It has been a revelation traveling with a man who makes art out of life: a fruit basket, dead birds, a bicycle wheel and, maybe most arrestingly, people going about their everyday lives in ways, yes, visually interesting but also somehow representative of some aspect of the human condition.
In France, it turns out, there is now a law against this. The prohibition has been on the books since 1980 and is blamed for the near-death of street photography in a country where photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson elevated street photography to museum art.
As the record shows, this has not stopped Louis, but it has made for some interesting moments in Paris.
More on the moments shortly. First, how Louis works.
“Can I take your picture?”
The first revelation about Louis’s street portraits has been that the vast majority of people – male and female, young and old, couples and singles, beautiful and not so much – are perfectly happy to have their photos taken by a total stranger, even their children’s photos and especially their pet’s photos.
Some are the people who clearly want to attract attention to themselves. The three below fit into that category. Louis does not even have to explain himself to them. He just says, “Can I take your picture?” and they invariably say, “Of course!”
Only slightly more challenging are ordinary people just being themselves. With them, Louis typically starts with a compliment: “Your scarf is beautiful!” “You are such a handsome couple!” “You are wearing such a gorgeous color!” And then “Can I take your picture?”
Sometimes, there is initial reluctance to pose but, after 40 years of practice, Louis is good at overcoming it. This couple on a street in Prague caught our eye because of the man’s abundant facial hair. The woman was immediately agreeable, the man more reticent. In the end, Louis’s enthusiasm for the sideburns and the wife’s eagerness to share them won out.
Very rarely, people say, “No,” and no talk is sweet enough to move them. The Orthodox priest in Bethlehem and the woman with the sensuous braid in Seville are examples.
The woman was sitting down a bench from us in Plaza Nueva. Louis had already shot her braid from behind but wanted a full portrait of her in her colorful street wear. “Can I take your picture?” he asked. “No,” she said. “I don’t like having my picture taken.” No, even if her face was not in the photo. No no and no. So, no it was. (Louis did snap a photo of her walking away, as if to have the last word.)
Sometimes you get lucky
Luck plays a part in some of the best of these photos. The man at the top of this Partout happened to be walking upstairs in a Prague restaurant where we happened to be walking down. The stairwell happened to be pasted with the historic view of belle epoch Paris. The man happened to be dressed as if he had just walked out of the mural and was so lost in his own thoughts, he did not notice us. We three happened to be the only people on the stairs.
Louis wanted this shot because it was so evocative – the man in the beret and long coat sweeping up the grand staircase with Paris in the background. We who carry cameras all have taken photos like this in our minds about 10 seconds after the opportunity to do it. Louis takes them in real time, over and over.
The same applies to the couple kissing at a nearby table in a brasserie where we had dinner with old CBC buddy Don Murray and his wife Vera one night. Romance in Paris is a stereotype, but some stereotypes endure for a reason. Click.
Sometimes luck is in the time of day or weather. Louis took this photo of Doris at lunch in a Groningen café not because Doris is so interesting (he just reaffirmed: “This had nothing to do with you”) but because of the composition created by the bespectacled man absorbed in his newspaper in the background and the way the filtered noon light coming through the window fell on us. Click.
Of course, behind all this luck is the maxim that the harder you work, the luckier you get. Louis worked for 40 years to be lucky enough to get this shot during a 2014 visit to Paris. Any of us would have aimed a camera at it, but it takes more than luck to pull the shot off, in focus, as the driver shifts into gear and turns into the street.
Artist or Outlaw?
The first clue that Parisians might be less agreeable about being photographed living their lives than other nationalities came from a shot not intended to be a portrait photograph at all. Walking on Paris’s Coulée Verte René-Dumont (model for the Highline Canal in NYC) with our friend Eric, Louis found this set of architectural twins visually interesting and stopped to shoot them. The man emerging from between them was as unimportant as I was in the Groningen café.
