Our first day in Paris, Valerie led us on a short walk from the Pantheon to Luxembourg Gardens, a beautiful and expansive island of tranquility in the middle of the city.
For over 100 years, it has been a tradition for children to launch miniature sailboats in the pools, something I did with my grandfather in the reflecting pool at the Washington (D.C.) Monument in the early 1950s.
My next theme would be “character.” The people you see in Paris are full of character. Take this delightful gentleman, a bracelet vendor at the Pompidou Center plaza. He didn’t want his photograph taken, but after chatting him up for a few minutes, he said, “Oh, go ahead — I don’t mind.”
Where but Paris would you stumble upon a poetry fair in a tiny city park? “Doily woman” (that’s what I call her) was promoting something to the fair goers, but I have no idea what it was.
Taking a field class in photography is a fabulous way to learn and to push your boundaries. While in a class, you’ll be better motivated to try new techniques than if you’re on your own. (Ok, I’m speaking just for me.) Another example of this is the decision street photographers make regarding how and whether to approach strangers when we shoot them. Do we ask permission? Just shoot, smile and keep walking? Plant ourselves in one place and shoot what appeals to us? Or use a 200 mm telephoto lens and become the inconspicuous photographer? I’ve used all of these techniques and almost never had a problem with any of them. None is right or wrong. Let’s look at some examples.
The classy guy in formal attire was being photographed simultaneously on a busy street by 8 people from about 20 feet away. I doubt he even saw us. I wasn’t more than ten feet from “the quintessential French woman” or the seated woman wearing the seaman’s hat. I chatted up the bracelet vendor and he eventually gave me permission. I wanted to get to know him a bit first. None of the lovers, the sleepers or the child sailors had a clue they were being photographed, and I doubt any of them cared.
Teacher Valerie Jardin seldom raises her camera to her eye to photograph on the street. She leaves the camera strap around her neck, looks down at the LCD screen and shoots people from her waist, leaving them unaware. Sometimes she pretends to be looking at her cell phone, which is also at her waist. International street photographer Eric Kim calls that method (and the use of long lenses) “sneaky.” He approaches his subject, and less than 10 feet from them, raises the camera to his eye, snaps the photo, smiles and says “thank you.”
The point of street photography is that people choose to be in a public space, and street photography is both legal and ethical. When people are at public attractions or events, they expect to see photographers. It’s part of our culture. Although most professional street photography teachers discourage shooting with long lenses from afar, my favorite street photo ever was taken in Arles, France in a public square amidst hundreds of people from 100 feet away. (You saw it in my first post, “It was Paris.”)
Here’s another for you to consider. On our way to the plaza in front of the Louvre, our class was crossing one of Paris’ many bridges over the River Seine. I saw the most striking woman in black — tall, wearing leather pants and a leather shoulder bag. I knew I had to photograph her. I snapped a quick profile, but she was walking so quickly, I didn’t think I would catch her for a portrait.
I was really disappointed to lose that opportunity, but when we arrived at the Louvre, lo and behold, there she was! I started speaking to her in French, then learned that despite being born in Haiti, she only spoke English. (She lived in Brooklyn.) I explained I was in a photography class and that I found her to be a striking subject, and I asked if she would give me five minutes of her time. She was such a fabulous and beautiful subject, after the shoot it was difficult for me to find a photograph of her I didn’t like. (Usually, if you get 2-3 good shots out of 100, you’re thrilled.)
Speaking of characters, this guy occupied the same table in the artists’ colony of Montmartre for hours. Can’t say how many drinks he downed in that time. Technically it’s not the best photograph, but another face with character. (Reminds me of Hemingway.)
The subjects in Paris are limitless. If you’re into architecture, there’s hardly a block without interest. One morning Valerie took us to the Marais — the Jewish Quarter, and told us that the best falaffel to be had in Europe was at this little luncheonette.
And here’s the waiter taking orders outside and transmitting them by text to the cook a few yards behind him.
See the couple eating falaffel to the waiter’s left?
I know they loved it — I did, too. We ate at a table inside, and the communal water for our group was in an old wine bottle. Although street photographs usually include people, Valerie said that sometimes inanimate objects can help tell a story, and story telling is what street photography is all about. Photographers call the soft impressions behind a subject “bokeh.”
In the next installment, we’ll conclude our visit to Paris and the fabulous week of street photography.