Can a little bit of the greats rub off on us sometimes? Maybe not!

HCB's stomping grounds, not done justice to at all by my efforts with a Panasonic GF-1

If ever your photography needs a little jolt of inspiration, then one bit of advice is to remind yourself what inspired you to pick up a camera in the first place. For me, I was influenced by the pioneering black and white work of some of the great French photographers. Well, actually by great colour photos of motorbikes and sexy fetish style shots of Bob Carlos Clarke. But it’s far more socially acceptable to say great reportage. Or “street” photography as it’s now celebrated. Far more urban, cool and edgy that way.

If photography has a spiritual home, then I always thought surely it must be Paris. OK, maybe it wasn’t invented there – although some would argue that actually it was. Certainly the first photo of people were there. A shoe shine man and his customer. But photography was certainly elevated to a genuine art form there.

Architecture? Paris got it!
Architecture? Paris got it!

From the early “documentary” works of Eugene Atget to the fine cityscape, still life and fashion work of Andre Kertesz and Jeanloup Sieff. Plus, of course, the street reportage of Robert Doisneu and the most famous of all, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

These men captured amazing decisive moments of Parisian life, fleeting tableaux of reality captured forever on celluloid. Or staged photos made to look like reportage, if you believe some of the nay-sayers.

Either way, these great photographers were influenced by the beauty of Paris and the interplay between its formalised, classical architecture and the people who live there. Some oozing class and style, some in poverty. All were equally meritorious, if diverse, subjects.

I’d always fancied a trip to Paris solely to take some photos. And to see if a little of Henri’s magic rubbed off on me. The timely collision of a free weekend, a pass-out from the missus, a cheap deal on Eurostar and the promise of a glut of exhibitions thanks to Paris Photo Month saw me flexing the plastic. And it was a good deal cheaper than the new lens I’ve got my eye on.

So one Saturday morning after leaving my house in the Midlands at 9am, I found myself two train rides later taking a light lunch in the centre of Paris. Light in terms of volume of food, not quantity of Euros it cost to buy, unfortunately.

My brain wired with strong French coffee, I wandered off towards what I perceived to be the epicentre of Cartier-Bresson’s photo taking universe, the banks of the Seine river. As an homage to Henri, I was here to take black and white photos and was stealthily armed with my Panasonic GF-1 complete with kit zoom lens and 20mm pancake lens. Of course, I’d love to have paid him the ultimate compliment by using a full-frame Leica M9 with 50mm f1.4 lens, but there are roughly seven thousand reasons why I wasn’t. Each of those reasons costs a quid.

Fighting my way past the crowds of tourists in front of Notre Dame, I crossed the river and headed down to the river bank – the picturesque promenade I’d seen so many times in Henri’s book “A Propos de Paris”.

What I was hoping for was a magic moment. When the lovely low winter light, the magical architecture and a chance encounter with an unusual local all comes together and I capture a moment to remember forever.

And to my surprise, I think it kind of did. I’d been there for no more than 20 minutes when I walked over a bridge, and looked down on the aged cobblestones to see a man asleep on a stone bench. Bathed in winter sun that was glistening off the Seine’s murky waters, his feet bare and a pigeon chancing its luck by edging closer to his humble possessions. And the light-coloured stone wall acting like a giant reflector to fill in the shadows a bit, too. I seized the moment and took the picture. I took several, in fact. Some landscape format, some portrait, some with a tighter crop, some a bit looser. Well, he was asleep, after all.

A man asleep in the sun by the Seine and an inquisitive and hungry pigeon. Well, I like it
A man asleep in the sun by the Seine and an inquisitive and hungry pigeon. Well, I like it

OK, maybe it’s not a mono masterpiece that would go alongside the works of photographic greats that I visited in various museums like the Louvre in Paris that weekend. But I like it, which is what matters.

And although I wandered around the city all weekend, taking lots of photos in all the usual tourist traps as well as being inspired in some of the huge variety of photo exhibitions that were on, it was clearly my favourite photo of the weekend. The one that you can’t wait to get home to see on your computer screen.

Somehow, at that one location it felt like a bit of Henri’s spirit was on my side. It was my decisive moment, perhaps, and something I’ll remember for a long time. And it may go some to proving the streets of Paris are still paved with more photographic gold than just about any other city in the world.

  • First published in Practical Photography magazine