……me. Am I paintable? I was.
This festival is buried in Crown Heights. Everybody tells you something different and so I wound up missing the sunrise start, which was okay to be honest…..the neighborhood is block by block, and early in the morning was out of my comfort zone, so a 9 am foray was perfect for me. This section of Nostrand Avenue was my first visit and today the streets were covered in paint and oil, as were many of the people present. I didn’t feel unwelcome….one guy objected to me photographing him, and it was apparent that it was his personal feeling about me that drove his distaste. Interactions like this always flatten my mood, and this one did, but only briefly. Because this day, Monday September 4, 2017 was about one thing: fun. Pure fun for adults on one day at summer’s close.
This guy noticed me photographing him and he was in the middle of the paint and oil intersection of Nostrand Avenue and Empire Boulevard.
As I passed I looked down and saw her head, appearing at the blanket’s edge, so close to the feet of those crossing the bridge over the Seine that I wondered how she could remain there, unaffected by the footsteps of the careless….an occasional drunk passing through from Rue de la Huchette, coming too close, without a glance down in passing. I walked, and the picture that I wanted to make came suddenly into my mind, and I stopped short. I hesitated before approaching the family because I was sure they’d say no, because many Romanian/Bulgarian Gypsy families detest being photographed. I went back anyway, and they were a young family–father, mother and two young children. This girl, about five, and her brother, two or three. They spoke Bulgarian, and the father spoke a bit of French. I learned that they don’t have housing. To be perfectly honest, it’s hard to know if this was true, because the children were relatively clean….but it’s my observation that, in general, mothers take very good physical care of their children and even though they sleep outdoors it’s not always obvious when you see them. As a general observation, they are sometimes not well supervised as they approach adolescence and this is cause for alarm because of the criminal activity they can become involved in.
My feelings are very mixed. I’ve seen so many bands of young boys, ranging in age from 9 to 14, roaming the streets of Paris looking to steal money from people at ATM’s that it’s hard to remember that they’re just kids. I’ve seen grown men desperately pursuing eleven year old boys streaking down the Rue Rivoli with a wallet in hand, trying in vain to keep up. Groups of young women in heavily touristed areas, with fake petitions to sign, sometimes fleecing the unwary, touristic innocence lost in a moment of naïveté. But in the end, I have tremendous sympathy for them. They suffer greatly from racism and have for many, many years, and were exterminated along with the Jewish population of Europe during WWII. It’s an ancient sort of racism, and nobody I have spoken to seems to get the tragedy of the WWII connection and its lasting effects.
Fumer Tue (Smoking Kills)
Rue Guisard, Paris
This picture required three things from me: lightning fast reflexes, a sense of humor, and absolutely no self consciousness or fear of looking comical. Maybe it’s not a question of fear….I think I don’t care, and it never occurs to me to wonder if I look funny or ugly or if my underwear is showing while I’m squatting trying to do a picture. Actually I do worry about the latter….I usually tuck my tank top into my belt to prevent looking really unappealing. Having to wonder whether or not I’m wearing ugly underwear sucks once I realize that they’ve been exposed on a crowded sidewalk for many minutes while I’m taking what often turns out to be a worthless discard. Sylvester was a cat who knew himself well, and didn’t suffer me gladly.
Some people have presence, and this is one portrait that I wasn’t going to let get away from me. Her magnetism and depth drew me, and in Paris where personal reserve is an unfortunate obstacle for me to overcome, people like this young woman are to be prized. The necklace has the Koran, and The Hand Of Fatima. I have several of these hands, and mine are clearly Israeli. I was never sure of the difference and now I know that the Hand Of Fatima that she wears is with the outer fingers turned up into almost a semicircle, and mine are rounded. Street portraits are a combination of many factors, and great ones only come together when everything works harmoniously: background elements, available light, the emotions and flexibility of the person I’m hoping to make a portrait with and whether or not I’m able to relax and take it all in so that I can make a quick decision while the ambiance lasts. I never pose people so I rely on their instincts and whatever occurs spontaneously. Sometimes photography is an intrusion, unless someone lets you in because they have a love of being seen, of being acknowledged in some way by the abstraction of potential viewers. Sometimes the best pictures combine permission and intrusive elements….a person can allow you to make a photograph, but be entirely unaware of what is outwardly apparent to others, and what the final image will reveal.
