Harry Gruyaert / Magnum Photos

Top 10 France in 10 iconic images

© Harry Gruyaert / Magnum Photos

Few, if any other nations on earth boast the rich photographic heritage of France, the birthplace and adopted homeland of many of the finest practitioners in history, and a popular destination for so many others.


─── Josh Bright, July 13, 2021

From the streets of Paris to the fields of Provence, over the course of generations, eminent photographers have found inspiration in its diverse landscapes and inhabitants, capturing arresting images that together communicate the unique quintessence of this beautiful land.

Willy Ronis, The Lovers of the Bastille, 1957, Paris, Black and White Film Photography
© Willy Ronis

1. Willy Ronis – The Lovers of the Bastille, 1957

A contemporary, close friend and compatriot of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Willy Ronis, was one of the most important photographers of his eon, who spent much of his time capturing thoroughly compelling images of everyday life in his homeland.

A deep humanist and romantic, he invariably focused on the lives of the working classes, finding rare moments of profound beauty in the quotidian. This is exemplified no more exquisitely than his 1957 depiction of a couple overlooking the Paris skyline, a truly flawless image that embodies the artistry for which he is renowned.

Color Photo by Bruno Barbey. Paris protests, May 1968. France, flags, Champs Elysees
© Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos

2. Bruno Barbey – 300,000 supporters of De Gaulle march on the Champs Elysees. 8th arrondissement, Paris. May 30, 1968

Against a backdrop of global upheaval, and much to the surprise of Le Monde, the country’s leading newspaper (which, just six weeks earlier had proclaimed the French people “too bored,” to take part in such discord) in May of 1968, protests erupted across Paris. Led initially by students, in opposition to, inter alia, the conservative government, led by  De Gaulle; patriarchy, and what they felt was an outdated university system, before long they were joined by blue-collar workers who were unhappy with conditions.

During the height of the chaos, now legendary, Moroccan-born French photojournalist Bruno Barbey, captured this arresting scene: a sea of French flags framed by the iconic elm trees of Paris’ most famous street, and the smoke-veiled shape of the Arc de Triomphe. It is a powerful transcription for many reasons, not least because of its rich painting-like tones (color was rarely used in reportage at the time). Furthermore, it is notable in that it depicts the supporters of De Gaulle, rather than the students or workers. It captures the complex nature of a period in history that continues to divide French opinion to this day.

Early Daguerreotype photography by Louis Daguerre, Boulevard Du Temple, paris 1838
© Louis Daguerre 

3. Louis Daguerre  – Boulevard Du Temple, 1838

Louis Daguerre, one of the medium’s founding fathers, was the inventor of the eponymous Daguerreotype, the first photographic process to be available publicly, and one which would become the most important and widely used of the 19th-century. His portrayal of Paris’ Boulevard du Temple, one of the first successful images he captured using the method, is also thought to be the earliest photograph to contain people (though they are barely visible), thus marking a watershed moment for the medium that henceforth, dramatically altered its course.

Black and white film photography by Elliott Erwitt, man and boy on bike, Provence, France, 1955 
© Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos

4. Elliott Erwitt – Provence, 1955 

“Photography is an art of observation. It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” – Elliott Erwitt

Born in Paris in 1928, Elliot Erwitt is one of the greatest and most important photographers of all time, whose diverse and extensive oeuvre includes some of the most iconic images ever captured, and displays his incredible prolificacy and skill. Spanning over seven decades, his career has encompassed photojournalism, commercial and street photography, with the latter, including some of the most timeless and exquisite depictions of his homeland in existence, which today serve as thoroughly compelling emblems of their eon.

Martin Parr, Color Photography, Versailles, Gardens, Palace, Tourists, Paris, France 2018
© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

5. Martin Parr – Château de Versailles, 2018

“We live in a difficult but inspiring world, and there is so much out there that I want to record.” – Martin Parr

Renowned for his striking voyeuristic images that impart the oddities and idiosyncrasies of societies across the globe, Martin Parr is undoubtedly one of the most influential photographers of today. His arresting portrayal of a tourist in Versailles epitomizes his style perfectly, displaying the unmistakable saturated hues and distinct sense of humor that characterizes all of his work.

Brassaï - Notre Dame, Paris, 1932, film photography, black and white
© Brassaï

6. Brassaï – Notre Dame, 1932

Though born in Hungary, it is the French capital with which Brassaï is synonymous, the city where he spent the majority of his adult life, and the subject of much of his work. Nicknamed the ‘Eye of Paris’ by his close friend and contemporary, author Henry Miller, Brassai spent much of his time wandering the city after nightfall, capturing utterly arresting, surrealism-imbued depictions of its streets, landmarks, and enigmatic residents, with remarkable percipience and skill.

Color film photography by Evelyn Hofer, Roofs, Paris, 1967
© Evelyn Hofer

7. Evelyn Hofer  – Roofs, Paris, 1967

Renowned for her sensitive portraiture, landscapes, and still life, enigmatic German-born photographer, Evelyn Hofer, possessed the ability to perfectly capture the ambiance of a place, illustrated beautifully in her often-overlooked images of Paris, which display the rare sensitivity and remarkable dexterity which define all of her work.

Harry Gruyaert - Tour de France, 1982 Into the valley before the big Alpine mountains. At the back wearing the tricolour jersey is the French Champion Régis Clère. France. 1982.
© Harry Gruyaert / Magnum Photos

8. Harry Gruyaert –  Tour de France, 1982 . Into the valley before the big Alpine mountains. 

Notable for his kaleidoscopic depictions of everyday life around the globe, Belgium-born Magnum photographer, Harry Gruyaert, is a master proponent of ‘unposed’ photography, exemplified in his series portraying the 1982 Tour De France.

Beautifully captured, the imagery displays the dexterity and painterly eye for color that defines much of his work and remains a striking symbol of the country’s most famous sporting event.

Black and white photo by Henri Cartier Bresson. Cyclist, The Var department. Hyères France 1932.
© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

9. Henri Cartier-Bresson – Hyères, 1932 

“Photography is, for me, a spontaneous impulse coming from an ever-attentive eye which captures the moment and its eternity.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Widely regarded as the father of photojournalism and the most important photographer of the 20th century, Henri Cartier-Bresson was a truly masterful practitioner, whose remarkable oeuvre is characterized by an instinctive ability to capture the very essence of his subject matter. His 1932 depiction of a cyclist in the southern French town of Hyères, exemplifies this (which he called the ‘Decisive Moment’), perfectly and stands as testament to the incredible perceptiveness and skill of perhaps the greatest photographer in history.

André Kertész, aerial image, Paris, Eiffel Tower, Black & White, 1929
© André Kertész

10. André Kertész – The shadow of the Eiffel Tower, Paris, 1929

“I just walk around, observing the subject from various angles until the picture elements arrange themselves into a composition that pleases my eye.” – André Kertész

A true master of his craft, André Kertész was one of the most important photographers of the 20th century, renowned for his utterly compelling monochrome imagery that set the foundation for generations of eminent practitioners. In 1925 he left his native Hungary for Paris, and it was here, during the ensuing decade, where he created some of his most memorable work. Characterized by geometric shapes, shadows, reflections, and a remarkable acuity, the visual language he created is expressed beautifully in this stunning, aerial image (a vantage he frequently used) which exemplifies the rare artistry for which he is remembered.


All images © their respective owners