Postcards From Paris

HERE IS NEVER any ending to Paris, and the memory of each person who has lived in it diff ers from that of any other,” Ernest Hemingway wrote. “Paris was always worth it, and you received return for whatever you brought to it.” Before my chance to work in the magical French city last fall, it had been almost 30 years since I first visited. I was a few years out of journalism school, and my memories of the city were shaped by working as a newspaper photographer, with plans to spend my life as a photojournalist.

So during my recent visit, I scheduled a few extra days to spend shooting the city on my own schedule, at my own pace. I had no illusions that in 72 hours I could accomplish much artistically. But after three decades as a professional photographer, wandering with a camera can still fuel a little creativity.

But what is left to say about Paris that hasn’t already been expressed eloquently over the centuries by painters, writers, photographers and poets? Maybe there will always be more to say, voiced by every new generation of artists that falls under the City of Light’s spell.

FOR YEARS I’D STUDIED the images of the legendary photographers who’d documented life in Paris with a camera. It’s a long list, but Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Ronis, Riboud, Kertesz and Brassai were among my favorites. As I walked the same streets they did, I could look back and recognize my naive energy of 30 years ago for what it was: inspiration. What I lacked in skill I made up for with enthusiasm.

Eifel Tower ParisBefore digital cameras and smart phones it wasn’t unusual to be the only person taking pictures, except in tourist destinations. In my old photographs of Notre Dame Cathedral, people are standing solemnly in the dim light of candles. Today the vestibules glow with digital screens, and nearly everyone is pointing a device this way or that.

The world may now be saturated with photographs and photographers, but making an exceptional image is still an art. Henri Cartier-Bresson spent a career roaming his beloved Paris (and the country beyond) and became master of “the decisive moment.” Imagine his timing — the ability to capture an image so perfectly by shooting a single frame. The rest of us use motorized cameras that can fire off four to six frames per second, but we still fall short of his precision. “We photographers deal in things which are continually
vanishing,” Cartier-Bresson once said. “And when they have vanished, no contrivance on earth can make them come back again.”

One of Cartier-Bresson’s most famous images is a 1932 photograph entitled Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, which shows a man in midair leaping over water in near darkness, his reflection perfectly mirrored just before he breaks the surface. It’s the capturing of the subtle moments in life that define a good photo. “In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject,” he said. “The little, human detail can become a leitmotif.”

What I’ve learned, whether I’m photographing, writing or simply observing, is how Paris moves you with its history and nostalgia. Shed the urge to rush around taking pictures of monuments and museums, and you’ll see that the magic is sometimes in doing nothing. Just being there is enough, because there’s something to discover around every corner. In other words, even non-photographers can see iconic images here just by being mindfully observant and having patience. The French photographer Robert Doisneau summed it up well: “Paris is a theater where you book your seat by wasting time,” he said.

Masters of Photography

The images in these books and websites are worth previewing before a trip to the City of Light.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004),
Robert Doisneau (1912-1994),
Willy Ronis (1910–2009), Sundays by the River (Smithsonian Books, 1999)
Marc Riboud (born 1923),
Brassai (1899-1984), Paris by Night (Bulfinch, 2001)
Andre Kertesz (1894-1985), Andre Kertesz: His Life And
His Work (Bulfinch, 2000)

DURING MY RECENT TRIP, I was lucky to stroll through Parc Monceau in a misty rain and walk during the early morning through Boulevard Saint-Michel in the Latin Quarter as shopkeepers were opening for the day. I watched the dwindling sunlight fi lter through the glass pyramid of the Louvre after the crowds had abandoned the museum for the day.

I climbed the 284 steps to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and rented a Velib bike and pedaled through the Jardin des Tuileries, then along the Seine to the Eiff el Tower to watch the lights come up amid champagne picnickers on the Champ de Mars. One of my favorite photos from this day shows the spiral staircase with people on their climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe.

The people I met, too, helped defi ne my Paris experience. One morning I met Susan Roche, as she sat under a topiary in the Jardin du Luxembourg writing in her journal. She’s a regular visitor from Maryland, after having lived in the city as a 21-year-old French major. What is it about Paris, I asked her, and what was it like to have been here in the sixties?

“It seemed like here everything was possible,” she said. “It was possible to learn about the world of beauty and to turn that around to know myself. The older I’ve gotten, the more Paris seems to me like poetry. It takes me under the surface, underneath words to a level of wordlessness.”

Paris BeautyTHE WORDLESS BEAUTY OF the Seine in the early evening is like a muted painting, with the delicate arches of its bridges brushed against the sky. With even a little time, lingering on a bridge to watch the sights go by is all but a mandatory pleasure. Monet painted this shimmering water. Willy Ronis photographed lovers on its banks. You can see his timeless images depicting the tranquility of summer days, of couples dancing and impressionistic moments of leisure, in his book Sundays by the River.

Romance, in Paris, is everywhere. Before sunset, the Pont des Artes — a pedestrian bridge across the Seine that links the Institut de France and the Louvre — becomes like a low-key cocktail party, with musicians, wine-and-cheese picnics, and, of course, embracing couples. I take a moment to photograph the padlocks with love emblems that line the bridge’s railings, presumably their keys having settled to the river’s bottom in a series of romantic gestures.

Boats move noiselessly underneath the bridges, gliding to and from the Île de la Cité, the island in the Seine where Paris was born in medieval times. It’s in these scenes that I find myself under the city’s spell, caught up in its moods, hoping to capture a glimpse of it with my camera. “All I wanted was to connect my moods with those of Paris,” photographer Ernst Haas once said. “Beauty paints, and when it painted most, I shot.”

So many brilliant minds have written, photographed, painted and interpreted the city’s myriad sides before me. Yet for anyone who opens the door to experiencing Paris, what they encounter will be distinctive and exclusive. Which is why, although my photographs won’t stack up with the greats, I’ll continue to make more whenever I return. Until then, they are reminders. As Doisneau put it, “I simply wanted to leave a memory of the little world that I loved.”