I’ve been thinking, which is not necessarily a good thing it has to be said, about my travel photographs. I have come to realise that I take photos which embody bits of places where we go but don’t necessarily give the full picture of the town or city. They are in the main just a flavour.
Here, for instance, are some photos of Paris. I hadn’t set out to ‘document’ Paris, but just took snaps while we ambled around. There is no photo here of the Eiffel Tower, none of the Trocadero, none of the Grand Palais nor one of the Gare du Nord.
These are just pictures within the city, taken with a variety of cameras, and simply of ‘quirky’ things which appealed to me, but which do, for me, anyway, evoke “Paris”.
Which cameras? We-ell, some are taken with a little pocket Fujifilm Finepix F550, some with a pocket Sony RX100 Mark V and Mark VI, some on film with a 1954 Leica M3, and some with a 2009 Leica M9, some with a Ricoh GXR with the Leica M lens mount on it, some with a teeny pocket Sony WX350. To my mind, though, which camera was used isn’t important. Could you tell which ones were taken with which? And does it matter in any case?
I choose a LENS before I choose a camera: how w-i-d-e a lens do I want to use? Which camera will provide, or fit, a lens that wide? How far away is whatever I want to shoot likely to be? So which camera or lens will let me use that ‘focal length’, or which camera (or lens) will zoom to that length, or width?
It’s the lens which captures the picture. So I use a camera which that lens will work with. That’s my motto.
Here’s a shopfront being repainted, or rather, re-varnished. It looks like the shop owners are doing it themselves. Note that it’s right next door to a camera shop — see the tripod in the window? – which is how I came to be there. The building itself is nice’n’olde-worlde, but reflected in its windows are the traditional, stately Paris buildings opposite.
So it’s a picture of two people renovating a building, but it’s the reflections which give the picture its setting. And I like the echoes of the ladders and the tripod, and that diagonal beam in the window to the right: in fact, there isn’t a vertical line in the whole picture. So the angled lines give the photo some ‘dynamism’, as well as the activity giving dynamism, too. It looks — to me; maybe not to you — like Paris, especially with the French wording on those windows: “Guides par passion”.
It was taken with a terrific little Voigtländer 15mm super-wide lens (which equates to 22mm when it’s on, like this, an APS camera).
This is (obviously?) Paris: it’s Matisse’s “Luxe” bathers in the Centre Pompidou, but with a wry comment, apparently, from one visitor to another. The women in the painting are echoed by the women in the gallery. It’s a jolly jape.
I can’t tell you which lens it was, as this was taken on film, so there is no EXIF file. But, by the look of it, I’d say it was a 21mm lens.
No EXIF on this, either, but I think it was taken with a 1950s or 1960s 50mm f/2. It’s in one of the perspex “tubes” — the famous external passageways — of the Centre Pompidou, and there, in the distance, is Montmartre on the left, and a reflected face in the sky, looking down on Paris. Half is inside, and half is out.
This, for me, encompasses the buildings of Paris, and Paris as a city of Art.
A street: Harlequin Theatre. This was shot on film, too (‘Lomography’ repackaged 800 ISO Kodak?) and, though I like the vivid colours which I get from digital cameras, I haven’t boosted the saturation in this straight scan from a developing lab which put the photo onto a CD. This is just how it came back from the lab.
If I’d scanned it myself I’d probably have boosted the colours a bit and boosted the definition (in iPhoto) to sharpen up the edges of all those triangles. But I’ve restrained myself a bit, and just kept the photo as it came back from its developing and scanning. I think it gives the feel of the place as I was passing by.
Ah! This “moody” shot is “our” street corner. This is where we sit during the day, although this is obviously at night, and it’s been raining. There’s the Metro station up in the sky (not underground) and the rigid horizontals and verticals contrast with the more ‘organic’ shapes of the passers-by, the blurry lights. And I seem to have a thing about zebra crossings; in New Zealand, in New York, in Tokyo (naturally) and here in Paris.
Montparnasse train station: you’d expect it to be crowded and busy, but here it’s calm, pretty much deserted, gently colourful, and not looking like a train station at all. But still there’s Art; painted, musical, sculpted, a mosaic floor; a piano for any passer-by to play. It’s shapes, it’s colours, and it’s just a few people.
