Maps, Thresholds and Beaten Tracks: A Photographer in the City



Text by Edward Welch. Photographs by John Perivolaris

Couldn’t an exciting film be made from the map of Paris? From the unfolding of its various aspects in temporal succession? From the compression of a centuries-long movement of streets, boulevards, arcades, and squares into the space of half an hour?

— Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

On the corner of the rue de la Tombe Issoire in southern Paris, the photographer finds a map lying on the pavement, torn into three pieces. The map shows the streets of the thirteenth and fourteenth arrondissements which lie in its vicinity. Written by hand on the fragments is a series of numbers which suggest significant locations. Quite what circumstances, gestures and emotions left the map lying on the street remain opaque, just one of the countless small mysteries we encounter in the city. We could note the seemingly methodical way in which it was torn into three, and the fact that it was abandoned in situ, in the midst of the streets it portrays; but it is impossible to tell whether frustration or liberation lie behind the map’s destruction. Grounded in that opacity, the photograph transforms the scene into something approaching an allegory of life in the modern city.

In the first place, there is the map itself. Its dismembered form reminds us of its status as an ambiguous and often contested object. What might it mean to treat a map in this way? Maps are tools of orientation. They make the city legible so that we can use it and engage with it more efficiently; but in doing so, they also serve to enfold or incorporate us into the fabric of the city. They are part and parcel of the regulation of the city and its inhabitants which is fundamental to the development of modern urban space. At the same time, the philosopher Walter Benjamin, one of the most alert and sensitive urban explorers, was clear about the excitement afforded by a map of Paris: ‘people whose imagination does not wake at the perusal of such a text, people who would not rather dream of their Paris experiences over a map than over photos or travel notes, are beyond help’. [1]


The key word here, perhaps, is ‘dream’. Dreaming over a map of Paris becomes an incitement to leave the map behind, to escape the regulatory frame of which it is part, to sustain the Surrealist tradition of urban exploration as the solicitation of chance, the uncanny, or the unexpected. To tear up the map is to duck out of or resist the legibility it imposes; or indeed, to recognise that maps and other representational forms can never make the city entirely legible. It is to assert urban space as a reservoir of mythological, psychical and libidinal energies, and to rely on one’s own feel and instinct to draw them to the surface in ways which might disrupt or trouble our way of seeing the city.


As such, the scene, and its founding gesture, might stand as an incitement to the photographer, or a metaphor of his own activity in the city; but something else also catches the eye in this photograph. The portrait of the scene confronts us with the materiality of the city, with its substances, skins and textures. The close-up view makes manifest the material qualities of the asphalt, the textures of its surface, the juncture between one surface and the next, and the grit which is lodged between them. It reminds us that the city remains an overwhelmingly material place, one which imposes on our body and senses as we move through it. The city is there when we feel the pavement through the soles of our shoes, slip on greasy cobblestones, endure the heat radiated by tarmac at the height of summer, graze ourselves against concrete walls, or catch the gently putrefying smell from municipal rubbish bins.

That sense of materiality extends to the map itself, at rest on the surface of the street it represents. The juxtaposition of the two articulates the curious ways in which humans transform the places and spaces around them into symbolic forms. At the same time, the image reminds us that while the map is in some sense at one remove from the city, stands above or outside it because of the gesture of abstraction it enacts, it nevertheless remains part of the city’s material life. Torn and abandoned, the map will return to the city, be reabsorbed into it as its fragments are collected by street cleaners; or, more likely, are gradually pulped and dispersed by the rain and washed down into the city’s sewers, into its guts.


What also counts in this photograph is its status precisely as a photograph. It presents itself as an alternative to the map as a mode of visualization, inviting us to reflect on what else it unearths or allows us to see. For the photographer, urban exploration with a camera is about ‘invisibility unravelled and brought into light as a thread of images criss-crossing the city, tracing its streets, bridges and railway lines’. While he may leave the map behind, and let his route through the city be guided by impulse and serendipity, he may nevertheless stay on the beaten track: ‘we never run the risk of being truly lost in the city, merely biding our time as we wait, more often unknowingly, to be called forth to testify to its passing, and ours’. [2] To follow streets, railways and other lines of communication is to investigate how beaten tracks have shaped the life of the city, and how it is saturated with history.


Walking in the city means retracing or connecting up with thousands of previous movements through the streets. They may be short trips out in search of bread, or the start of epic journeys. The streets of Paris serve both purposes. Constituting districts and neighbourhoods with often quite specific local identities, they are also part of the networks of trade and pilgrimage across Europe into which the city has been woven for centuries. The Porte d’Italie in the thirteenth arrondissement is the gateway to Italy in the literal sense that it is the way out of the city for the route to the south via the Rhone valley. It crosses paths at the old royal town of Fontainebleau with a second route south via Burgundy, which leaves the city on the north bank of the river at the Porte de Charenton. Likewise, the rue St Jacques, which cuts a more or less straight line from the Île de la Cité in the river Seine through the southern districts of the city, took pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, several weeks’ walk away across the highlands of central France. In its lower portion, having traversed the Boulevard St Jacques, it morphs into the rue de la Tombe Issoire, where our abandoned map was found.

