La Petite Ceinture (‘Little Belt’ in English) is a derelict railway track that runs for 20 miles around central Paris. It was built in 1852 to connect Paris’ main train stations, forming an uneven ellipse that traces city’s historic fortifications. It was at the height of its popularity around 1901 Universal Exhibition – for which the Eiffel Tower was constructed – circulating goods and people around the city.
But the establishment of the Metro System quickly rendered La Petite Ceinture redundant. Since its trains stopped running in 1934, it’s been recolonised by grass, flowers and trees. Today, many Parisians are unaware of the unkempt, unvisited, Romantic garden that stretches above and below their busy heads.
As with many remnants of urban industry, however, it’s now caught the eye of developers and municipal officials. La Petite Ceinture might become a series of gentrified bars, a cycling path, or new form of public transport: who knows? But its 80-year period of silence is almost over.
Pierre Folk is a French photographer who – aware of La Petite Ceinture’s inevitable reabsorption into modern Paris – spent the past four years documenting the railroad with a 4x5 camera. We had a little chat with him about his ode to La Petite Ceinture, called By The Silent Line.
Hi Pierre! Why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself?
I was born in 1986, in eastern France. I can’t remember when I started taking pictures but I remember very well when I fell for photography. A few years ago a friend of mine showed me Sleeping by the Mississippi by Alec Soth and I was blown away.
How well known is La Petite Ceinture in Paris?
Well, many Parisians know its name or are vaguely aware of it but they often don’t know how large it is, even those who live right next to the rails. Most Parisians think of it as wasteland, which is a common misconception. The line isn’t abandoned; it’s just mostly unused. So I guess for modern Parisians it could symbolise the idea of escape, of a place on the fringes of society.
What inspired you to document La Petite Ceinture: a nostalgic impulse to return to the past?
Well, not exactly. As a photographer I’ve always wanted to unpack the relation between society and its environment, how we leave vestiges behind. I came across the rails quite randomly in 2010 when walking with a friend in southern Paris, where the line is elevated. At that time I had just moved to the French capital and was looking for places to explore. I guess I felt like escaping. When I began documenting the line it all started to make sense, and I decided to create By the Silent Line.
Are there any specific images from the series that linger in your mind?
For me, the tunnels are the most haunting sections. Picture yourself in a tunnel that’s more than a kilometre long, in almost complete darkness with just a torch on your head. In these conditions, you can’t help but feeling you’re in a horror movie!
The tunnel picture above may look pretty bright but that’s actually the result of many minutes of exposure. It is certainly not the longest tunnel but the place was really dark and during the exposure time I remember nervously looking at my surroundings every time I heard a noise. At first I thought the noises were nothing but eventually I could make out a small dark form coming toward me. I didn’t know what to expect but it turned out to be a cat coming to say hello.
Finally, Paris isn’t a city with a great reputation these days. It’s racially segregated, insanely expensive, and full of snobs, right? Or that just a boring stereotype?
Yes, I believe this prejudice to be kind of unfair. I guess the images prove that Paris is more than the Eiffel tower and the Galleries Lafayette. Well, it’s the same about Parisians; they’re way more than their reputation. When you get to know the people, it’s a place with a lot of solidarity. Maybe my project helped to improve my views in that sense.
Thanks for talking to CANVAS, Pierre!