Seeing Your Paris Address Online, Photo and all

Virtual habitues of Paris who pine for their city — who want and need nothing less than Paris on demand, in all its untrammeled, 24/7 splendor–need only hop onto the nearest mouse and park it by thereby delivering themselves to the French online phone book directory.   Behold the cunningly diffident drop-down menu tucked below the Les Photos de Villes heading on the site, and click “Paris”; gaze next upon the pair of equally unprepossessing fields in which the user is asked to tap any city address. Comply, and voila–a photo of selfsame address shimmers onscreen.   I will repeat the above desideratum: type any address. That arrestingly confident summons means what it says; for behind its plain interface Les Photos de Villes hoards a gigantic trove of photos of Paris, purporting to deliver an image of virtually every coordinate of the city, retrievable, as advertised, by address.   Put mildly, Les Photos de Villes is not your standard postcard bundling of Paris’ greatest hits, no standard-issue-coffee-table-book sampler of its redoubtable venues. Rather, what we have here is nothing less than a molecular breakdown of Paris, its constituent DNA indexed one flat at a time, the Big Picture writ very small, drilling deep down to the quotidien core of the city. Les Photos de Villes’s relentlessly minute cartography stages a kind of photographic inversion of Yann Arthurs-Bertrand’s gorgeous, heli-captured shots of the city, realizing instead, by dint of its monumentally piecemeal pastiche, a vast, pointillist portrait of Paris.   And lest you think this surfeit of images drives digital hubris to the breaking point, understand that most address queries in fact serve up multiple photos of that locale; click the links attaching to a photo and the place will be espied anew, this time from across the street, or down the block. But the proof of all this plenitude lies in the searching.   In the interests of science, I typed the name “Sartre” and the city “Paris” on the Pages Blanches page of Les Pages Jaunes (remember–Les Photos de Villes is bound to the French phone book, keying listings to images in what is doubtless one of the world’s only illustrated directories). Eighteen unique addresses bobbed to the surface, all of which I proceeded to enter in turn in Les Photos de Villes. The results: A direct photographic hit on 17 of them, with the 18th address–Rue 3 Félix Eboué in the 12th–requisitioning 5 Félix Eboué instead, intimating that numbers 3 and 5 are banded in the same building (indeed, a reference to 5bis attends the picture). Moreover, a companion map that nests an address in its greater vicinity can be canvassed as well; a click on any map position almost always culls a photo of just that spot. Check it out.   It’s a rather pause-giving enterprise, one that incites a few obvious questions: Exactly how does Les Photos de Villes carry off this compendious feat? And yes–why?   I tossed these interrogatives, and a few more, at Pages Jaunes spokesperson Orith Adir, who kindly lobbed her transatlantic replies back at me via an e-mail interview. She reports that Les Photos de Villes clambered onto the web in 1998, synchronized to the Paris-hosted World Cup that summer. The service was then brought to Lyon, Toulouse, Marseille, Nice, Lille, Strasbourg, Nantes, and later to Madrid and Barcelona as well, those Spanish cities receiving their pictorial due on the web site.   Bearing the joint aegis of Pages Jaunes and Wanadoomaps and stoked by Visiocity software, Les Photos de Villes (whose pictures are not public domain) invests the phrase “labor-intensive” with new meaning. No altitudinous, extra-planetary, GPS-visioned photo scans here; rather, ten to twenty foot soldiers fan through their assigned city to snap, and then digitize, “all the streets of each town… except a few private places”, according to Ms. Adir. And that’s for starters. The whole campaign is reprised each year, the better to capture newly raised structures and freshly daubed signage. Previous collections are archived, aggregating these into a surpassingly dense visual history of streets and quartiers.   But just what inspired this colossal inventory? First among incentives, states Ms. Adir, was an interest in embellishing Les Pages Jaunes’s listings, and to help the information seeker visualize a destination and its surrounding ambit with new vividness–something, for example, a prospective apartment buyer might keenly appreciate.   Moreover, she adds, Les Photos de Villes inaugurates a new pedestrian avocation: the virtual promenade. Key in twenty consecutive addresses, for instance, and watch an entire block unfold neatly across your living room.   Think about it: walk the length and breadth of Paris–without sensible shoes.   —by Abbott Katz  
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