Four print-ready projects

IV. The Book of Paris

In the spring of 1975 I landed in Paris, bleary-eyed, on a scholarship to study French literature in the NYU graduate program. I quickly settled into a structured student existence. Each day after breakfast at the Fondation des États-Unis I got on the metro at Cité. From there I caught the Nation-Étoile correspondance at Denfert and attended lectures at Passy or at one of the French universities. For a year and a half, it was a student existence regulated by breakfasts at the Fondation, classes, dinners at the French student restaurants, and then the reading of assigned literature and the writing of papers on my Hermes portable typewriter.

At first it was the light. I began to notice the morning light, filtered through a fine mist rising from the Seine. Shadows were there, but not totally distinct, their edges somewhat blurred. At first I just appreciated being in that light, without thinking of potential images, without even asking myself why objects seemed to be so very attractive. Then I began to leave a bit earlier, get off the metro, walk a distance and get back on again. Finally, I brought the camera – a medium format twin-lens – and began to make images on those walks, which got longer and longer and which then turned into strolls across the entire city. The light of the late afternoon was no less seductive, but the shadows came then from the other side of the streets.

In the first six months of my life in Paris, the study of French literature receded into the background and the making of images took hold of my life – although I still attended lectures, read Proust and Balzac and turned in somewhat fractured papers on assigned subjects. In the basement of the Fondation was a labo photo, a darkroom. What a fantastic piece of good fortune. I ended up spending more time there than in class, and perhaps the assigned papers suffered somewhat.

Or perhaps they turned out much better than they might have. As I made images in walks throughout Paris, I began to notice passages in certain writers that embodied such a powerful visual quality that, once read, they stayed with me for days and even influenced the composition of certain images. Some passages in Balzac and Proust, in particular, have this power to invoke patterns of shadow and light falling on objects. And then the people followed the light. I began to notice faces.

Dans Un Station du Métro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough. — Ezra Pound

Bodies crowd the quai and sidewalks and for the most part one navigates through them as through debris floating on a canal. But every so often one encounters the eyes of another person. It is inevitable. There are just too many bodies, and every body has a head – with eyes. One makes eye contact and then it cannot be the same, not ever. One is not passing through random objects but through fellow humans in the same landscape of buildings, streets and light. There are furtive glances. That’s all. Just quick, darts of the eye, barely enough to acknowledge existence, but enough to affirm the existence of another human. Those elusive, furtive glances became one focus of my image-making. Occasionally, though, something prompted me to stop, ask permission, and make a more composed portrait.

Additional images from this series