Who doesn’t love Paris in the spring?
Every now and then my otherwise mundane sales job throws me a golden ticket and I get to travel to somewhere interesting. Most business trips are dull if not frenetic affairs. A shonky seat on a Ryan Air flight at stupid o’clock in the morning with nothing more than stale muffin and something that passes for coffee for sustenance, is usually followed by a taxi ride with a driver racing towards an early grave. Most meetings take place at an office, the location of which seems to have been selected on the basis that it is the singularly dullest part of an otherwise fascinating city. The meetings themselves might as well be happening in the same box that Schrodinger’s cat inhabits; it’s a sort of twilight zone of existence where death by the quantum decay of a boredom probability wave spreads uniformly through the room and increases in certainty the longer you’re there. I usually leave these events moribund; only the prospect of another taxi ride with a failed F1 driver kick starting the flight or fight response keeps me going.
But a few years ago I figured that if you were going to have to travel to a meeting and if that meeting were say in Paris or Stockholm or somewhere else equally interesting, then why not make that meeting start at 9am on a Monday? And since that obviously means you have travel the day before and since that day is thus a Sunday, why not travel on the first train out to Paris rather than the last?
Life is better when you realise that there is a world out there you can engage with and spend time in. So these days, whenever I travel, I always look for the opportunity to overlap the trip with a little time to explore. As I said, who doesn’t love Paris in the spring?
This particular trip to Paris also happened to coincide with Paris fashion week. I’ve never been a fan or follower of fashion; my opinion of the fashion industry has in the past been not unlike that of the boyfriend in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’; I’ve regarded it as shallow, vacuous and exploitative. I’ve mellowed a little since I started to focus more on photography and have explored the work of some amazing fashion photographers who also created stunning explorations of humanity and culture through social documentary projects that were every inch fine art as they were anthropological. Richard Avedon springs to mind as the obvious example, but the contemporary photographer Ethan James Green’s project ‘Young New Yorkers’ is compelling and sublime in equal measure.
My favourite part of Paris, rather unoriginally I know, is the area around the are north of Boulevard de la Chapelle, from the village feel and cobbled streets of Mon Matre up to the fascinating sprawl of the Clignacourt flea market. If you’ve not been to Clignacourt it’s a street photographer’s paradise; think Camden Town but five or six times the size. You would need several days to explore it properly.
On this particular day the sun was shining in a clear blue sky; there was no diffusion to the light but since it was spring the sun was still relatively low in the sky and so was just about manageable. I was shooting with my Hasselblad, which at the time I’d not had very long and I was only beginning to understand that medium format film needs lots and lots of light; far better to have a lot of very harsh light and try to find a way to improve a soft box, than have poor low contrast light and end up with washed out negatives.
There are a number of covered markets within the Clignacourt complex. These are wonderfully social affairs as they are structured with individual box like units situated so close to each other that the vendors will know if you used a little too much garlic in the previous evenings meal without even having to say bon matin. This proximity however is what makes these markets like a microcosm of social interaction. Thanks to French social justice, the leases on these boxes are long held and the vendors are like an extended family. Arrive at around 1pm and you will see them relaxing on camping chairs around pop up picnics tables adorned with soft cheese, red wine and pot au feu. No one in the world does lunch with such consummate ease like the French and the Parisians are the past masters. It is as delicious a sight to observe, as it must be to engage in.
The markets also have great lighting because they are covered with interspersing frosted glass panels that create wonderful pools of relatively diffuse light. Find a spot where the sun creates a corridor of light, place your subject in it, spot meter for the shadows in that spot and you will have a wonderful chiaroscuro lighting effect.
I’d spotted the yellow seats a little earlier in the morning and making a quick calculation had worked out that around 1pm the light would fall perfectly on them. I’d hung around and approaching that time started to scout for an interesting subject to place there. There’s no shortage of natural characters but the stall holders tend to be less easy to persuade and it’s not always fair to distract them from either work, or worse, lunch.
I had seen Florence in a shop looking at art deco jewellery and almost thought that perhaps if anything she was a little too obvious. But then I also noticed that the light wasn’t quite as diffuse as I might have liked and then looking again at Florence, her striking, almost intimidating look seemed like it would suit that.
I skulked furtively outside the shop, trying to eaves drop the conversation to see if it would give me any clues as to how I might approach her. I suspected she might be quite intimidating to approach and if there was going to be a language barrier that would make it harder. But sure enough I was able to gleam that English was her first language and almost certainly she was American. I started to feel that frisson of excitement from the squirt of adrenaline in my stomach; we’re on.
I hung around feeling like a stalker hoping I wouldn’t get made before she left and as she stepped out of the shop, I surreptitiously slipped into her magnificent wake a suitable distance behind and tailed her. I timed my pace so that I pulled alongside her right at the spot where the yellow seats were melting in the light falling through the window.
"Excuse me, sorry to bother you but I couldn’t help noticing you in that jewellery shop back there and I just wanted to say that your look is utterly fabulous and....."
She looks at me before I’ve managed to draw breath and make my request and with vocal and visual intent cuts right through the BS and challenges me directly.
"Yes I saw you outside, I suppose you want to take my picture".
This does happen from time to time and usually it just makes thing easier but in this instance I feel on the back foot; something is telling me I might be in over my head with Florence and my suspicions are right. I can clearly now hear the accent she tells me she is from New York. I ask her what she is doing in Paris and she tells me she is a fashion writer and is here for Paris fashion week. My back footedness is confirmed and I comment that photographing someone from the fashion industry is always going to make me look like a complete amateur. I ask her if she minds and she smiles and softens a little saying that she understands very well how hard it is to persuade people to be part of projects and so agrees. I’m in, but only just and the gap in the window of opportunity is clearly slim. I need to work quickly and effectively as I will have just one shot I can make and so I need to make it count. I stall for time to compose myself and take a light meter reading. Even though I’ve already pre-metered for the light this gives a moment to think about how to set things up. The seats are too good not to use and contrast well against her dark clothing. I shoot one frame and then pause to think whether there isn’t a better shot and in that brief pause the window snaps shut.
It’s a moment of insight into what it might be like to be a professional fashion photographer; you work at pace because time is money and there is an expectation that you both know what your doing and know how to get the shot you need without faffing around. Florence is kindly and sympathetic but she is not patient and won’t suffer me as a fool. It’s a powerful learning experience and one that thankfully resulted in a portrait I am very happy with.