Pierre Mac Orlan

By: Lucy Sante
February 26, 2012

Lead photograph for Mac Orlan's essay on le fantastique social

PIERRE MAC ORLAN (Pierre Dumarchey, 1882-1970) wasn’t Scottish — he probably took his pen name from the city of Orléans, where he went to school; the only things he ever published under his real name were early pornographic novels, to spite his family. He lived the archetypal bohemian life before the war: friends with Apollinaire, contributor to the anarchist journals Le Libertaire and Le Zut, regular at Le Lapin Agile. He even spent a winter as sole tenant of the unheated Bateau Lavoir, and through his brother, who went over to the dark side, he had extensive contacts in the underworld of apaches and prostitutes. He carried out numerous ambitious reportages in the ’20s and ’30s, and wrote many novels, some quite bad, the best probably those that were made into movies: La Bandera (1931; Julien Duvivier, 1935) and Le Quai des brumes (1927; Marcel Carné, 1938), but also his colonial noir Quartier Réservé (1932), which probably should be filmed. His greatest contribution, though, might be the concept of le fantastique social — the social uncanny — which he delineated in 1929 in an essay in the art and social history magazine Le Crapouillot. What Mac Orlan meant by this was photography’s inexplicable ability to penetrate the truth of a scene more clearly than the eye could, and to permanently seal the ambient emotions within the frame, as if mimicking death. Although his idea influenced at least two generations of photographers, including Eli Lotar and Robert Doisneau, Mac Orlan wasn’t really giving the credit to the artists; to him, photography itself was the genius.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Fats Domino and Karen Berger.

HILO HERO ITEMS by LUC SANTE: Dashiell Hammett | Pancho Villa | James M. Cain | Georges Bataille | Félix Fénéon | Émile Henry | A.J. Liebling | Jim Thompson | Joe Hill | Nestor Makhno | Hans Magnus Enzensberger | Captain Beefheart | William Burroughs | Ring Lardner | Lee “Scratch” Perry | Serge Gainsbourg | Kathy Acker | Arthur Cravan | Weegee | Alexander Trocchi | Ronnie Biggs | George Ade | Georges Darien | Zo d’Axa | Petrus Borel | Blaise Cendrars | Alexandre Jacob | Constance Rourke | Damia | J-P Manchette | Jean-Paul Clebert | Pierre Mac Orlan | Comte De Lautreamont | André Breton | Robert Desnos | Arthur Rimbaud |

READ MORE about members of the Psychonaut Generation (1874-83).