Student Review: SFMOMA’s Picturing Modernity

Bords de la seine, Paris, 1949, Izis Bidermanas
Bords de la seine, Paris, 1949, Izis Bidermanas

By: Lauren Fihe
Photo 50A

At San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art an ongoing exhibition from the library’s personal collection called Picturing Modernity currently displays work highlighting photographers and artists working, living, and shaping Paris beginning in the mid 1800’s.  There are images of major construction projects in Paris and daguerreotypes dating from an even earlier image followed by the work of the Surrealists artists who manipulated and experimented with the photographic process in ways that had not yet been conceived.  However, one image at the exhibit stood out to me because of the simplicity of the image that conveys human nature in one of its most simple forms. 

The photographer Izis whose birth name is Israel Bidermanas was a Lithuanian photographer who began working in Paris in the 1930’s and shot images of Paris until his death in 1980 (Izis).  The image titled Bord de la Seine is a silver gelatin print dated Paris, 1949 and shows a woman and man intimately engaged between a tree trunk and a cement wall.  You are looking down at the couple and can see only the back of the man’s head and have a glimpse at the woman’s face and turned down eyes.  The man has his arm against the trunk of the tree, and the woman has one arm pressed against the man’s chest.  The texture of the tree trunk is apparent and dark, and the tree is powerfully shooting out of the cobblestone street that surrounds it to the right and left side.  The ledge of the cement wall is above the couple, and its whitish color is in stark contrast to the dark tree trunk.  The man is dressed in a white shirt which contrasts his dark hair and the woman’s face and clothing are relatively similar in tone.  The expression on the woman’s face is slightly concerned and the position of the man’s hand lends to the idea that the woman is unhappy for some reason, and the man is trying to appease or dissuade her. 

The limited space of the couple between the wall and the tree trunk creates a sense of intimacy that is counteracted by the empty cobblestone street surrounding them and the tree.  The perception of looking down while the tree trunk widens as it moves in the direction of the edge of the wall creates a feeling of voyeurism for the viewer. 

Izis was known for his opposition to using artificial methods of lighting because he believed it would destroy the atmosphere of the scene he was attempting to capture (Bidermanas 811).  The point of view of the image and tonal quality is realistic and makes you feel as if you have literally stumbled upon something  The little that one can discern through the body placement and slight features of the couple makes you feel that whatever concerns them is earnest and real. 

The focus of the image is solely the couple; there is nothing on the streets surrounding them.  You feel as if a genuine moment has been captured and in this way Izis succeeded.   The image recalls the way in which two people can feel like they are the only things existing on the earth.  Despite all social, environmental, and political contexts of life, there always remains the immense power that can occur when two people are living in a world where they weigh so heavily upon each other that nearly nothing else seems to matter.  Izis was known to wander the streets of Paris in an attempt to capture images of individuals looking for what made up the life of Paris (Bidermanas 811).  The image is simple and sentimental but succeeds in placing the viewer in Paris and in a moment that helped to make up the life of the city in the mid 1900’s while conveying one of the strongest forces of human nature. For more information visit

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