Martine Barrat: Soul of the City

The Galerie Rouge is pleased to announce a solo exhibition of the photographer and videographer Martine Barrat. “Soul of the City” focuses on one of the main themes of her work: New York and its inhabitants. Arriving in the city in 1968, Martine Barrat soon began filming and photographing the people she encountered in the Bronx and Harlem neighborhoods. Her perspective, far from being merely documentary, is driven by a deep commitment to the individuals she photographs, often sharing their daily lives – the participatory and collective aspect being a fundamental dimension of her work. Each scene, person, or gesture captured on film celebrates life and human relationships. The street, with its rules and lifestyles, becomes under Martine Barrat’s gaze a world in its own right, simultaneously joyful and serious, filled with struggles and happiness, inviting exploration. An artist with multiple lives, Martine Barrat has always asserted great independence in both her life and her work. The exhibition is organized around different series and perspectives on New York.
A selection of her early photographs from the 1970s South Bronx is first presented. In the early 1970s, Martine Barrat began collaboratively and participatively filming gang members in the Bronx, a neighborhood completely neglected by New York’s municipal authorities. In 1976, when her camera was stolen by a neighbor, the leader of the Roman Kings gang, Pearl, gave her her first photographic camera. She began photographing closely, almost cinematically, the bodies and gestures of the neighborhood’s residents. Instead of highlighting the poverty and violence in the South Bronx, Martine Barrat showcases the beauty of its people, the love between couples, the joy of children playing and finding coolness on hot days in often dilapidated streets.
The exhibition continues with street scenes and lives in Harlem. From the 1980s onwards, fascinated by the African-American neighborhood of Harlem, Barrat photographed domino players, Blues and Jazz club musicians, and breakers at block parties at the dawn of the cultural and musical revolution that would become hip-hop.
The second gallery room focuses on the women of Harlem, close friends of Martine Barrat, including Love and Mabel, two significant figures in her work and life, for whom she created powerful, luminous, and playful portraits. Regarding Love, Martine Barrat wrote: “Love was a very dear friend whom I photographed for many years. She was loved and admired by so many people in Harlem. When she walked down the street, she would stop traffic because she was so beautiful. She is also one of the two women admitted to the Rhythm Club, a place where musicians meet day and night to play cards on 143rd Street. All the musicians were so happy when she came by.”
Lastly, the final part of the exhibition is dedicated to her series “Do or Die” focusing on the clubs training young boxers in Harlem, Bed-Stuy, and the Bronx. This series, noted at the time by filmmaker Martin Scorsese and photographer Gordon Parks, propelled Martine onto the international stage. Far from representing a world of toxic masculinity, Martine Barrat photographs boxing as a fraternal rite where tenderness and adversity coexist.

A portrait of Martine Barrat

About the Author

Martine Barrat is a French photographer and videographer whose work largely developed outside traditional photography circles, focusing primarily on New York and its marginalized communities. Originally an actress and dancer in 1960s Paris, she moved to New York in 1968, invited by the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in the East Village. Upon arrival, she created a street workshop combining theater and jazz music for children in the Lower East Side.
After an accident ended her dance career, she acquired a video camera with support from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and began filming Bronx gangs. The Roman Kings and Ghetto Brothers became close to her, actively participating in documenting their neighborhood and daily lives through audio and video recordings. From this important documentary project, she made the film “You Do the Crime, You Do the Time” in 1978, which was presented at the Whitney Museum that year. The theft of her video camera led Pearl, the leader of the Roman Kings, to gift her first photographic camera.
Barrat then embarked on an exciting photographic journey, driven by her curiosity about street life and its codes. In “Do or Die,” she photographed children’s boxing clubs in the Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn. In the 1980s and 1990s, she captured the residents of Harlem, many of whom were her friends. Her close connection to the streets made her a witness to the birth of cultural and musical movements like hip-hop.
During the same period, Barrat traveled to Paris, working for the newspaper Libération. On one assignment, she discovered La Goutte d’Or, a neighborhood predominantly inhabited by people from North and Sub-Saharan Africa. There, she photographed the fraternity among children, the generational bonds, and the residents’ efforts to create a vibrant community despite underlying poverty. She developed a special relationship with Mamadou Yaffa, a child model from the area, whom she later invited to stay with her in New York.
Barrat’s humanistic perspective on La Goutte d’Or evokes a certain style of 1950s French photography, yet she chose to document an “other” Paris, unfamiliar to both photographers and the general public. Her work has been exhibited internationally, with retrospectives in 1984 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and Agnès b.’s Galerie du Jour. In 2007, the MEP dedicated an exhibition to her, featuring nearly 200 prints in the acclaimed show “Harlem In My Heart.”
Throughout her career, Barrat has collaborated with numerous publications such as Life, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, The Village Voice, Vogue, Paris Match, Le Monde, Die Zeit, La Repubblica, and Libération. She has photographed many celebrities, including Bob Marley after a 1979 concert at the Apollo Theater, and Martin Scorsese, who requested to be photographed with Alain Resnais. In 2007, she was honored as a member of the Order of Arts and Letters.


Martine Barrat: Soul of the City
May 24 – September 7, 2024
Galerie Rouge – Paris -France

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