Shooting Journal: Shooting Paris

During a recent week in Paris, France, the May weather was cooler than expected, often overcast. Only one 70 degree day with blue skies allowed me to take the postcard pretty pictures many people like. Otherwise, the clouds often made a dramatic background to the beauty of the City of Lights.

Due to jet lag, we were often up at 5AM and able to get out and about while the streets were deserted and the morning light was at its best. I did not bring a tripod to France, learning from past experience that their use can be problematic in busy cities, museums and churches. I'm fortunate to have a Tamron 18-270mm lens with vibration reduction so this was less of an issue than it might have been. The rules for photographers are sometimes unclear here. Art museums allow no photography but history and archaeological museums do...except when they don't.

In the Cluny Museum, for example, I was allowed to photograph at will until I reached a special exhibit - when the rules changed. The Cluny is a former convent from the Middle Ages and has a lot to offer visually. There are excavations outside, a garden, a courtyard with a well, a very large chess board, a sundial on the walls and remarkable details on the facade. Another archaeological treasure in the Crypte Archaeologique located on the Ile de la Cite near Notre Dame Cathedral. The Crypte is a series of excavations beneath the Ile and is the site of the origins of Paris, originally called Lutetia. The space is well lit but I had to experiment with white balance, eventually defaulting to Auto. Paris, we learned, was eventually renamed for the Parisii, the tribe that first inhabited the site. The Crypte was large with signage usually in French, English and German. Displays were unusual and informative, definitely worth visiting.

Since architecture is a favorite subject of mine, being in Paris was a field day. There are beautiful buildings from many eras, churches and cathedrals seemingly on every corner, parks, fountains and plazas and, oh, yes, the Seine with its many bridges. Notre Dame is a fantastic structure and I photographed it from so many angles, so many times, day and night, that it became a running joke. We did not go inside this trip since we had seen it before and the lines were lengthy. My original plan was to take one of the tours - in English at various times of the week - up to the bell towers but the thought of climbing 370 steps with a camera and heavy lens was daunting. Long lines there too. If I had another opportunity, I would be there at 10AM when the tours open, preferably not on a national holiday, of which there are many in France. During our 2 weeks in the country, there were 3 - a bank holiday, Victory Day and Pentecost Monday. Really. On these holidays, many attractions are open but shops and cafes may not be and crowds are everywhere.

The most exquisite of all the churches we visited was Sainte-Chapelle where photography was allowed. This was built between 1242-1248 by Louis IX, later St. Louis, to house relics from the Crucifixion. During the Revolution, the site was targeted due to royalist connections and extensively damaged. In the mid-19th century, restoration began and is ongoing. Even as a work-in-progress, the lower chapel is only slightly less stunning than the upper. I was able to achieve some good images of the dramatic, gilded and painted ceiling, arches, pillars, statues and stained glass windows.

While we prefer to walk cities like Paris, since we see so much more, some of our destinations were too far to manage this comfortably. We had tickets for the Metro system and opted to take the bus at times. It's a good way to get oriented. The first bus venture was to the Cemetiere Pere Lachaise, one of the loveliest cemeteries I have ever experienced. Both visually and historically fascinating, the Pere Lachaise is not suitable for one brief visit. Named for the early owner of the land, the confessor of Louis XIV, it was opened in 1804 at the behest of Napoleon since the graveyards in what was then the city had reached critical mass. Pere Lachaise was on the outskirts of town at the time and, in order to increase the cachet of the place, it was decided to move the remains of some celebrated Parisians there. This seems to have been good marketing strategy since, as you walk through the extensive grounds, you see graves, all above ground, packed shoulder to shoulder. Some monuments are spectacular , some poignant, some forlorn, and many are occupied by by the rich, the famous, the talented: Chopin, Proust, Maria Callas, Jim Morrison, Colette, the Rothschilds, Moliere, Talleyrand, Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein... Go in through the main gate, get a map at the visitors center and start strolling the cobblestone streets. There are guided tours but avoid the "volunteers" who insist on taking you around to the famous sights and then demand payment. Find a cafe for lunch, go back and walk some more.