My son calls this Paris Gothic. So many older people here, and infinite ways to photograph their delicacy and timelessness. After a day spent lost in the nearly absolute emptiness in the cemetery at Montparnasse, I’m sitting in an old church listening to a priest speak in French and perhaps Latin….it feels medieval, so perhaps the Latin speech is part of my emotional reaction to the sombre quiet and the cavernous, centuries-old depth of the church. I can smell old wood and candle wax and mold, and the mix of sensations acts as a salve. I took refuge here because a man asking for money cornered me in the entrance, and, trapped in the vestibule, I panicked a bit and retreated into the cool shadows of the église. He watched me, face nearly pressed against the glass door, intensity and intention clear enough to summon two old women to urgently shoo him away. He didn’t want to acquiesce, and stayed, his stubborn refusal causing me to seek a quiet and dark corner at the other end, and as I sit he’s out there still, waiting in the hot sunlight. I love Paris but today especially it feels somewhat decayed and melancholy, despite the late August sun, a warm interlude after a series of cold, wet and rainy afternoons. There’s no real rebirth here….the old nostalgia remains, thinned enormously by chain stores–far too many of them originating in the USA–and a new generation locked onto their iPhones with tremendous intensity. Starbucks, iPhones, short shorts, hamburgers and homelessness. America in Paris.
But the old people remain, and I remember clearly when I first came to Paris, and my life started for real. And I will always love it here, and I will always remember the smell of Montparnasse in the sun, and in the rain too, the first time I saw it.
One Thousand Words
I can talk all day and not say one sentence that will convey anything close to what a photograph can. I think it’s why I abandoned my pencils in favor of a camera, and why I feel so strongly about the power of this medium, and the messages one can telegraph within its applications. When not misused, it’s possible to draw parallels and allow people to visit each other, each individual viewer connected for a few moments and engaged within the world of the picture whether it’s a culturally familiar universe or a landscape entirely unfamiliar. The idea is to capture universals that are recognizable to many, forcing them to acknowledge a world or another person that previously remained anonymous or hidden or misunderstood. The ability of a photographer to carve out a windowed space in an otherwise shuttered room is astonishing. While the subtlety and subtext of an image like this one is not for all viewers, it is for me an intimate view of two vastly different life stages, and the facial expressions of both females are oddly similar reflections of disappointment, private encounters that reveal my personal trespass as a photographer.
When Pictures Say A Thousand Words
What does this one say to me? I know that when I made it I embarrassed my son, who periodically stated to me as he stood waiting for me to finish that I was looking weird, that people were staring, and that I needed to hustle. I know that I was just off the Rue Rivoli in Paris, and that it was a cool and cloudy August day. I also remember that I thought to myself that fortunately I work out regularly because the leg positions that I had to assume as I photographed this little pigeon from various angles wore me out. But the picture is really about what goes unnoticed in our lives, what we don’t see when we are out living our daily lives….the minutiae that we are oblivious to….Life Underfoot, the title of this portrait. I feel that I’m like this bird sometimes….I walk between the raindrops and wonder if anybody sees me. And then I realize that I’m not really seeing the person standing next to me most times either. I don’t really see anybody with much depth much of the time, with these few exceptions: I see the gypsies, the homeless, the beggars and the thieves….fruit sellers, operating illegally, and strung out Asian prostitutes at metro Belleville. I see the groups of men, mostly Arabic, enjoying tea and coffee and each other’s company in cafes, basking in the late afternoon sunlight. I see little kids, forced to live lives of misery, begging for money….I see them being used on the street and I see well educated Parisians blowing past these little tragedies without a second look. And….I see myself sometimes doing the same. This is of course only a partial list…but what it leaves out to a great degree are the people and creatures that to me represent complacency. The people that I feel the most energy from, and who motivate me the most are far from complacent and predictable. The others? They will forever be excluded. This little bird was ill, and, with the cigarette butts and street grime and bird shit, creates a little postcard from way down below the radar.
