Do you think it odd that I enjoying walking in the cemeteries of Paris? Parisian cemeteries are like miniature villages with roads and pathways and trees and benches where one can sit in the shade and somehow feel at ease surrounded by the dark reminders in front of us. Monuments commemorating the dead range from simple plaques, so old you can no longer read the names or dates of the person resting there, to the several story tall edifice marking the final resting place of Marie Bashkirtseff in Cimetière de Passy overlooking Trocadero and the Eiffel Tower. It is always quiet in the cemeteries of Paris, a quiet that clears the mind and opens up the full power of imagination. Read the words carved in the stone and your imagination will begin to tell you a story. What was this person like when they walked the streets of Paris, who could they have met in passing, were they changing my city or being changed by her? Did Robert Doisneau ever catch them in an image? Did they pass Atget in the early morning as he was setting up his camera to document a disappearing era? Were they waking across Pont Neuf when Renoir was creating his famous painting? Sometimes I find myself at the grave of someone I recognize. There are maps available to help you find famous dead people but I like to come upon them by chance. I know they are just bones in the ground but who knows where the spark of who they were has gone? Maybe it lives on in the words they wrote or the images they made or in the lives they changed. If their work has touched me it has changed my life and I am part of that spark. In these moments of quiet contemplation I like to believe that their spark is alive in me even if only for a few seconds. Maybe we who visit are like the angel in my image, stopping for a moment to keep the human conversation alive across generations.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Paris is a city of light and texture. That is why black and white images capture her essence so well. The light, especially in the winter, hits everything at a sharp angle creating deep shadows from the slightest of irregularities. It is these irregularities that give her her character. Tolstoy wrote “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And so it is with Paris. Every pretty city is superficially alike, its real character comes from its flaws. One can visit Paris and see only her beauty and go home and talk about which city is best – New York, Rome, Venice. But if you approach Paris and flâner in her streets she will present her real character to you through her flaws be they irregularities on a church wall on rue Nevins, the broken patterns of the lines and cobble stones of her streets, or the occasional architectural monstrosity (I'm thinking of the University of Paris V on rue des Saints Pères). It is how her beauty shines through all this that tells me, every day that I am here, that this is a life-long affair for me. When I am not in Paris it is not her beauty that I miss but her conversation, the things revealed by what is wrong with her and how I and the people here deal with it. The smells in the street and the dirt of the city drive the way you dress here. Dressing in black is not a fashion but a way of coping, and so it goes. What I remember most when I am gone are not the beautiful things but the flaws. In the beginning it was her beauty but I am grown older with her and am reminded of the title of one of Rodin's sculptures: “She was once the helmet maker's beautiful wife”
Thursday, July 1, 2010
The winter months emphasize the monochromatic nature of Paris. I always see her in black and white but in the winter she actually dresses that way. Early morning is a magic time. The fog was just starting to lift as I was walking in front of Notre Dame. To be honest I don't remember exactly where I was going on this morning but it is a well trodden path for me across Pont d'Arcole to the Right Bank. Some of the oldest buildings in Paris are in the small triangle formed by Notre Dame, the Seine, and Pont St Louis. This small enclave has survived, mostly intact, for centuries. It is an area that I explored in my first years in Paris so it has two histories: its public history, and my private history. Walking along this ancient street invokes a very contemplative mood. I think of Abelard in the monastery on rue Chanoinesse writing to Heloise and think of those people that I love who are no longer accessible to me. The mood lingers as I stand on Pont d'Arcole, leaning on the balustrade, lost in memories. Suddenly I hear the sound of a river barge beginning to pass under the bridge. It emerges in front of me, a reminder that I am here today, in a working city. The view in front of me is famous, almost cliché, so I don't even have my camera out. The barge however means something to me today so I quickly get ready and take the shot. This image always reminds me that Paris is a place where the struggle of light, intellect, and art against the darkness is still winning, still moving up river against the current and that when I am here, I too, am moving up a river.