In other words, the city’s beaten tracks are places where its libidinal, economic and symbolic energies are channelled and concentrated. They are locations of flow, communication and contact; but they can also be liminal places, constituting boundaries and thresholds, and producing moments of crossing, transition and change. For Benjamin, ‘nowhere, unless perhaps in dreams, can the phenomenon of the boundary be experienced in a more originary way than in cities’. [3] If this is true for all cities, it seems especially to be the case of Paris, which in many ways is structured and defined by threshold locations: entrances to arcades and metro stations; boundaries between arrondissements; the ring road, or boulevard périphérique, which follows the line of the city’s nineteenth-century defensive wall, and divides it from the suburban sprawl beyond.


Benjamin would undoubtedly have approved of the notion of ‘edgelands’ developed by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts. [4] Their book evokes those places which are scruffy, overlooked and marginal, though not necessarily on the physical edge of urban space. They are often what the French term, quite poetically, terrains vagues: literally, ‘vague terrain’, space in transition, or of uncertain use and direction. The photographer’s thread of images pulls together edgelands, boundary locations and zones of transition in Paris, and the different perspectives they open up on urban space. His reading of the map takes him to the older or less conventional routes embedded in the city, such as the waterways of the canal St Martin which traverse the northern arrondissements to connect up with the canal St Denis, and from there, eventually, with the sea.

It is striking how people are drawn to the canal side. They sit by it, meet by it, cross and re-cross it in their journeys through the city. At the same time, the city authorities make similarly striking efforts to bring order to these spaces with mesh fencing, grilles and other regulatory elements of street furniture. It is as if they have identified such places as locations where anarchic and potentially disruptive drives and energies might begin to concentrate. Indeed, it was in these parts of the city where Baron Haussmann’s urban redevelopment in the mid-nineteenth century was at its most concerted. Driving wide new boulevards through densely concentrated working class districts, and displacing their populations beyond the city limits, marked one of the first systematic attempts to use urban planning as a means of social control.


As if aware of the socially and symbolically divisive power of boundaries, the most recent attempts to plan the development of the Paris region have attempted to find ways of eliding the physical barriers separating the city from its suburbs – sometimes literally, in fact, by covering over the trench dug for the boulevard périphérique around much of the city. The desire to do so has been motivated by the need to solve the problem of the banlieues, which became flashpoints for violence and civil unrest during the last decades of the twentieth century, and highlighted how social divisions in France take on spatial form as an opposition between centre and periphery. The phenomenon is one common to many French cities, but is most notable around Paris, doubly accentuated by its status as the capital of a country in which a centralising tendency remains strong.


Unspooling his image thread through the city, the photographer draws out the surprising and sometimes forgotten ways in which city spaces are given meaning. He encounters a war memorial cast adrift beneath a flyover on the edge of the city, its monumental angel staring commandingly out, but meeting no reciprocal gaze. Elsewhere, he comes across the odd sight of a commanding yet vacant plinth. The absent statue of François Arago, nineteenth-century scientist and political radical, illuminates the efforts taken at different times to control authorship of the city’s collective memory. Such moments illuminate how history and power can eddy around, invest and be inflected by particular locations; but they are also a reminder of how even the most physically substantial interventions in the urban landscape find themselves bypassed, forgotten or neutralised by that same history.


Like Benjamin’s film from the map of Paris, the photographer’s tracing of beaten tracks and lines of flight articulates how history permeates the city, but also how fleeting lives and trajectories are bound up in it, how we encounter it in unexpected places, how we are drawn strangely to follow paths laid down over centuries. To be a photographer in the city is to yoke together different rhythms of lived and historical time, and to stage the ways in which history haunts the city’s dwellers even as they think they see nothing but the future: ‘history is a ghost itself, crouching in doorways and metros, waiting for a flash of recognition recorded in the fleeting exchange of looks eternalised in photographs’. [5]


[1] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap Press, 1999), p. 85.

[2] John Perivolaris, ‘Ghosts’, unpublished text received by the author, 9 July 2014.

[3] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p. 88.

[4] Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011).

[5] Perivolaris, ‘Ghosts’.

About the Authors:

Edward Welch is Carnegie Professor of French and Director of the George Washington Wilson Centre for Visual Culture at the University of Aberdeen. His research explores the cultural history of post-war France as it lives through the twin dramas of modernisation and decolonisation. It also investigates the nature of the photographic image and its role as part of a visual economy of meaning. His books include François Mauriac: The Making of an Intellectual (2006) and, with Joseph McGonagle, Contesting Views: The Visual Economy of France and Algeria (2013).

Photograph by James Clifford Kent

John Perivolaris is an independent documentary and fine art photographer, researcher, writer and curator, with particular interests in migration, refugee experience, diaspora, memory, and peripheral urban spaces. These themes are developed, among others, in three ongoing projects (The Belly of the Beast, Shoreditch Bridge Portraits, Left Luggage) and a Tumblr blog.