Danisa And Annabella
As you walk toward Pigalle, on the opposite side of the street as The Moulin Rouge, there’s a massive Carrefour supermarché. It’s awesome, and clean, and very well stocked. The whole neighborhood knows this, and the place is packed. When you walk out after buying your groceries, you can sometimes see Annabella sitting with Danisa, her daughter, and sometimes her son, Mario, who’s nine. They are three, and they are just a few of the hundreds of beggars seen throughout Paris. Not all asking for money are hungry. Some of them are clearly housed and fed and clean, and it’s common knowledge that they take advantage of the naïveté and ignorance of the tourists who mass in certain areas of Paris. Sometimes I get a little bit tired of the cloying, false phrasing and ersatz, dulcet tones of these panhandlers, many of whom use their children as monnaie bait, hoping for sympathy and handouts. But there are even more who are legitimately on the street, and sleeping outside in small to medium sized groups. At twilight, you can see them setting up little camps in out of the way spots in the city to sleep, and there are nearly always children present. These people are not faking it, and they can be identified by their worn, dirty clothing, skin lesions, weathered faces and a definite lack of pretense as they sit silently with a paper cup or plastic container for people to give them some monnaie (euros, in the form of coins). I watched an older woman today, sitting on the Boulevard Sebastopol. She looked like a stereotype or, more precisely, an archetype. She was so ancient in a way, her demeanor, her facial structure, skin tone and style of dress, that you could almost believe that she had stepped out of a turn of the century photograph of a Romanian or Bulgarian gypsy from some village forgotten by time. She sat, nearly toothless, in late middle age, with a hopeless, blank stare and yet, as other women passed her by on the sidewalk I observed her looking at their clothing and shoes, which were of an unattainable quality and price that could only preempt even the most modest daydream of ever actually owning what the rest of us take for granted every day. I watched an equally destitute older man, speaking Bulgarian, walk to her and tear his sandwich apart to offer her half.
These two pictured are hungry. I know it for sure, and it’s an unbelievable stress that’s apparent in all but a few of the photos I took of them. This one is much less stressed and guarded, but Annabella is constantly watching passerby, to ensure the safety of her children and to be able to anticipate any negative action that could have a destructive impact on her or her children.
(Paris near Pigalle)….of panhandlers that make me uncomfortable, and achingly self conscious as I walk past them. I’m unwilling most times, in passing, to part with spare change. My son chastises me when I do, telling me that we need our money. He’s right, we do. But I find myself giving my money out to people who grab my attention….in this case, for these two beauties, 4€ and one whole roast chicken and some Vittel. I can’t afford this generosity quite honestly but really, I can when I consider how little they have. I mean, yes, they are “Les roms” as they are known in France. And yes, there are those that are scary and difficult. I see groups of them in Paris and have had a few memorable occasions with men who were bent on taking my camera. But not everyone reacts to generational poverty by pursuing a life of larceny. I watch men, French men, often older, outright bullying young gypsy women on the street. Knocking into them, throwing garbage at them, spitting. They are very vulnerable and some react by becoming so tough and hardened that it’s nearly impossible to detect whatever softness and light might be left, and connection with most of the hardcore street gypsies is nearly impossible. We are not real to them, just a means to an end. They’re completely isolated socially from mainstream society. But when you observe them together, in small groups, you can see that they have each other’s backs. It’s really a tragedy, that it’s often such a separation between different groups of people. Such a trite sentence, that last. But it really is, a true tragedy.