I had to go. I didn't know what I would do or think when I got to the site where George Floyd was murdered, but I knew I had to go. When I arrived outside Cup Foods I stood for the longest time taking in the scene, breathing deep and slow, recognizing that this was the place where George Floyd's breath was taken from him. This was sacred ground. The tears welled up in my eyes, as they are now. I then did something that seemed to come out of nowhere and yet seemed the most natural and right thing to do...I asked George Floyd for his forgiveness. I asked him to forgive me for all the wrongs committed against people of color by systemic racism. I asked for forgiveness and I cried.
Finally, I got down on a knee and made one photo. The significance of taking a knee was not lost on me. I debated whether or not to do it, but I knew that the perspective I was seeking in the photograph required me to take a knee. The image of George Floyd needed to be above me, not at my eye level. I needed to be at street level when making this photograph. He needed to be looking down on me. I needed his forgiveness. I still need his forgiveness.
In the past two days we’ve taken in two fine museums within walking distance from our flat, the Picasso Museum yesterday and the Henri Cartier-Bresson Museum today. The Picasso Museum is housed in what used to be a hotel. It had been closed for five years for a major renovation project, reopening in 2014. The first time we tried to visit the museum in 2009, the line was all the way down the street and it was raining, so we opted out. In 2011 we couldn’t visit due to the renovation. The third time was a charm. The crowds were light and the weather beautiful. The exhibits at the Picasso Museum are incredibly extensive. In total there are 38 rooms with work displayed. The first two floors house a joint Calder/Picasso exhibit, Calder was an American artist (primarily sculptor) who also worked in an abstract style. The upper floors of the museum are dedicated to Picasso’s works. The curation and display of the work were top notch. Priscilla and I agree that this is one of the most impressive museums we have ever visited.
While I doubt Picasso needs any introduction, Cartier-Bresson might. Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the great photographers in the reportage style. He was a founding member of the famous Magnum photography agency. Before his death, Cartier-Bresson and his wife and photographer, Martine Franck, set up a foundation with the mission to preserve and share his work. Today we saw the photographs of Guy Tillim, in a body of work entitled “Museum of the Revolution,” and the work of Cartier-Bresson from France during 1926 - 1938. All of the work was fabulous. I could look at Cartier-Bresson’s beautiful black and white prints all day. Tillim’s huge panoramic street scenes from several post-independence African countries were amazing. I picked up a copy of Cartier-Bresson’s seminal book, “The Decisive Moment.” I’ve not been able to find this book in the States.
On our way back to our flat we stopped at a French burger joint—yes they do exist—in the Marché Enfant Rouge. That burger and beer tasted mighty darned good. As we continued on our way home, I split off to get some groceries while Priscilla lugged my Cartier-Bresson book back to the flat. I’ve gotten pretty good with my grocery-store French. I’ve also gotten to a pretty good place with the guy that runs the boutique coffee shop near us where we get our ground coffee. He professes to not having much English, but between my awful French and his slightly less awful English, we get it worked out. The ground coffee you get in the grocery stores is ground super fine for making espresso. It doesn’t work well if you’re making pour-over coffee as we are. By acting it out, I was able to communicate to our coffee guy that I wanted a coarser grind of coffee. He breaks out in a big smile now every time he sees me.
At this point I probably owe you all an explanation for why I’m shooting film on this trip. Those of you of a certain age may remember the introduction to the animated series “The Jetsons” in which George Jetson is stuck on an out-of-control treadmill, screaming “Help Jane! How do you stop this thing?” Well, that’s a bit how I was feeling with the social media treadmill. I was feeling pressure to get images shared out quickly and I was finding myself craving those likes and follows. Shooting film on this trip is my way of opting out. This ties in a bit to our decision to not post about our trip on Facebook. We didn’t want Facebook owning these memories.
The night of the Notre Dame fire, I had two cameras with me, one digital (iPhone X) and one film (Olympus OM-2s, loaded with black and white film). As I was photographing and filming the fire on my iPhone X, the thought occurred to me that I should share something about this, as it was terribly important news. So I shared one photo to Facebook just after seven o’clock local time. Then I went back to photographing and filming. I decided that it was more important that I be in the moment. The thought occurred to me that it would have been better if I’d have had my big Nikon digital camera with me that night, but it was too late for that. I was there and the fire was raging, so I shot with what I had.
Seeing the man in the photo below taking a selfie with Notre Dame burning in the background is a sign to me that things have gotten out of whack. Certainly lots of us were making photographs, but why that one man felt the need to place himself in the scene is beyond me. Just to be clear, his reaction was way outside the norm for how the French reacted that night to the tragic Notre Dame Fire. The overwhelming reaction was shock, disbelief, and deep sadness.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a diatribe against all things digital. I’m as digitally connected as the next person, and probably more so. What we are trying to do, though, is to find a happy medium, where the digital world enhances our lives rather than consuming them. Pulling away from that instant feedback loop is one key way of jumping the treadmill.
Believe it or not, we’re finally caught up with the goings on here at 24 rue Saint-Paul. I’ll try not to get so far backed up in the future. The next post will be covering Easter Sunday. We have ambitious plans to attend the sunrise service at the American Church in Paris. Priscilla doesn’t quite know how we’re going to pull that off, since we can’t seem to manage to get out of the flat before 11:30 a.m. most days.
One thing is for sure, Parisians do love their art! That holds true for the random street art that is all over the place to the more formal presentations of art at the many museums and galleries. The street art is practically at every turn. If there is a blank wall somewhere, chances are it has art on it. Rather than feeling like vandalism, this street art enlivens the city and brings a sense of humor and joy to an otherwise blank wall on an otherwise nondescript building. In our walks about the city I've taken to capturing photos of the street art. Some of it is quite inventive, and often it is humorous.
This past Wednesday was our day for art of a more structured variety. Since it was a rainy day, we figured this would be the perfect day to hit the museums. Wrong! Everyone else in Paris had the same idea. We started the day at the Jeu de Paume, checking out the more modern photography exhibits. Generally, I'd say they left us a bit underwhelmed. Then we walked on to l'Orangerie to take in Monet's Water Lillies and other impressionist works. This is where all of Paris decided to go on this rainy day. The first time we visited l'Orangerie in 2011, we went the day following the once-a-month free day, so we practically had the place to ourselves. This year our timing was not so good, we came two days following the free day and one day after a closed day. We didn't spend a lot of time there, since the crowds made enjoying the art a bit difficult.
The last museum we planned to visit that day was the Rodin Museum. We'd heard from several sources that it was a wonderful museum, and we were not disappointed. The sculpture garden and interior spaces of this museum are absolutely gorgeous. The garden area is simply stunning. The main building had been a hotel that Rodin lived and worked in, eventually coming to pretty much take over the place. There were many groups of art students inside the museum sketching Rodin's sculptures. They made good, unwitting subjects for my photos.
There are a good number of other photography galleries and museums that we plan to take in while we're here. The larger Maison Européenne de la Photographie is practically right in our backyard (that is if we had one here). France being pretty much the birthplace of photography, the French seem to have a real love for it. There are many more photography and camera stores here than I would have expected, including stores that still offer one-hour film development. The Artazart store along the Canal Saint-Martin has a display case of Polaroid cameras when you enter and a large selection of photography books prominently displayed in the center of the store. Sometimes as a photographer, you can feel a bit like a second-class citizen in arts circles, but not in Paris. Yet another reason to love this city.
By the way, if you'd like to see photos as I post them to Instagram, you can follow me there at @tomnorth.