and halting, as if it were moving through a dark room filled with hanging draperies, incense and ganja smoke, sluggish and nearly impenetrable air—the bass walks and hurtles.

Thirteen Most

One night in the 1980s, a low period for me, as I slumped on my regular stool at Farrell’s, in Brooklyn, staring into my fourth or fifth of their enormous beers, the gentleman to my left struck up a conversation. Like nearly everyone in the bar but me, he was a cop, a retired cop to be exact, and unlike most of them he looked like a churchwarden, lean and grave and puckered, definitely on the farther shore of eighty. He had much to say; his proudest accomplishments had gone unrecognized. It seemed he had been the first to put together a numbered list of the most-sought reprobates from justice.

Brassaï’s Cloak of Night

Brassaï: Prostitutes at a bar, Boulevard Rochechouart, Montmartre, c. 1932, PS 82. Private collection, PI. 344. Photo RMN-Grand-Palais, Michèle Bellot.

Youths of my generation learned about Brassaï from his eye-opening Secret Paris of the 30s (1976). There were pictures of thugs, bums, prostitutes, brothels, drag balls, lesbian bars, interracial dances—who knew such things even existed forty years earlier? But then our fascinated naïvety was rewarded by further contemplation of the photographs, which were humane, sympathetic, endlessly inquisitive, beautifully composed, and drew every possible bit of poetry from the enveloping cloak of night—not more than half a dozen pictures were taken in daylight. Brassaï: Paris Nocturne is the first major book on the photographer since then.

A Striver’s Ramble in Greenwich Village

Oscar Isaac in Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis

If you excise the period details, Llewyn Davis, the folksinger protagonist of the Coen brothers’ new film, makes sense. He is a confused, irascible striver, apparently seeking a career when folk music was about the last place you’d look for one. Somehow he has made a connection to the haunting music, but circumstances force him to treat it as a card to play rather than as a path to explore.

Marville’s Vanished Paris

Charles Marville: Sky Study, Paris, 1856–1857

Charles Marville is best known for his government commission to photograph the neighborhoods of Paris slated for demolition during Baron Haussmann’s reconfiguration of the city between 1853 and 1870. His technical mastery of the medium was such that he made cloud studies of the sky over the Invalides fifty years before clouds featured much in photography, since they tended not to cooperate with the long exposure times. But as rich and fascinating as are those aspects of his work, it is still the documentation of old Paris that secures his place in the highest rank of photographic achievement.

A Job of Work

The New York Review’s mailroom, 1980

The first picture shows the mailroom of The New York Review’s offices in the Fisk Building, 250 West 57th Street, where I toiled from the spring of 1980 until the spring of 1981, when I was translated upward into the realm of editorial assistance. Actually “toiled” is a bit too strong a word. The job was not exactly strenuous.

‘After May,’ What?

Clément Métayer and Lola Créton in Something in the Air, with Felix Armand in the background
Something in the Air, the suggestively vague title given to the English-language release of Olivier Assayas’s film Après Mai, brings to mind Thunderclap Newman’s 1969 hit of the same name (perhaps as an inescapable earworm, for persons of a certain age). Very much of its time, the song wanly if …

In Baudelaire’s Dream Brothel

Édouard Manet: Olympia, 1863–1865
“Il faut être absolument moderne,” wrote Rimbaud, but for Baudelaire, his immediate predecessor in the dissenting chair of French poetry, the matter was considerably more fraught. Roberto Calasso remarks that he “abhorred the new that the world was throwing up in abundance all around him, yet the new was both …

The Mother Courage of Rock

Patti Smith  holding the photographer Judy Linn’s Super 8 Bolex camera at Linn’s apartment in Brooklyn, early 1970s; from Linn’s recent book of photographs, Patti Smith 1969–1976
I first heard of Patti Smith in 1971, when I was seventeen. The occasion was an unsigned half-column item in the New York Flyer, a short-lived local supplement to Rolling Stone, marking the single performance of Cowboy Mouth, a play she cowrote and costarred in with Sam Shepard, and it was possibly her first appearance in the press. What caught my eye and made me save the clipping—besides the accompanying photo of her in a striped jersey, looking vulnerable—was her boast, “I’m one of the best poets in rock and roll.” At the time, I didn’t just think I was the best poet in rock and roll; I thought I was the only one…

In Search of Lost Paris

Gargoyle atop Notre Dame; from Yvon’s Paris, a collection of postcard views of Paris taken in the early twentieth century by the photographer known as Yvon. The book has been published by Norton, with an introduction by Robert Stevens. The photographs will be on view at Higher Pictures, New York City, from December 16, 2010 to January 29, 2011.
Eric Hazan’s The Invention of Paris is at once a study of the evolution of the idea of Paris and an attempt to preserve the experience of its physical history—the latent historical meaning that has accrued on every corner—including the many inconvenient wrinkles that have been paved over and sandblasted and designed out of existence in the past fifty years and will soon lie beyond the reach of living memory. Hazan takes in both the big picture and the minute details, and is attentive to all those nuances of ambiance and demarcation that even today can make a relatively short walk in certain parts of Paris feel like a journey between epochs.

