Ever since I arrived in Paris six years ago, the flea market at the northern edge of Paris has fascinated me. Considered the largest flea market in the world, the Marché Aux Puces de Saint-Ouen-Paris (Paris-Saint-Ouen Flea Market) is an institution of the French capital. Just outside the border of Paris proper, the market, which dates back to the mid-1800s, is older than many of the antiques sold within it. Each stand reflects the particularities and passions of its vendors, from the meticulously curated galleries to the random nic-nacs of the brocantes.
While similar markets in other cities have lost their original spirit and become more tourist market than “flea market,” the Marché Aux Puces de Saint-Ouen remains a draw for professional antiquers. “You get to see things that you can’t find anywhere else,” said seller Philippe Rosenthal. As tastes and styles change, so has the market. Where once 18th-century antiques were in high demand, now modern design dominates the landscape.
The market was a favourite Saturday destination of mine. I loved the odd collections you could find in each box and often just as interesting were the people who ran the shops. They are passionate sellers, specialising in a time period, a style a specific piece. I think it was this passion that drew me to eventually photographing them.
Making pictures in the market had been in the back of my mind for some time, a project I always considered but never executed. Whether out of laziness or nervousness I would always find an excuse not to make a picture, until, one day, I saw a napping record seller. He sat, slightly hunched over, perfectly in the centre of his stall surrounded by crates of records with the walls covered in old album art. I walked by the stall, saw the picture in my head…and kept walking. I regretted it immediately; when I turned around the moment had already passed. His light sleep had ended, and he was alert and paying attention to the world. However, I did not let it go, and in my limited French, I asked him if I could make his photo. He agreed sheepishly, but clearly flattered. I spent maybe five minutes making pictures (probably less) and walked away. When working on the images that night I liked how confident he was in the stall, but that he was made to look small by his surroundings. A man with all his “stuff”. After this, I never went back to the market without my camera and a plan to make some portraits.
I went about photographing whoever would let me. Whether walking around with my partner or exploring on my own. Anytime I would see an exciting shop or an interesting person I would ask. Not everyone said yes, some people were busy, others just not interested, but these were the minority. Most people would respond with initial trepidation, but with an embarrassed smile and a tinge of curiosity would agree. I had to be quick, I knew they were working, and I always explained if a customer came in I would wait. The goal was to capture a little of the character of the subject as well as the character of the space. I shot each portrait wide, filling the frame with their wears and giving your eye a chance to explore the space, but using a shallow depth of field (ƒ/2.8 - 4) to make sure the subject didn’t get lost in the chaos. I tried to get the walls of the boxes in my frame as well, to capture the smallness of the space. I wanted anyone viewing the images to see how in such a small space big personalities could shine through.
This image stands out as my favourite. It is of seller Philippe Rosenthal in his stand in the Marché Serpette - Paul Bert, one of the more fashionable areas of the larger market. Philippe specialises in lounge chairs and sofas, but I was drawn to how well curated his stand was. Each item was perfectly situated creating the reality of an intimate and high-end club room…right off the main thoroughfare of the market. His natural confidence made him a compelling subject and the beautiful light coming through the large entrance to his shop made the portrait simple. Put him in the light, and the rest falls into place. I think that is why it has remained my favourite of the series. His natural ease was reflected in the comfort of getting the portrait, sometimes with a lot of confidence (and a bit of lucky light) the best pictures reveal itself easily.
You can see the full series on my website : wlounsbury.com
Author : William Lounsbury
William is a photographer in Paris with Aperture Tours: professional photography guided tours, designed to help you get the best out of your camera whilst exploring wonderful cities with a local. A professional photographer specialising in photojournalism, William enjoys to get off the beaten track and shoot spontaneous moments as they are presented to him.