Hours later, when he downloaded the complete burst of photos he shot at the building, Louis learned the unimportant man apparently considered himself quite relevant.
We took the gesture for Parisian drollery and thought little more about it until, a day later, on the Metro to Montmartre.
We were sitting next to the train door when a man in a bowler hat who could have just walked out of a Magritte painting boarded and took a seat across the aisle from us. Doris’s role at moments like this is to get out of the way, and she has become expert at it. By leaning back as far as possible, she opened this unobstructed view.
Louis shoots with a Leica D-Lux 109, so small and unassuming that he looks like any other tourist with a point-and-shoot. Typically, he has only a heartbeat or to to capture classics like this one. Subjects move out of the shot or bypassers move into it. On this long train ride, he had time to focus and improve. Click click click.
When the train came to the next station, the man remained in his seat, but a woman sitting nearby moved to the door. Passing us on the way, she leaned down and hissed, “Ce que vous faite c’est interdit en France.” What you are doing is illegal in France. To which Louis muttered in my ear, “Tell that to Henri Cartier-Bresson.”
Two hostile reactions in two days begged for an explanation, and the internet stood ready to answer. From a 2013 New York Times article, we learned that France has some of the strictest privacy laws in the world, including Article 9, a provision of the civil code that states, “Everyone has the right to respect for his private life.”
What exactly constitutes a private life apparently remains a matter of judicial interpretation, but the impact of the law has been sufficiently chilling that France’s minister of culture at the time had taken the position it was “unacceptable to prevent professional photographers from sharing their vision of the world with future generations” and vowed to get the article repealed. (Not coincidentally a lawyer and a photographer, Aurélie Filippetti appears not to have gotten far and is now gone).
“Without them, our society doesn’t have a face,” Filippetti had said in a magazine interview. “Because of this law, we run the risk of losing our memory.”
Consider the photo below, which Louis took on the streets of Manhattan going on half a century ago. At the time, the chief interest was the contrast between the matron applying lipstick and the ingenue on the shopping bag. That contrast remains interesting today but now the scene is also a snapshot of a time and style that has passed.
With the global internet and the growing sophistication of face recognition and in a time when “publishing” takes a thousand forms, street photography unquestionably raises privacy issues that did not exist for Carter-Bresson and other legendary artists, as well as newsmen and other professionals who take street photographs. Losing our history in pictures must not be the solution.
A Happy Memory
Even in Paris, though, it is not all middle fingers and hissing Metro riders.
Walking a back street of the Marais one recent day, we passed the woman below. For reasons that are obvious, she prompted an instant “Can I take your picture?” from Louis.
A doting dog owner, woman assumed he was interested in her charming purse pooch. “Oh, dear. I have just cut his hair and it is too short here,” she said, fussing with the hairs above his eyes.
“No,” said Louis, gesturing at her. “I want you, too. You look so lovely.”
She paused only briefly before starting to laugh.
“Of course!” she chortled. “The beret! The scarf! The baguette! The dog! I am such a cliché!”
She stopped fussing with the dog’s hair and patiently smiled while Louis worked on a shot with all of her and the dog looking good. Satisfied at last, he thanked her.
“D’accord,” she smiled, giving a little wave of her baguette. “And now I’ll just be off for my Camembert.”
In the rear-view mirror:
- Musée de Montmarte: On our first visit to Montmartre in decades for an exhibition on how the village has been depicted in film over the last hundred years, we were able to prowl the atelier of an artist from Montmartre’s heyday. Who wouldn’t be inspired?
- Christmas Eve and all that jazz: With our friends Christiane and Patrice (waving in the door below), we spent Christmas Eve in a packed jazz club near Les Halles hearing a fabulous quartet.
- Eiffel, morning, noon and night: One of the treats in our exchange house is the Eiffel Tower being the last thing we see from bed in the morning and the last thing at night. It’s beginning to feel like an old friend.
COMING SOON: Goodbye, Partout 2017