For many people, the idea of Paris art museums evokes images of grand oil paintings and majestic sculptures. But photography is another important part of the city’s artistic history, from Robert Doisneau to Man Ray and beyond. When people ask me the best museums for photography in Paris, I’m quick to respond: for size and scope, head to the Musée du Jeu de Paume in the first arrondissement, for charm and intimacy, la Maison Européenne de la Photographie in the fourth. But I recently added a new spot to the list: la Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Not to be confused with the much larger Fondation Cartier in the fourteenth, nor even the original Cartier-Bresson museum which – confusingly – used to be in the fourteenth as well, the newer Henri Cartier-Bresson photography museum in the Haut Marais is a quiet treasure.
In a cobblestone courtyard off the rue des Archives, this space is named for the renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004). There is also an emphasis on Cartier-Bresson’s wife, Martine Franck (1938-2012), who was an accomplished photographer herself. In fact, I would have liked to see Franck figure in the museum’s name, too, given how important she is to its story as it is told in the entrance hall. But despite this, the Fondation Cartier-Bresson is a delight. The museum only shows temporary exhibitions, but each is chosen for its compatibility with Cartier-Bresson and Franck’s work: elegant renderings of cities, a focus on the human and, in the museum’s words, a certain ‘esprit de vie’.
Often, the museum will combine a contemporary artist’s work with pieces from the foundation’s collection. When I visited, they were showing Marie Bovo’s Nocturnes, luminous photographs of Marseille and Algiers, alongside some of Franck’s most touching portraits. The combination was fitting: a poetic mix of Bovo’s streetscapes and Franck’s interiors, Bovo’s focus on dilapidated, wonderfully lived-in architecture and Franck’s interest in tired, wonderfully ‘lived-in’ faces.
It’s smaller and more specific than the Jeu de Paume or the Maison Européenne, but the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson may have just become my new favourite photography museum.