France’s importance in the history of photography cannot be overstated. Some of the most significant documentary images in the history of photography were made in Paris, and it was the home of photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau. Today, the city is still full of commercial galleries dedicated to photographs. During any given week there are dozens of elaborate exhibitions and public displays of images. Photography is respected as an art, and it is actively promoted. Indeed, France is home to Jean-François Leroy, the founder and sponsor of Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan.
Paris is at odds with itself, however. It’s an easy city to shoot, but a frustrating city to shoot in.
First, the backdrop.
Paris is divided by the Seine. The right bank is to the north, and the left to the south. The left tends to be rather rich (read: touristy) and the right bank tends to be more artsy (and frequently seedier). The right has interesting places like the medieval-streeted Marais, and the left was Hemingway’s stomping ground. The right is hillier, the left flatter.
Regardless of where you go, though, Paris is a victim/beneficiary of Georges Eugene Haussmann. Until the middle of the 1800’s, Paris had the same structure as it had during the Middle Ages—small, interwoven streets and cramped buildings. In 1794, under the influence of the miasma theory of the day that the tight quarters were the cause of illness, a Commission of Artists came up with a plan for redoing the streets. Nothing happened with the plan until Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte became emperor in 1852. He wanted the government to better control a capital where several regimes had been overthrown since 1789, and wanted wide avenues through which to move troops.
Napoleon III tasked Haussmann with reurbanization, and gave him broad powers to implement the plans. Haussmann used that power to seize property, require owners to make changes to building facades, and to completely level and rebuild parts of the city. Haussmann defined the maximum height of buildings, and their features—including balconies and roof pitch—was mandated. Neighboring buildings had to have floors at the same height, as well as matching exterior lines. Quarry stone was mandatory along the avenues. Wide boulevards, landscaped gardens, and monuments were designed to frame France’s imperial history. The plan and its result made the city look like an extensive palace.
What all this means from a photographer’s point of view is that the city provides a fetching backdrop for almost any picture, no matter what part of the city you’re in. It also means that no matter what part of the city you’re in, it runs the risk of looking remarkably like any other part. The buildings are beautiful in their own way, but they lack individuality. It’s as though Disney had the power to reface a major city.
Paris has some of the worst traffic of any major city. Cars are numerous, but mopeds and motorbikes are a close second. They are everywhere. Vehicles clog the streets and they park in any available place. Because of the chaos of so much traffic, Paris has placed a seemingly infinite number of three-foot tall poles to block walkways from vehicle parking. Parking on the streets is relatively unlimited, however, and there is almost no street that doesn’t have cars or mopeds lining it. This means that nearly every street scene will be blocked by either a pole or a vehicle.
Light is also an issue. Paris is a very northerly city. It is on a latitude similar to that of the U.S./Canadian border. In the autumn, this means that the sun is low in the sky, but it’s very bright. Shadows are strong, and highlights are glaring. Dealing with the contrast is not an insignificant challenge. Partly overcast is a friend to the limited dynamic range of a digital sensor.
Most of the traditional sites are worth seeing, even if their inspiration to make images is low. The Eiffel Tower is impressive. The Louvre is stunning. (Outside, at least. I think the Met is better curated, regardless of the difference in volume.) The city’s elaborate gardens are interesting and relatively attractive, if a rigid approach to horticultural design appeals to you. The streets are obtuse and there is no grid, which makes for convenient backdrops. The Latin Quarter and Ile Saint Louis stand out as particularly photogenic. As discussed below, however, many of the sites aren’t accessible to photographs. For example, Sacre Coeur doesn’t allow photography inside, nor does the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore. The Louvre, however, does. Most storefront businesses do not allow photography—including of the street. Most people out on the street will wave you off if they see you taking pictures.
Second, the law.
Contrary to France’s very welcoming approach to photography as art, it is also the home of two laws which restrict it: Droit d’image and La Loi Vie Privée. Basically, a French citizen can sue a photographer for using any image which includes the citizen or his property in the picture.
So, for example, you see an interesting farmhouse in Versailles. You snap a picture, and then want to use it on a blog which has advertising from which you profit. Unless you have the written permission of the owner of the property, under French law you can’t use the image. And what if the property gets sold later? That’s right—you have to get the new property owner’s permission.
