Robert who? Ah, Delpire!

The Maison européenne de la photographie (MEP), which along with the Jeu de Paume is the main photography museum in Paris, has a somewhat confusing (boring?) exhibition on at the moment in terms of layout and (lack of) explanation. Yes, poor exhibition design can do to good content what bad clothes do for a beautiful woman: just ruin it.
However, the idea of dedicating an exhibition to Robert Delpire is interesting. Holding an exhibition about someone who is not an artist nor a particular celebrity but who played an essential part in France for over 50 years in the acknowledgment of photography as a major art form, is a worthwhile and laudable undertaking.

Yes, the exhibition may be a tad dry, but the man it’s dedicated to has umph. The Director for fifteen years of the Centre national de la photographie as of its opening under French culture minister Jack Lang in 1982, Robert Delpire displayed courage and vision as of his tender tweenie years. Indeed, sixty years ago young Robert Delpire, aged 23 at the time, ran a university magazine called Neuf while still at medical school. It could have been an insipid rag that no one bothered reading. But enterprising Mr. Delpire found sponsors and advertisers from the pharmaceutical industry and transformed this highly specialized magazine into a highly visual, luxury glossy.

Drawing of publisher Robert Delpire (born 1926) by the French illustrator André François (1915-2005)

He inserted a light-hearted drawing of Chagall by Izis (a photographer pal of the likes of Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau), images of Montmartre shot by Brassaï – the famous photographer idolized by the Surrealists – a text by no other than Henry Miller and, now here it comes: a photo feature about a circus by American, future-great Robert Frank – six years before his seminal photography book The Americans was published. Actually, Les Amércains would be more correct, for at the time no American publishing company showed much interest in these odd shots of life in America, kinda outta line with patriotic clichés of the American dream. So who published it? Yes, Robert Delpire did in 1958, one year before it was brought out in the USA. Did he know at the time that Robert Frank was to become known across the world for that “odd” and audacious style that was to be coined Street Photography. Probably not. Delpire had vision, he had flair. There’s no doubt.

1958 cover of "Les Américains" by Robert Frank (born 1924) with drawing by Saul Steinberg (1914 – 1999) the Romanian-born American cartoonist and illustrator, best known for his work for The New Yorker.

Robert Delpire was also clever. For he realized that the ads in his newspaper were a great source of income – and began an advertising agency. Cacharel and Citroën were to be among his customers. And that’s how he got the money to finance other, less lucrative or riskier projects. Fantastic, I feel like high-fiving the man.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Delpire began his own publishing company, Delpire & Cie (Delpire & Co.). He has published manifold photography books, including the well-known (well, in France at least) “Photo Poche” collection which consists of 124 titles and in which each small black paperback is dedicated to the work of a historically important photographer as well as some more contemporary ones.

But photography hasn’t been all in Delpire’s long life (he is now 83 years old), he also had a marvelous eye for drawings and more particulary for children’s books including Andre Francois’ “Les Larmes de Crocodile” and the original French edition of American writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”, the story that Warner Brothers has just turned into a feature movie, probably set to become a blockbuster.

The greatest merit of the exhibition at the Maison européenne de la photo in Paris is undoubtedly that it honors a man who contributed greatly to the world of publishing and to the emergence of photography as a technique and genre worth the attention it has received in recent years. Unfortunately, the meandering three-storey maze of an exhibition full of printed material (yawn!) without much explanation is somewhat frustrating and confusing. Worthwhile a proposition as it is it simply lacks pizazz and a bit of je ne sais quoi to jazz it all up a bit. Maybe I needed some Irish coffee when I went to see it, but I felt that it simply doesn’t convey the energy and excitement that Mr Delpire has brought to the world of publishing and photography – and that’s a shame.

“Delpire & Cie” from 28 October 2009 to 24 January 2010
Maison européenne de la photographie
5 Rue de Fourcy
Paris, 4th
Metro: Saint Paul

Entrance fee: 6 euros (free Wednesday’s from 5 to 8pm)
Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays

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