Thomas Boivin, “Belleville”

  • Exposition

Practical information

  • Date et heure
  • Location Galerie Le Château d'Eau
  • Public Tout Public
Thomas Boivin, “Belleville”

Alternating portraits, landscapes and still lifes, always in black and white, he brings a poetic touch to his work, while moving away from the archetypal poetic realism of 1950s Paris.

Le Belleville de Thomas Boivin

For lovers of photography, Belleville immediately conjures up a book, Willy Ronis’s Belleville Ménilmontant, published by Arthaud in 1954 with a foreword by Pierre Mac Orlan, and lavishly printed in helio, where it belongs. This journey through the working-class Paris of the 19th district, from the heights to the Place de la République, which has always been a place of welcome for many immigrants and a place of cultural blending, illustrates the visual approach that prevailed at the time. A playground for many photographers, starting with Robert Doisneau, Marcel Bovis and René Jacques, it is a part of the imagery of a Paris immortalised by a “French school of humanist photography” in the 1950s, which is all the more nostalgic now that it’s definitely over.

Although the neighbourhood was in a very poor state of repair when the pioneers roamed it, with many unhealthy blocks, it has now been largely renovated and remains very lively, a place where people can meet and mix. Thomas Boivin’s work also proves this,
as it is immediately clear that it was produced at the slow pace of a walker in search of encounters, light, materials and spaces to frame

A walker who is on the lookout but doesn’t steal any images, a walker who is ready to converse in an attempt to capture an often enigmatic portrait, a walker whose camera is his partner conversing with the light.

Thomas Boivin is neither a journalist nor a documentary filmmaker. He paints a portrait of his own Belleville. The Belleville he lives in and feels as he wanders through daily life, following his own rituals. It has nothing to do with the anecdote tradition that continued to seduce
photographers in the 1950s. It is much closer to contemporary American photography, which confronts reality without worrying about presuppositions of objectivity, and which captures the emotion – contained – of a moment, of an encounter, of surprise when faced with a shape or “something little”. The sensual finesse of the greys in his prints, which he makes himself, allows one to share those slightly strange moments that move and inspire dreams. Poetry’s greatest strength often lies in the fact that it is contained.

Christian Caujolle, Curator

In 1951, Léon Paul Fargue wrote that the 19th district of Paris was “full of details like a novel”. The preface to some of the most illustrious works of post-war photography asserted his attachment to this old suburb, which has been roamed and documented many times by famous authors such as Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, Marcel Bovis and René-Jacques.

Thomas Boivin’s Belleville has its roots in this tradition: the same predilection – let’s say, the same talent – for black and white, a taste for wandering the streets of Paris and, above all, a particular affection for this composite and popular neighbourhood of the 19th district.
But the analogy with the history of French photography stops there Thomas Boivin was able to create his “portrait” of a neighbourhood, alternating human figures, landscapes and urban signs, more by forgetting about it than by referring to it. His way of seeing things is inspired primarily by American photography and authors such as Mark Steinmetz, Robert Adams and Judith Joy Ross, whom he likes to quote. It’s true that his photographs illustrate a relationship with the world and an intimate experience that have little to do with the picturesque or anecdotal image of Paris that has been conveyed for nearly half a century.
The perimeter of his Belleville is a personal matter. It goes beyond traditional and conventional boundaries to cover a large part of North-East Paris. Those who know the heights of the Buttes Chaumont, the lower Belleville or the teeming agora of the Place de la République may recognise places, but those who don’t will read a different kind of narrative, one of immersion and impression, one that probes the atmosphere of a motley and carefree setting, reporting disordered façades, wasteland-like nooks and crannies and pointing out more or less domesticated, more or less exuberant plant life:

there is no descriptive topography, no captions or narrative, just vocabulary of shapes, textures and shadows. As the photographer himself explains, his images are with and within Belleville, rather than about Belleville.
Thomas Boivin’s approach combines ritual and intuition. The ritual is the habit he has developed, year after year, of walking with his camera through the streets of Belleville and then setting it down every day on the Place de la République, where people meet up. Intuition is a way of understanding the ordinary, the everyday that inhabits and animates this environment. The people photographed – passers-by, local residents – seem to enjoy this setting and to blend in with it. Others, on the contrary, stand out. In both cases, the faces are exposed without artifice or pretence. There is no forced passage, just mutual honesty between the person in front of the lens and the author behind the camera. Thomas Boivin does not conceal himself; he knows how to approach his fellow human beings and establish the appropriate distance: to the intelligence of places, he adds the intelligence of others and of encounters.
The gentleness of this human contact, visible in people’s eyes and attitudes, is as compelling as it is pleasing. It shatters the idea that it has become difficult to photograph our contemporaries in the public space: Thomas Boivin’s Belleville brings street photography back to life.

Director of the Maison de la photographie Robert Doisneau (Robert Doisneau House of Photography) in Gentilly

Thomas Boivin, Belleville

Interview of Thomas Boivin, July, 2023


Thomas Boivin is a French photographer who was born in Paris in 1983.

Working mainly in monochrome, Thomas Boivin documents the streets of Paris and its suburbs with a keen sense of portraiture. His work also includes still lifes and more intimate photographs of his immediate family. His latest book, Belleville, was published by Stanley/Barker in April 2022, accompanied by an exhibition at the A. Stichting Foundation. His next book, Ménilmontant, will be published by Stanley/Barker in autumn 2023. His work can be seen in the collections of Neuflize OBC, the Bachelot Collection, the Paris Collection, La Bibliothèque Nationale de France (National Library of France) and the A. Stichting Foundation. Thomas Boivin lives and works in Paris.

The exhibition was initially co-produced by Fondation A Stichting and Maison Robert Doisneau.

La presse en parle

  • La photographie de rue est à l’honneur à la Galerie Le Château d’Eau. Avec son exposition « Belleville », Thomas Boivin nous propose un portrait de son quartier parisien autant qu’un hommage aux photographes du réalisme poétique des années 1950. A découvrir à Toulouse jusqu’au 27 août 2023.
    Article de Baptiste Thery-Guilbert pour Phototrend

    Read the publication