I did a trip to Paris solely to take photographs for myself back in 1992. That sounds selfish, but I didn’t have any children to take care of and my wife was enmeshed in a busy career as an art director for a prosperous advertising agency.
I was approached by Agfa that year to be a tester for their line of APX films and I requested a case of their 100 speed film and another of their 400 speed film. They asked me where I wanted to photograph and I said, “Paris.” A month later, in late October, I was there with a camera bag full of new Canon EOS lenses and a couple of camera bodies. Oh, and a big shopping bag full of black and white film.
I have a friend who is French and lives in Paris. We’ve hosted his family and his kids here in Austin a number of times. When I travel to Paris, I stay in a small “maid’s apartment” above his home in one of the central arrondissmonts. The apartment is near the top of the building and is very spare. Just a shower, a sink and a bed. But what more do you need?
My friend is like a lifeguard at a pool. When I visit he tells me what has changed and what’s remained the same. Areas to avoid and areas to visit. Although he is always busy with work and a family, we make time for one really nice dinner when I visit.
On this trip I spent every day doing much the same thing: I would get up early and have coffee and a small breakfast at the cafe around the corner. I stood at the counter. My order was always the same: cafe au lait and a croissant.
Then I would put a 50mm lens on one EOS-1 (the original Canon pro AF body) and an 85mm 1.2 on the other and I’d head out into the streets just to hunt for fun images. I’d stop for lunch at the Fauchon cafe or duck into McDonald’s on the Champs Elysee when I’d get nostalgic for American haute cuisine.
In the evenings I’d connect with American friends who were temporarily living in Paris and we’d go out to neighborhood restaurants. It was always an adventure.
On that trip I shot through 100 rolls of ISO 100 and 100 rolls of ISO 400 APX. When I got back to Austin I sent all of the film to BWC photo lab in Dallas and they developed it and made contact sheets, courtesy of Agfa. I still look through the notebooks I put together, pull negatives and make scans of new favorites.
But until I did this trip on my own I had always traveled with others: first my parents, then my college girlfriend and finally, with my wife. And in all those scenarios photography takes a back seat to the social appeasement of travelling with people and spending time with them.
You might want to wander aimlessly but the other person or people you are travelling with might have an agenda. A list of museums to visit and stores to shop in. They want to ride on the Bateaux Mouche and climb the Eiffel Tower. Try as they might they don’t really understand your desire to walk around, stop, turnaround, click the shutter, walk ten feet and then do it all over again. Friction arises.
I must say that my wife Belinda is the best traveling companion any photographer could ever want. She can be totally autonomous. I’ll wake up and ask her what she wants to do when we visit a foreign city and she already has two itineraries devised. One if I am tagging along and one if I’m not. If it’s the latter option we make plans to meet up for supper.
But in 1992 it was up to me, continuously. These were the days before the Internet so there was no need to “check in.” No compulsive e-mail checking. No silly/obnoxious tweets. And no cellphone either. I could go days without speaking to anyone I knew and that was cool because it concentrated my attention onto taking photographs or getting myself into position to take photographs.
I came to know the feel of the EOS-1 in a way that I can barely fathom now. It was an amazing camera. (But this is certainly not a camera review!)
Here’s what I learned: If you want to do photography at a level that really satisfies your soul and your ego, you’ll need to do it alone. Forget having the spouse or girlfriend or best friend or camera buddy tagging along. Forget the whole sorry concept of the “photo walk” which does nothing but engender homogenization and “group think.”
Leave all electronics in your hotel room. Cut off all communications, during the day, from or to the “real world” and immerse yourself in the hunt for images. Learn what makes your brain salivate and why. Learn to operate that camera by braille. And make your decisions based on what your inner curator wants you to say.
Everything else is just play time bullsh*t.
None of your non-photographer friends will understand, and that’s okay. Your real photographer friends will either be jealous or nodding their heads in appreciative approval because they’ve been there.
When you see the world unfold in front of you, unencumbered by the social construct of the group, you become freed to see differently and make different decisions about what you’ll photograph and why. In the end you’ll come home with intensely personal photographs. Quirky photographs. Powerful photographs.
Many of you will throw your hands up and complain that you have kids and obligations and can’t possibly get away by yourself. Others will whine that “their spouse would never let me go to Paris without them.” But you only get one life. That life is the adventure and you either sit at home and watch or you get up and participate.
When my son was six months old, I had the opportunity to go to Rome to shoot in the streets for ten days with free film provided by Kodak. I was out the door as soon as I could find my passport. My wife is a strong person who doesn’t need my constant presence for validation. She was thrilled for my opportunity and again I came home with images I love. Make the time. Go out to shoot.
I know people who will only travel on tours or cruises. They are missing out on so much. It’s like being guided through paradise with a blindfold on.
My favorite story from the Paris trip in 1992 was when my friend’s wife took me to lunch. She met me somewhere near their home with her Vespa, handed me a helmet and stuck me on the back and then zoomed through the streets like something out of a movie chase scene. I was riding “b*tch” on the back and terrified.
We parked on a sidewalk and went through an ancient pedestrian corridor to a restaurant that I’d never be able to find again. The table tops were covered with white butcher paper and the waiters would come by and ask what we wanted and then mark it in pencil on the paper. If we ordered wine that would go on the paper.
The meal was incredible but even more incredible was the people watching in the ancient dining room. Professional waiters addressing the kitchen. Lovers leaning over the table to share a kiss. Business men in dark suits sharing bottles of wine over boisterous lunches. And me, clicking away with the 85mm.
My lunch companion asked me what I’d like to see that afternoon. I said, “Paris.” And she kissed me on the cheek and left in a puff of smoke. I headed out to see more. Always just a little bit more.
What do I do with all these images? I look at them. I remember my feelings of “thought” freedom from traveling unencumbered. And I incorporate the feelings of freedom, from time to time, in whatever work I am doing at the moment.
It’s important to travel outside your usual visual space. Outside your cultural comfort zone. Outside your social network/safety net. It’s important to learn to be comfortable by yourself. Many psychological studies point to the power that groups have to subtly and even unconsciously push you into conforming. Into synchronizing into the pattern of the group.
If you want to express an individual vision you have to become individual. There’s no other way to do it.
And if you want to take images just like everyone else, and tag along with everyone else, you might as well just stay at home and download some stock photography from the web.
Reject the idea of the “photo walk” unless it’s a solo walk with your camera.
Leave the social anchors and straight jackets at home. There will always be another time for an inclusive family vacation.
Experience the joy of unique discovery. More powerful in many ways than the shared experience.
And do it now before your life has passed you by and you regret the choices you never made.
Cameras may change but the hunt goes on, unabated. Don’t wait for all the stars to line up. Don’t wait for the lottery. We feel richer from our experiences than from any item we buy. It’s just our human nature.