L’Institut du monde arabe: people buying food at a buffet and eating it. A gallery café. The shapes in the distance in the windows are mechanical irises which open and close to let in more or less light. The Art is in the mechanical intricacies of the metal irises, as there shouldn’t be any copies of the human form, as I understand it, in Arabic art, the art is in metalwork, in lettering, in abstract depiction.
There is no similar building in London, so this — for me — epitomises Paris.
Flowers in a Parisian street market. Nice and vivid; just how I like them! The reds aren’t overblown though; must be a decent camera!
Same camera. For anyone who’s ever been there, that’s Paris. It’s obviously a pavement café — although you can see neither café nor the pavement — and the waiter has just brought me an Orangina.
I love a view like this! And I have many more of the same kind of thing. It is, of course, the steps down to the gents (and the ladies) but with an intricate view of…. you can’t tell what, because the steps are lined with mirrors. It’s a riot of colour and shapes. It isn’t a picture “of” something (a staircase, for example) but it’s just, instead, a mixture of shapes and colours smacking you in the face: it’s colours and shapes just for their own sake!
It’s “Blam! Smash you in the eye!”
At a street market, a girl with a face like one of the inert dummies modelling the hats (deep in the background) and frozen in black and white amidst the colourscape. She’s trying one on for size.
It’s not a photo of her. I don’t know who she is, and I didn’t ask. It’s a photo, instead, of “contrasts”: of black and blue on the left and right, and of doll-like black and white in the centre. It’s a photo of hats!
It doesn’t matter who the people are: they are not the photo — it’s a photo of “this is what you do when choosing a hat in a market!”
This is Paris traffic — and, oh, there’s another zebra crossing. This sums up Paris traffic as it used to be — choc-à-bloc with Citroën 2CVs, except that now there’s hardly one around, they’ve almost all gone to the breaker’s, so this is an evocation of what Paris used to be — the 2CV — but amidst modern traffic: a Deliveroo rider, modern bikes, modern cars.
And the traffic’s caught in a pool of sunlight, with the buildings taking a darker back seat.
Art, again: a blown-up photo ‘clocking’ a gallery attendant. (I can’t even remember what the exhibition was, but this image just stuck with me.)
More Paris traffic, this time on the Champs Élysées. This sums up a good photo for me. In-yer-face, vivid colours, and “what-am-I-looking-at?”
That’s what Paris is: traffic, buildings, trees, passers-by, vivid movement, although I know there are parks, quiet side streets, the river, quiet churches, silent monuments, boats, dark cafés and more. Maybe I’ll cover this in another instalment sometime.
But I tend not to take pictures of quiet moments — people silently reading on park benches — unless there’s something especially ‘quirky’ about the situation. These photos aren’t of memorable landmarks, and they’re perhaps of the more touristy parts of Paris, rather than the tenements at, say, Boulevard de Barbès, or somewhere up near the Moulin Rouge. But these are mainly <i>locals</i> at “our corner” and at street markets, and in the last picture below — and in all the rest of the photos — not actually tourists.
Now I have — especially pour M. Perenet¹— occasionally taken a few black-and-white pictures, as a nod to Eugène Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and the other ‘social documentary’ or ‘social realist’ French photographers of the early Leica years. There’s an extra one for Jean. I do like the fade-to-white background, which evokes, for me, the blue-sensitive film of those early years, on which the film, overloaded with blue light from the sky, revealed the distance as just a plain mass of empty white and which also looks — to me — like Lowry’s painted skies, and Utrillo’s. I like the road and pavement turning white, just like Lowry and Utrillo did it, too. (Of course, it was the film which went <i>black</i>, and it’s the positive prints which look white.)
I think I’ve shown that my photos aren’t of fixed things. They’re not of ‘scenery’, or ‘the view’. They’re of ‘moments-which-epitomise’ a place and time. Pictures of things which happen. They evoke, for me, happenings, or places, or moments, and are not meant to be perfect photographic replicas of a place. They are photos — instead of — intangibles such as “exuberance”, “activity”, “juxtaposition”, “colourfulness”, “nostalgia”, “clutter”, “intensity” and, sometimes, “peace”. They are not pictures of the tangible things in front of the camera, so much as wisps of thought and whimsy, as snapped by a dreamcatcher.
That’s why I use a camera — to record the intangibles of life — which you just can’t quite put your finger on.