Grin and beret

Ryan Wenzel

Susanne Sears was only 12 years old when she visited Paris with her family, but she says she still remembers the smells and sights vividly. The 52-year-old from Chicago smiles as she surveys black-and-white photographs of Parisian streets that remind her of her distant childhood trip.

“It looks the same,” she says, reminiscing and still smiling. “It’s timeless.”

Whether they have traveled to France or not, visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., can explore the City of Light at “Paris: Photographs from a Time That Was,” an all-photography exhibit that runs through Nov. 6.

The museum assembled the photographs to complement its new exhibit “Toulouse-Lautrec & Montmartre,” which celebrates a 19th-century French artist famous for colorful paintings of the Moulin Rouge cabaret. But the two exhibits are more different than they seem, says David Travis, the museum’s curator of photography. “There are some photographs that date from Lautrec’s period,” he says. “But the strength of our collection is in the Modernist era of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.”

Travis says the museum eventually would have created it regardless of the “Toulouse-Latrec” exhibit. Its collection contains more than 300 high-quality photographs of Paris – a strong foundation for such an exhibit. Travis also hopes the pictures will introduce art lovers to a less popular side of Parisian art. “Paris attracted a huge number of talented people – not just painters, sculptors and musicians,” he says.

Arranged chronologically, the 100-photograph exhibit begins with images from the mid-1800s and continues through the next century. Because the first cameras were bulky and had slow exposure speeds, many of the city’s first photographs were of static landscapes and monuments. Charles Marville’s “Untitled (Bois de Boulogne)” shows a canoe on a still lake, and gnarled trees dominate the shot in Gustave Le Gray’s “Tree, Fontainebleau Forest.”

But when photographic technology began to improve at the turn of the century, the focus shifted from lifeless landscapes to candid shots of everyday people. In Jacques-Henri Lartique’s 1910 work “The Race Course at Auteuil, Paris,” three women dressed in finery eagerly watch a horse race while gripping a railing. Robert Doisneau’s 1953 photograph “At the Petit Balcon” – a frequent favorite, Travis says – shows a blonde dancer sitting on the floor of a bar, resting her arm on a man’s leg. The man smiles, but his nearby wife suspiciously eyes her husband’s new admirer.

Greg Weber of Chicago couldn’t resist laughing out loud at Doisneau’s comical photograph. “It’s priceless,” says Weber, an amateur photographer. “There’s so much going on in this picture.”

Another favorite among visitors is American photographer Irving Penn’s “Rochas Mermaid Dress,” a glamorous shot of a buxom model posing in a long black dress and a silk shawl. The picture evokes a common reaction in several female visitors, Travis says. “I’ve heard three women say, ‘I want that dress.’ People enjoy (these photographers) on many levels.”

Travis says these vibrant photographs exemplify an aesthetic idea called “the decisive moment,” or the ability to capture a single second of “life in the act of living.” And although this phenomenon obviously was possible in countless cities, the cultured and romantic atmosphere in Paris produced some of the best photographs. “Paris was perfectly set up for this attitude, and there were quite a few publishers in the late ’20s who liked this kind of photography,” he says.

Other photographs serve as lasting proof of neighborhoods that no longer exist. Paris was modernized in the 1860s to develop the city’s real estate and make transportation easier, and city officials commissioned photographers to shoot areas that were to be demolished. “Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Genevi