PARIS (AP) -- The Renaissance exhibition hall, Hotel de Sully, is a fine, if not ironic, choice for a major Paris exhibit of daring young photographers who defied social and stylistic boundaries to propel their craft into a veritable art during the two decades before World War II.

Pre-war Paris attracted artists from across Europe and the United States, and the exhibit, "Paris: Photography Capital, 1920-40," celebrates a wave of photographers from Germany, Russia, Hungary, Belgium, the United States as well as France.

For Christian Bouqueret, collector, curator and historian of photography, this era in Parisian history was marked by a photographic revolution.

"Before the beginning of the 20th century, photography referred to paintings. We see in the 1920s and 1930s, new types of images which were strictly photographic...this was the innovation of this period," says Michael Houlette, co-curator of the exhibition.

Spanning three halls in the Renaissance-era building that is now an exhibition hall, Bouqueret's "didactic" collection of 120 original photos features photomontages, photograms and photocollages.

The collection is sectioned off in three ways: images of Paris, nudes and portraits and the artistic manipulation of banal objects.

Surprisingly and perhaps disappointingly for Paris enthusiasts, there are comparatively fewer images of Paris; rather the exhibition is focused on portraits and objects.

But the avant-garde attitude of this "young generation" is impressive.

French photographer Eugene Atget takes a flaneur-like approach to capturing the isolated streets of Paris on film, while Hungarian photographer Brassai is preoccupied with Parisian nightlife, which he manipulates by playing with shadows and sharp angles.

Houlette says Paris, a city at the crossroads of new photography in Europe, fascinated many French and foreign photographers.

"During the interwar years, Paris had a very important economic boom so it was attractive for many photographers and artists," he adds.

Whichever direction you meander through the exhibition, the transition from one theme to another is fragmented and harsh.

Maurice Cloche presents a disturbing photo — a papier mache skull of a man, with a partially visible body, his eyes blocked out and a pair of scissors obstructing his mouth. Though not as obvious as Pierre Boucher's decapitated bodies among ruins, clearly these photographers are products of a society either reeling from war, or entering one.

The unsettling portraits and nudes, rich in material, offer no respite. Longtime companion of Picasso, Dora Maar, juxtaposes a full frontal nude portrait of a voluptuous woman with her hyperbolically distorted silhouette in the foreground of the frame.

Hungarian photographer Andre Kertesz presents a strange contortion of a female body while Laure Albin Guillot takes on the Narcissus syndrome with her photos of a buff, naked male torso.

Houlette says the focus on naked male, as well as female bodies is unusual and that many female photographers are featured in the exhibition.

"It represents a certain liberation of women...these were women who lived through their work."

The exhibition opened this week and runs through to May 24.