I’ve just returned from a few days in Paris. It wasn’t really a holiday – I went for business for something I’m not allowed to tell you about yet – but I admit I did stay an extra night for wandering and recharging the cultural batteries. I have a bit of a thing about the Grand Tour – it’s been the reason behind at least three recent commissions – and I’ve an idea to explore the greater Tour to see if it’s still relevant to contemporary art and architecture. Still, it’s no surprise Paris was the stepping off point for this great art and architecture adventure. It still seeps culture at every corner and is certainly the bedstone of the city.
I love Paris.
It’s an affair that started many years ago – and I was more than a little horrified to work out just how many. I started out as a photographer. I did all sorts, but mostly stuff for the music mags and editorial pieces for the broadsheet weekend magazines. My passion for photography in itself was born by the work of the early 20th century French reportage photographers I saw at the Barbican ‘Art or Nature’ exhibition in 1988. From that moment on I was hooked.
Atget’s urban landscapes were haunting, timeless capsules – documents of places and things, often devoid of people. They had a real stillness about them. Unhurried and full of detail – stories hidden in corners and through half-opened doorways.
Jaques-Henri Lartigue did great sweeping panoramas full of blurry atmosphere in glorious widescreen. Cartier-Bresson had a darker view of the seedier side of Paris, Wily Ronis and Robert Doisneau almost owned the genre of what is now known as street photography with volumes of classic and well known studies of people living, laughing, kissing, dancing, yelling playing in the streets.
But most of all for me there was André Kertèsz. He saw the city through strong graphical compositions often abstracting the mundane, everyday into a series of lines and shapes.
…and of course, this one!
Over four or five years, while I was working in a darkroom in London, I would make frequent trips to Paris in search of this light and a desire to capture that spirit in way I could just never do in London. I also had the advantage of working in a specialist photographic lab so processing and printing film, was not only free, but crafting those images in the darkroom – fine-tuning the combination of film type and paper and toners – in search of the timeless quality of those great images.
So, last week, arriving in Paris with my trusty (now digital) Leica, I found myself switching it to black and white mode and shooting in 35mm full-frame format. With demise of my favourite fim and photographic paper, this was going to be the closest I could get to that experience of my youth.
It may have been more than a decade since I was last in the city, but it seems in some respects some things change very slowly. Out of the city centre, away from the coach dumping points, there is still chracter and beauty in hidden corners. Glimpses through half-opened doorways and people leading their carefree existence – the joi de vivre.
I may not be a great photographer, and the images may not be the timeless classics of Kertesz or Brassai, but for the first time in over a decade I’ve fallen in love with my camera again.