Watching the Tour de France 7 years ago inspired me to move to France – at least for a month. I highly recommend making your own move – temporary or not as well. While I was there I found the secret to family vacations. Leave a week early!
There is only so long you can sit on the ground waiting for a waiter to pass by before you embarrass the family
A big challenge for any photographer on a family vacation is carving out enough time to do some serious photography. Capturing a compelling image often involves doing activities that are either boring, dangerous, or embarrassing to anyone else not taking the photo. On most family trips I either put the camera away or lug it around hoping for an above average snapshot.
The schedule for a family vacation is just different than doing serious shooting. Sunset, a prime-time to shoot is most often taken up by checking into the hotel or eating dinner. Breaking out for a sunrise excursion is a must for places like Monument Valley, but these opportunities are few and far in-between.
For this year’s trip to Paris I came up with a different solution. I left a week early.
I highly recommend this choice. While my family is tolerant of me carrying a camera and three lenses through the streets, they don’t always appreciate me stalking an interesting person in a Metro station or searching for the perfect café chair.
In the Metro, I was spying on this group of rowdy, drunken guys acting out when this charming young girl sat down and mesmerized the group with her charms
On a recent weekend excursion closer to home, I attempted to share my passion with Max, my 14 year-old stepson. I invited him on a sunrise journey into Joshua Tree National Park. After my tenth stop to find the perfect light on the perfect Joshua Tree, Max screamed with hungry exhaustion: “It’s a cactus! They all look alike. Just shoot it and let’s go eat breakfast!”
I appreciated the wisdom of my early departure on my second day in Paris. I walked into the Musée d’Orsay and was mesmerized by its Great Clock, the centerpiece of the railroad station that was converted into a modern art museum.
At one end of the arched enclosure is a huge beautiful clock backed by frosted glass. Behind the glass are multiple stories of walkways traversed by patrons going from one gallery to the next. I was fascinated by the silhouettes created behind the clock as people walked by. I decided that I wanted to capture someone in the compositionally correct location walking close enough to the glass to cast a distinct silhouette.
The Great Clock in the Musée d'Orsay. If you hold your breath until you turn blue in a modern art museum does that make you a Picasso?
As I was holding my breath trying to balance a telephoto lens on the railing of the Orsay I could imagine Max complaining, “It’s a clock. Let’s go.” Since this was my first week, I was on my own and could indulge my multiple photographer paranoia’s. Did I have the clock in focus? Can I hold the camera steady enough to get a sharp exposure, and can I get my silhouetted person close enough to the glass? Other tourists walking by either made a quick frame of the clock or had someone stand at the railing for a snapshot. The flash went off and they moved on – or perhaps thought – “It’s a clock, let’s go see the Monet’s”.
After over 100 exposures I finally captured one frame with a clean, in-focus profile of a waitress walking by the “backwards” clock in the Orsay museum cafe
What surprised me most on the trip was how capricious it was to get a great shot of famous landmarks. My guidebooks never reported any seasonal or construction warnings.
My first view of Notre-Dame Cathedral revealed scaffolding around one of the towers. This ruled out the main facade of the church. And at the Louvre, the length of the summer day eliminated my dream of a nighttime shot of the I. M. Pei designed pyramid. I had the opportunity to meet and photograph the architect and admired him both as a person and an artist. My heart was set on going to the Louvre in the evening to see the glowing pyramid inside the triangle shaped reflecting pools.
To my great disappointment, I discovered that the pools had been drained for some maintenance issue. I never did understand why. Although I found it possible to navigate the city and feed myself with a limited English/French pidgin language skills - a greater understand wes required to discover when the pools would once again reflect the pyramid.
The joy of the Louvre pyramid before discovering that it would not be lit at night
My other lighting mystery happened with another visual treat of Paris – the Art Nouveau styled Metropolitan (subway) stations. I had my eye on the vine shaped entry at the Blanche station that almost perfectly framed the Moulin Rouge. When I scouted the shot at 4 p.m., the two flower-shaped lights were glowing like an alien’s eyes. But when I returned at dusk with my tripod, the lights were off. This time though I found a way to make the lights work. More about this later…
Embracing change and being flexible, is all part of traveling to a new land. But a little planning also comes in handy. I start with travel guidebooks.
For visual scouting I used the DK Eyewitness Paris Guide. The book is full of photos that help me plot the highlights and serve as a competitive challenge. My favorite planning book and constant traveling companion was the Rick Steves’ Paris travel guide. The DK book has small bits of information about every highlight in the city, while Steves tells you in detail the best places to visit and how to get the most out of your vacation. Steves also has some wonderful, free audio guides for your trip as well.
My first trip to Paris had a dual agenda. Be a tourist, and take great photos that would pay for the trip. Soon it became apparent that these goals were synergistic. What I wanted to see as a tourist were the same places that most people wanted to see as well. I could be my own one-man market research survey.
The game is to go the same spots that everyone else has covered and find a fresh – and ideally better way to shoot the location. This sounds easier in theory than practice. My first response is usually ”this looks like a postcard.” That’s a bad thing since most postcards are uninspiring. The trick is to go the spot and hope that your eye naturally does a better job of arranging the pieces than those that came before. And if inspiration doesn’t show up right away, you push yourself to find a new viewpoint. Fortunately, I’m quite good at discovering new views of “the most photographed places“.
Placing the Invalides dome in just the right location required balancing on the 16-inch ledge of the Pont Alexandre III and waiting for a tour boat spotlights to illuminate the bridge details
In Paris this could mean finding the best lampposts on the best bridge over the Seine and for once getting the lucky break of finding a construction zone that allows you to safely stand in the middle of the street. Or discovering that the best view of the Invalides Dome involves standing on a 16 inch ledge of that same bridge to get the view that you think hasn’t been shot before. The four-story fall down to the river made me question the sanity of this pursuit. But I balanced there for 45 minutes anyway.