Montmartre (Mount of Martyrs) was another bus destination. We took one to the Place Pigall, then climbed two long flights of stairs up to the top. There is a funicular but we were feeling virtuous about working off some of the Parisian food. Montmartre seems to be increasingly touristy but the main plaza remains filled with artists painting, drawing and selling their work in the open air. Away from that area, you can see interesting cafes and shops that don't actually sell tee shirts with "Paris" in day-glow colors. Sacre Coeur is at the crest of the hill and the plaza in front offers good views of the city below. It is possible, I am told, to climb a small staircase in the church to photograph through the windows. The crypt beneath the church is fascinating as well.

The boats on the Seine offer good views of the city from the water and always go past the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadero. There is a BateauBus, a sort of water taxi with off and on access that allows easy travel to various parts of the city via the river. For tour boats, the Bateaux Mouches seem to be the most spacious and have extensive seating on the upper level where it is possible to shoot without water-spotted windows between you and your subject. Photographing from the many bridges provides wonderful views of Notre Dame, the Ile de la Cite, the Ile St. Louis, the Louvre, the Musee D'Orsey and the Seine itself. We were fascinated to find a number of bridges, most notably the Pont D'Archeveche, loaded with padlocks. These are called "love locks" and the Parisians apparently hate them. Tourist couples from around the world buy padlocks, engrave or paint their names on them, then attach them to the chain link fences on the sides of the bridges, throwing the keys into the river while swearing eternal love. I took a number of shots of the locks - the many colors and varieties are really astounding and graphically rather appealing. In 2010, the mayor declared an end to the practice and most of them disappeared mysteriously overnight, only to reappear and flourish.

We were staying in a small apartment in the Marais, a 10 minute walk to the river through the Rue Vielle de Temple, not to be confused with the Rue de Temple. Our apartment was on the Rue Marche des Blancs Manteaux, not to be confused with the Rue des Blancs Manteaux. The elevator to our 2nd floor apartment - Americans would call it the 3rd - was not for the faint of heart and we preferred the very worn and rather lovely wood stairs. The view of the street below and the richly decorated old building across the street was charming and we left the long windows open as much as possible, partly to hear the beautiful church bells in the evenings. The Marais offers photographic opportunities galore with its many sidewalk cafes, flower lined alleys and graffiti covered walls and storefronts. Getting lost in Paris is part of the fun for us but we have learned to look up at the building walls at each corner to find the names of the streets. This is often interesting but not always helpful since the city is not laid out as a grid and the street names are often as bewildering as those near our apartment. Nonetheless, the habit of looking up is a good one since there is much to see. Sooner or later, you find a major street to orient yourself.

In cities like Paris, there is always something of interest happening over and above the usual attractions. Near the Crypte Archaeologique and Notre Dame, the Fete de Pain was in full swing all week. There was a long white tent full of bakers and wonderful aromas that lure the hungry to purchase croissants, pain chocolate, baguettes, etc. Along the banks of the river, at least some of the the booksellers have their stalls open every day. The books are in French but there are also postcards, prints and old maps on offer. Shakespeare and Company is one of only two English language book stores in Paris. This is a place for book lovers to lose themselves for hours. The building is crammed to its ancient rafters with books of all descriptions, the walls and ceilings only vaguely squared. The rooms are small and many. The original Shakespeare and Company was in a different location and closed due to the Second World War. The gentleman who opened this one knew the owner of the original and wanted to continue her tradition. He has since passed away but his daughter carries on.There are a number of rooms above the shop available to aspiring writers who stay there as long as they like, writing and paying their way by helping out in the store.

The antique market in the Place de la Bastille is worth a visit as well and there is a walkway that was built and landscaped along an old elevated railroad that lifts you above the streets and into green space. It's hard to find a bad meal or glass of wine in France and I confess to shooting some of our meals as well - they were just so perfectly presented. Past visits to Paris have been on organized tours but this time we chose a tour company that gave us a place to stay, transportation and museum passes, then left us alone to explore. Since we were able to set our own schedule, we could wander at whim and enjoy some of the charming and surprising experiences the city has to offer. What we did not find was rudeness or hostility toward Americans. We did find many people who spoke English and who were tolerant of our own more limited French, and willing to give directions - whether we understood them or not.

Chopin at the Pere Lachaise

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Ici Repose

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Love Locks

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Paris at Night

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Paris Street

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Shakespeare & Co., Paris

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St. Germain L'Auxerrois Pipe Organ

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Vertical Paris

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