Musical Eye: Take a Trip with Photographer Maurice Sapiro to 1950s Paris

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Musical Eye: Take a Trip with Photographer Maurice Sapiro to 1950s Paris
Let me introduce you to one of my favorite photographers on the planet. In-between stints spent playing the trumpet with the 279th Army Band in France in 1956, artist Maurice Sapiro documented the streets of Paris, coolly improvising with light and architectural texture. Inspired by the saturated colors of the Lumière Autochrome color film process, Maurice’s shots still sparkle, much like the City of Light herself. Stationed in La Rochelle, Maurice and his twin brother Erwin toured with a goodwill ensemble, scattering pep and merriment and rousing throngs of locals to their feet with a series of high-spirited concerts throughout France. With their no-holds-barred zest, the charismatic twins also helped the La Rochelle Philharmonic Society open its 42nd season. “Music Promotes Good Relations!” reported one newspaper. “Eight American soldier-bandsmen are promoting excellent French-American relations here through their favorite subject, music. The Philharmonic Society President praised the soldiers for being exceptional players and for their kindly assistance in making possible a fine orchestra!” After I got Maurice on the horn, he set the scene. The 279th Army Band Maurice Sapiro: The band consisted of 45 players. I was the assistant conductor. The first year in France, we were stationed in La Rochelle, and then we were moved to Poitiers. With each year of service, you received one month of leave time, along with weekend passes. Erwin and I spent our first leave in Paris, second in London, and third in Venice, Florence, and Rome. On my Army salary of $90 a month, I concentrated on food. I remember a restaurant in Rome with an “American Menu” neon sign. The only option for breakfast was coffee and apple pie. That was it! The apple pie alone took a week’s earnings but it was worth it. Strike up the band Maurice Sapriro: The main function of the 279th Band was ceremonial, for military occasions. The band’s other mission was spreading goodwill throughout France. After playing in a big city, we’d present shows in the surrounding towns. Our repertoire consisted of light classical music like Leroy Anderson’s “Bugler’s Holiday” and “Sleigh Ride.” We also played Gershwin transcripts for the band. Following each concert, it was customary for the town officials to treat us to a dinner, with speeches, and much wine. I still love Camembert and wine. Thinking back, I’m 25 again. La Rochelle Philharmonic Society Maurice Sapiro: The La Rochelle Philharmonic Society requested some players to fill out their instrumentation. Our French horn player, Dick Bass, drove us to the town hall in his Opel car, and we rehearsed with the orchestra. That rehearsal room was not heated, and it was dimly lit, but it is still one of my most treasured memories. The elderly conductor could not speak English, and our French was very limited, but by singing, he got the message across. I remember playing Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” and Joseph Haydn’s “Symphony No. 101.” The concert was a hit. Paris Maurice Sapiro: We used our weekend passes to get back to Paris. I bought a Leica IIIF at the Army PX for $99, and started each day with a coffee and a croissant on the Champs-Élysées. Within the view of the Arc de Triomphe, I’d begin taking photographs from my seat at the café. After breakfast, I’d head to the Louvre. I was lucky enough to be in Europe before the tourist craze. I had the museum almost to myself. It’s a memory so strong, it seems like it was just yesterday, not 60 years ago. At the Louvre, I decided that painting and photography would be a major part of the rest of my life. Even then, I knew nothing in the future could compare with Paris. Brother Erwin Maurice Sapiro: My twin brother Erwin was a natural-born leader, and his French was much better than mine. On one particular evening, we were in a restaurant without an English menu. Erwin took charge, and ordered, saying “Trust me, we’re having the best steaks they have!” About ten minutes later, the waiter arrived with an entire pig’s head on a platter. Yes, even an apple in his mouth. That was the last time I let him order. I learned how to order steak and potatoes on my own! Favorite Paris memory Maurice Sapiro: Our best friend Max Lurie looked very much like Erwin and me. We could almost pass for triplets. Returning from one of our concert trips, our Warrant Officer decided we could have the afternoon off in Paris. Usually, when on leave, we wore our “civies,” and tried to look like civilians. But here we were, the three of us, dressed in…
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Lead photo credit : The Critic, Paris (Photograph by Maurice Sapiro, 1956)

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Theadora is a Paris-based writer who has a regular column, called “My Life in Paris," in France Today magazine.

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Comments

  • maurice sapiro
    2017-05-18 17:19:15
    maurice sapiro
    Once again we meet Babsi. Thanks !!!

    REPLY

  • maurice sapiro
    2017-05-18 17:18:11
    maurice sapiro
    Thanks Babsi, for your appreciation !!!

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  • Antje Barbara Schnabel
    2017-03-15 18:44:27
    Antje Barbara Schnabel
    Dear Maurice, I'll follow you here aus well. Your past ist very interesting! I've now set up first posts in google+. Greetings Babsi (Antje Babsi Schnabel)

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  • Arika Goldschmid
    2016-09-26 00:27:32
    Arika Goldschmid
    Wonderful photos! The golden tone light is fantastic! Thank you for sharing these - I'm certainly no expert, but to me, they capture everything that is Paris.

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  • Richard McDonough
    2016-09-25 00:29:18
    Richard McDonough
    How clever you are with words, maurice. I am limping toward my eighties, and can hardly wait for the adulation!

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  • Isabelle
    2016-09-23 03:26:04
    Isabelle
    What a gift !!!! Thank you so much. These pictures are just beautifull !!! so full of charm. One feels so nostalgic staring at them; the light, the composition are stuning. And also sharing his memories of his time in France with his brother! Boy I understand you are feeling nostalgi.; But for you sure made the best out of it. It changed the rest of your life ....

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  • (Captain) Dr. Edwin J. Rennell Jr
    2016-09-22 14:06:22
    (Captain) Dr. Edwin J. Rennell Jr
    Maurice and Theodora. Thanks for bringing back the memories, I was a young Army captain stationed at Fontenet, not far from La Rochelle in 1961, 1962, just 5 years after these photos were taken. I was the Post Dental Surgeon and lived in the small hamlet of Aujac about 7-8 miles from the post. I had a small apartment in one end of a farm house, the landlord lived in the other end, and in between, they double distilled the grapes to make the eau-de-vie which was sold to the producers in Cognac, some 20 miles away. It seems like those days were yesterday! I have hundreds of photos, but not in the process of Maurice's.

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  • Virginia Bassett
    2016-09-20 12:06:40
    Virginia Bassett
    I am basking in the golden glow that Maurice Sapiro has captured. The photographs take my breath away. I return to each on again and again. A glorious glimpse of Paris past.

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  • maurice sapiro
    2016-09-16 14:35:47
    maurice sapiro
    Theadora and Bonjour Paris, Thank you for this wonderful presentation of my early work. What splendid memories return. My advice to young photographers, "become an antique, the world will love you ".

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  • Hazel Smith
    2016-09-16 07:39:24
    Hazel Smith
    Great interview Theadora. Busy life.

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