Other shots require standing in the middle of the street without the safety of construction barriers. I had seen a photo of a line of waiting taxis on the Champs Elysées near the Arc dé Triumph. I was tired after my ledge-balancing act, but it was in the neighborhood so I wanted to take a look.
My first shots were bad copies of a postcard photo, but as I continued to try different angles, the line of cabs became longer. They were now forced to double-park into the second lane of traffic. This was the break I needed. I was able to move out from the curb and stand in front of the second lane of taxis. This allowed me to get a Taxi Parisien sign right besides the Arc dé Triumph.
Double-parked taxis on the Champs Elysées were the ticket
What allowed me to see what others have not? Was the line of taxis not as long for other photographers, or was I just crazy enough to stand in front of the taxis? It’s hard to tell. What’s clear is even when you think it has all been shot before, it is possible to fight through the fatigue to make a classic shot of a familiar landmark.
I’m constantly amazed at the successful export of what I call the “Japanese Tourist Photo” (JTP). The classic version is the husband taking a snapshot of his wife or family in front of anything that resembles a landmark. Point and shoot cameras are perfectly designed (and in my opinion – only good) for this “I was here” memento. Now that most travelers have digital and cell phones cameras the JTP is even more popular. Often people seem to be more interested in seeing photo of themselves in front Eiffel Tower than they are in viewing the tower itself.
Look at me. I saw these Monets
The most bizarre variation of this can be found at art museums. Monet’s water lilies and a self-portrait of Van Gough were not works of art to be admired and contemplated. They are now just one more background location for the mug-shot book.
I’m personally appalled by the affront to the dignity of the museum and artist, and at the same time utterly fascinated by the act. The documentary photographer in me doesn’t judge the morals he just yearns to record the act. I understand that this only doubles the insult, but it can make an interesting picture.
The challenge to my values came when a family friend asked me to do a JTP of her with her son in front of the Mona Lisa. Should I break out my lecture that I just don’t do that kind of photo, or snap and move on? I decided I was on vacation and snapped.
Family friends in front of the Mona Lisa after I took their JTP
A bigger question that a travel photography in the digital age has to ask is – how much manipulation can I do, and how much am I willing to do? The street artists selling their wares along the Seine all move the Parisian landmarks around to fit their composition needs. Standing on what would be the spot that Maurice Utrillo painted his famous view of the Sacré-Cœur through Montmartre area shops reveiled that he moved the church’s dome over to the right. If painters can move landmarks around to meet his compositional needs, is it fair for me to do the same?
Removing a street-sign or a stray lamppost is now just part of my workflow. It allows me to have some more flexibility in my compositions. I can now move a little more to the right and have less distortion on the Eiffel Tower less if I clean up the tree branch later. With two photos in Paris I did a little more retouching than usual.
The moon below, next to the Pont Alexandre III streetlamp has been added to the photo. I have never done a similar moonrise trick before. I have seen and laughed at fake, overly large moon insertions before, and never imagined myself doing such manipulation. Yet, just ten minutes before, the moon was in that location. Should I be penalized because it took so long for the street lights to come on? I decided that it was fair to shoot the moon and insert it later.
Pont Alexandre III lamppost view that was available from my favorite construction zone
How far photographers go with this trend is a matter of taste, morals and skill. My retouching skills are limited, but I knew enough to shoot all of the pieces that were needed to blend together an idealized illustration of how the Moulin Rouge could look through the Metropolitain arch.
After returning, I teamed up with my Photoshop artist friend Dennis Dunbar. He works in the fantasy world of creating movie posters and had the talent to blend multiple images together for a photo-realistic-impression of the landmark. I suspect that most people will just assume that I just used a special lens, until another serious photographer attempts to find the spot and discovers that I have moved the Metro sign. (A more detailed story of the composition is available in a previous post.)
The Art Nouveau Metro entrance was in the wrong place - so I moved it
Coming to Paris for the first time allows me to see the iconic details of the city that become familiar to the locals. Two elements that fascinated me were the sidewalk cafes and the cobblestone streets. Since most of my images only require a little digital darkroom work, I’m normally most excited at the time of capture. It’s rare when an image grows on me later. But I had two exceptions to the rule.
After five frames I gave up. It was only after seeing others photos of Parisian cafes did I appreciate what I captured
These backlit red wicker chairs and tables was my first surprise. This photo should have been easy to find. There were great cafés on seemingly every corner, and in August when half of the city goes on vacation, restaurants stack their chairs inside their windows in amazing patterns indicating that they were closed. At the time though, I just didn’t feel that I captured the essence of the Parisian way of dining. Only after I looked at what others had done with the subject did I appreciate what was achieved.
This cobblestone street initially disappointed me as well. In my mind I wanted someone carrying a baguette across the street. I waited at my favorite corner as the Montmartre locals walked by and stalked patrons at my corner bakery to no avail. Fortunately the pigeon caught my eye as I was waiting for my bread.
I was thinking cobblestones and baguette before the pigeon took me on a flight of gray
Both of these grew on me during the processing of the files and after comparing them to other currently available images of the subject matter. They are now my quiet favorites from the trip. Letting go of my expectations allowed me to accept these images – and looking back I can see how this is the secret to traveling to a new country.
Giving up expecting that the French should speak English, and accepting that there will be construction are both good starts. And if your plans don’t work out, it’s always possible to shoot somewhere else – or use one of those café chairs to sit down and have a glass of wine.