Disappearing Ink

Hans Haacke: News, 1969/2008

I left the New Museum’s “The Last Newspaper”—a show that sets out to explore the relation between newspapers and art at the end of the print era—with my fingers black from printer’s ink, just as they used to be years ago when I read the Times every morning on the subway.

The Hidden Master of the Human Comedy

The original French title of this book, Nouvelles en trois lignes, can mean either “the news in three lines” or “novellas in three lines.” It was the title under which these items—there are 1,220 of them in all; a mere 154 have been omitted here* because their significance …

Inside the Time Machine

Against the Day is a baggy monster of a book, sphinxlike and intimidating in its white wrappers, which are decorated with nothing but a seal containing an unintelligible glyph. It is appreciably longer than even Pynchon’s longest previous books—nearly half again as big as Gravity’s Rainbow (760 pages) or Mason …

The Heroic Nerd

That the work of H.P. Lovecraft has been selected for the Library of America would have surprised Edmund Wilson, whose idea the Library was. In a 1945 review he dismissed Lovecraft’s stories as “hackwork,” with a sneer at the magazines for which they were written, Weird Talesand Amazing Stories, “where…they …

Barbara Epstein (1928–2006)

Barbara Epstein, my friend and fellow editor for forty-three years, died on June 16. She did much to create The New York Review and she brought her remarkable intelligence and editorial skill to bear on everything that appeared in these pages. We publish here memoirs by some of the writers …

Summoning the Spirits

In March 1848, the two Fox sisters, of Hydesville, New York, demonstrated that disembodied knocks and raps, presumably emanating from the beyond, occurred in rooms in which they happened to be present. Their mother soon displayed the same talent, and the three became a sensation, passing from local interest to …

‘I Is Someone Else’

Be careful what you wish for, the cliché goes. Having aspired from early youth to become stars, people who achieve that status suddenly find themselves imprisoned, unable to walk down the street without being importuned by strangers. The higher their name floats, the greater the levy imposed, the less of …

Sander’s Human Comedy

The Germans came surprisingly late to photography. Possibly because of the dominance of the field by the French and the British—not to mention the Americans—Germany did not produce a single especially memorable photographic artist or image until near the end of the nineteenth century, when Wilhelm Plüschow and Wilhelm von …

Disco Dreams

Over the last twenty-five years the mix tape has become a paradigmatic form of popular expression. It is one part Victorian flower album, one part commonplace book, one part collage, and one part recital. The maker dubs onto cassette or burns onto CD a group of songs by other hands, …

My Lost City

The idea of writing a book about New York City first entered my head around 1980, when I was a writer more wishfully than in actual fact, spending my nights in clubs and bars and my days rather casually employed in the mailroom of this magazine. It was there that Rem Koolhaas’s epochal Delirious New York fell into my hands. “New York is a city that will be replaced by another city” is the phrase that sticks in my mind. Koolhaas’s book, published in 1978 as a paean to the unfinished project of New York the Wonder City, seemed like an archaeological reverie, an evocation of the hubris and ambition of a dead city. I gazed wonderingly at its illustrations, which showed sights as dazzling and remote as Nineveh and Tyre. The irony is that many of their subjects stood within walking distance: the Chrysler Building, the McGraw-Hill Building, Rockefeller Center. But they didn’t convey the feeling they had when they were new. In Koolhaas’s pages New York City was manifestly the location of the utopian and dystopian fantasies of the silent-film era. It was Metropolis, with elevated roadways, giant searchlights probing the heavens, flying machines navigating the skyscraper canyons. It was permanently set in the future.

One Nation Under a Groove

The boogaloo is, or was, one of the thousand dances the land was full of in the 1960s, enumerated in inventory songs such as James Brown’s “There Was a Time” and the Isley Brothers’ “Nobody But Me”: the skate, the swim, the pony, the monkey, the camelwalk, the shing-a-ling. Arthur …

Mean Streets

The Gangs of New York, like a medieval geography, is in effect a collection of travelers’ tales. The travelers, passing through dangerous and exotic territory, are shocked, stultified, disoriented by what they see. Upon returning home they babble inarticulate reports, composed largely of adjectives, about hippogriffs and sea monsters and …

The Henry James of Crime

The genre we call “true crime,” obviously one of the very oldest in literature, has, despite a biblical pedigree, spent much of its career in the literary slums. The genre from which it is adjectivally distinguished—although seldom referred to as “false crime”—has produced classics as well as potboilers, but the …

Her Story

Was there such a person as Marilyn Monroe? The more her image is replicated the more invented it seems; the more her name is employed the more it sounds like the trade name it in fact was. Her face, once a particular example, however shining and glorious, of movie star …