When I first visited Paris, my objective was to photograph as many urban landscapes and cityscapes as possible. (This is actually my modus operandi in every city I visit on this planet).
However, there was something quite different about Paris that I was unable to pinpoint until many years later when I started to review my inventory of images. Most recently, as I looked through my electronic photo database on my Macintosh (each folder is named after a Parisian neighborhood, monument, or event), I noticed a familiar pattern. I hadn’t exclusively captured urban landscapes. I had a number of semi-intriguing street scenes featuring everyday people in Paris, be them residents, tourists, etc. I had photographed women, men, and children interacting with their surroundings. The reason I find this interesting is because, psychologically, it was never my intention to do this.
In retrospect, I realized these photographs I had previously glossed over had revealed and underscored a fact that I had always known to be true throughout life: A city cannot be a true city without its people. People make the city. Everything else is peripheral. I suppose, as I type this article, I frequently look for the peripheral (of which there is plenty to admire and marvel, otherwise TIA would not exist). Recalling my blissful experience photographing Paris on my daily excursions, it was impossible to exclude the people from many of my compositions — the human beings that embody the soul of the city — the people who essentially make Paris…*** Paris ***.
The purpose of this article also gives me the opportunity to share a more acute observation. It’s an observation that has lived with me ever since I was a little boy reading travel magazines, world atlases, and encyclopedias by the name of “World Book” and “Britannica”, discovering that there was an entire world of magnificent cities and countries on Planet Earth to explore. That observation is that residents of most major cities take their own metropolises and their respective attributes for granted without realization.
Perspective is always relative, isn’t it? Personally, I believe Parisians live and work in art everyday. The city itself is a human construct of art created, designed, and redesigned over the centuries, timeless in its beauty and allure. What a commuter might view as his or her routine walk home is, to me, a stroll through an entire realm of man-made, scenic splendor — a walk through the art of architecture.
The photo below, “Artery of the Sacred Heart”, was among the very first images I captured in Paris, perhaps two hours after arriving from London. I didn’t waste a minute of time commencing my exploration of this city that I had heard so much about, read all about, and seen glorified in movies and television shows multiple times since childhood. This image displays an idyllic example of my perspective of how each road, intersection, square, and building in the City of Lights provided a fascinating photo opportunity. I believe I was strolling down Rue La Fayette, loving the warm weather and admiring the stunning architecture and urban layout of Paris. However, I stopped immediately in my tracks upon sight of this scene with Sacré-Coeur gracing the background of this very narrow street. I was enamored by the beauty of this urban landscape with the lovely ambiance of the sunlight on the buildings. I also gazed in awe of how striking the setting was as other people (who must have been residents) kept walking by as it was, without a doubt, a sight they saw every day. Nothing new. Nothing stunning. I was perplexed and amazed simultaneously.
There are people who travel and traverse thousands of miles just to see the extraordinary, architectural icon that is the Eiffel Tower. There are adventure enthusiasts on the opposite side of the earth who come to Paris to arduously climb the 300 stairs to the Dome of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart to witness the magnificent, dramatic, and sweeping view of the French capital. The tragic irony is that, for the people of Paris, these are just everyday landmarks that happen to be in the city they live. Simply stated, the perception of a city’s features for a resident is rarely as profound as the perception of a first-time or frequent visitor. In other words…dare I say it?
Paris itself might just not be that special to Parisians.
Please don’t misunderstand. That statement is not meant to disparage Parisians whatsoever. As I mentioned, this is my own observation of every city I’ve ever visited. When a city has been your home all your life or for a significant number of years, you tend not to notice or appreciate what your city has to offer because whatever those things are have always been there. I’m not saying Parisians don’t love Paris or, as another example, New Yorkers don’t love New York. The point I wish to make is that residents of a city unwittingly tend to take the city’s most attractive and intriguing features for granted. The aspects a visitor may notice often goes unnoticed by the resident until these aspects are brought to the resident’s attention.
In the case of New York (which was my home between January 1998 and August 2000), several months and years after the catastrophe that befell the city on September 11, 2001, I will never forget how many friends who were native New Yorkers expressed their gratitude because I had encouraged them to entertain me in my request to take them to the observation deck or Windows of the World restaurant atop the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
One friend admitted months after that extremely morbid and dark day in world history, “I never really thought of World Trade because I have lived here all my life and always thought the towers would be there forever. You never think something could happen.”
A similar scenario could be ascribed to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, in which a devastating fire destroyed the roof of the world renowned landmark, also causing the collapse of its iconic spire in April 2019. Fortunately, the circumstances were not equivalent with the former Twin Towers in New York or the Pentagon outside of Washington, D.C.,
but the loss was still dire nevertheless, causing a very emotional impact for millions of people in France and around the world. This is another example of assuming what we have or know will always be around. As a result, we don’t pay as much attention until something, typically negative, occurs. Sometimes, it’s too late to appreciate what has been lost. In the case of Notre-Dame, fortunately, its core structure is intact and is predicted to be refurbished, renovated and ready for the world again in roughly five years’ time.
Given all of the previous points, I, personally, marvel at how beautiful Paris is, and not just the popular landmarks. (Even my memories of the city, as I write this article, ignite sparks of delight). The entire city is just aesthetically pleasing to the eye — or my own eye, for certain. When I went on a joint photo shoot with one of my local contacts in the Parisian district of La Défense, I told him, in French: “Alors, toutes les petites rues de la ville, elles sont belles. Les parties de Paris qui ne sont pas mignonnes sont belles aussi!”
In English: “Even all the small alleys of the city are beautiful. The parts of Paris that are not pretty are beautiful too!”
Although I could carry on and on about the beauty of Paris, I would like to make sure I illustrate my comments with some of the photographs in and around the city. Some of them include the popular landmarks many of us recognize. Others do not, but are still meaningful because of the people in them. I suppose we’ve all been the people we see in these photos. This is probably why people love to see other people within photographs.
I used to avoid incorporating people into my urban landscapes and cityscapes, but I have become a lot more open to it if the people in the composition add to the appeal and mood of the scene. There are many cases in which the photo would truly not resonate with the viewer or deliver the same impact if not for the presence of the people within it.
As a result, I’m sharing many of my street scenes of Paris in this article instead of the cityscapes. I hope the images complement the ideas I’ve conveyed in this piece. More importantly, I hope they encourage people who live in the world’s massive metropolises to take a few minutes each day to truly admire what they love about where they live and not wait for an unexpected event to confiscate the opportunity.