The law against using someone’s likeness commercially is not particularly different from the protection other countries provide: you can’t associate someone with a commercial product without a model release. The French, however, fail to understand that taking pictures of someone in a public space and using it for an artistic or editorial purpose is allowed. The French assume they have the right to interfere with all photography.
This has led many photographers to avoid France, and to not publish their work in France. Whether or not these laws would be enforced against a particular photographer with a particular image, it certainly casts a pall over the desire to make images.
In practice, what these laws are about is protecting the monopoly of commercial photographers who either have sufficient fame or have established the connections to secure the necessary legal permissions and pay for property and model releases.
Third, the people.
Paris is a busy city. The streets are full of a variety of shops. People live in the city, and despite their cars, they shop very locally. The Haussmann design leaves little interior space for working at home, so people are out and about. Cafe tables are plentiful, and people loiter for hours working or talking. Pedestrian traffic is heavy, as is bicycle and motorized transport. Shops tend to close around 6 p.m., but cafes and restaurants are open later.
Despite (or because of) the number of tourists, people tend to be fairly aware of photographers. More so than in cities like New York, Parisians seem to be constantly on the lookout for someone taking a photo. There are few smiles in Paris, and even fewer when a camera is around. Parisians have a firm idea that although they think Paris is the most amazing place in the world, no one who isn’t there in person should get to see it. The privacy laws are misunderstood by Parisians. You can’t be stopped making a photograph. You can only be prohibited from specific uses. But the Parisians seem to think that the law means they can stop photography anywhere they like, and they take delight in being citizen cops. Shopkeepers will confront you if they even see a camera. They’ll also come out of the store if they see you taking pictures in the street. Signs forbidding photography are everywhere.
Outside of stores, the people on the streets are less confrontational, but it’s wise to be aware and not push the issue. It’s best to follow the fancy footwork of Cartier-Bresson<> and blend blend blend. He was a master at taking photos fast, with his subjects unaware they were being photographed. Zone focusing and the use of the rear LCD display on cameras so equipped is required practice. Waiting in the right spot for the right time is also handy—people get used to your presence and pay less attention.
The French are much more sensitive to photographers in the few areas unmolested by Haussmann: the Marais retains its medieval feel, with charming streets and great architecture. The Parisians there dress as one would imagine: suits and scarves and heels and skirts, and small dogs as fashion accessories. (This contrasts with the very casual dress to be found throughout the rest of Paris, which is more like New York. Lots of t-shirts and jeans, with the people looking markedly similar to those in American cities.) Because the population in these areas look more classically “Parisian,” they are very sensitive to being photographed. Again, follow in the footsteps of Cartier-Bresson.
Pass on Paris
Paris is a great city. The air and the water make delicious pastries and bread. The streets are picturesque, and there are interesting places to see. The art is impressive and ubiquitous. It’s worth a visit to the galleries and museums.
But it’s a tough city to work in. The people are not friendly to photographers, and the traffic and poles make it a challenge to find a clean foreground, much less a background. The pollution is horrendous, and the noise is incessant. The most photographed places are the most accessible, which means being original is not just a challenge—it’s risky. Having a street confrontation in a foreign language does not a good trip make.
Paris is expensive. Even if the dollar weren’t so low (trading at about 75¢ to the Euro at the time of this writing), everything is expensive. A cup of coffee is 3€. A meal is easily 35€. Hotels are extremely expensive.
There has been talk in the current French administration of revamping the laws against photography, so there is still hope for Paris. For now, though, there are better options than Paris for your photographic travel dollar. It’s too expensive, too rude, and too difficult to make images to have it rank highly on your list of destinations.
If you insist on going, there are ways to make it cheaper. Don’t eat out. It’s better to find sandwiches at a boulangerie and eat on the go. A ticket which will work for the bus or metro is about the same price as any major city’s subway fare. If you buy transit tickets at a tobacco store, they’re a bit cheaper. The public transportation system is extensive, if not fast, and is a good way to observe people. Many museums and sites are free, and walking the streets (which is what you should be doing) is always free.
Don’t use SLR’s, digital or otherwise. They will invite a confrontation anywhere other than at a heavily visited tourist site. Use small cameras (think Leica M’s or Fuji X’s) or even an iPhone. Work fast, and keep moving. And whenever possible, stay out of the city center. Although the French are wary everywhere, the closer in, the fewer your opportunities for a smile. Get on the outskirts, stay away from the tourist sites, and you’ll increase your chances of coming back with something interesting.