CHASING JAMES BALDWIN: The Evolution of a Road Warrior

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Sophomore year in college I washed dishes for two semesters to pay for a ticket on a tramp steamer to hitchhike around Europe. I acted like a tourist, spoke high school French and stumbled around using a guidebook, “Europe On Five Dollars A Day.” I ate snails and learned about escargot. My first trip to Paris found me sleeping under bridges and it was exhilarating.

 The second time I was traveling with my mentor, Jean Pierre, a fashion photographer who had immigrated to Boston, Massachusetts. (Aren’t all French photographers named Jean Pierre?) I had scored a sad little assignment from a publisher and my teacher had agreed to assume the role of my guide and assistant. I was photographing everything in sight. I was voracious. He took me back to his hometown and introduced me to the “real” France.

I dreamed of traveling and taking pictures but had no idea what that meant. The phrase “Road Warrior” did not even exist for me at the time. We met his extended family in small, remote villages. We explored his old haunts in “the City of Lights”. Everything was foreign to me; alien and delightful. Under his careful eye, I was learning about culture, protocol and adaptation. He told me stories about how French people recognized where people were from just by looking at their shoes. He taught me how to properly use a knife and fork while eating.

Inside a department store, a clerk asked me “parlez-vous Anglais?” with that acerbic, Gallic, attitude. Intimidated, I instinctively responded, “non!” I was not yet adroit enough to sidestep such rudeness. JP kicked me and said in his thick-accent stage whisper, “You speak English.” I was profoundly embarrassed.

 The job required a local festival or celebration. We found ourselves observing a quaint, ancient religious procession. I jumped all over it. This event was exactly what I had imagined documenting. Jean Pierre leaned over my shoulder and mentioned that my interest and enthusiastic recording would cause fewer people to come the next year because I had exposed this tradition, this “oddity”. My attention was hastening its extinction.

After a week or two, we returned to Paris and he questioned why I hadn’t photographed the Eiffel Tower. With extreme hubris I retorted, “I don’t do Eiffel Towers.” Obviously I took myself too seriously and considered photographs of that clichéd symbol were beneath me. He insisted. I resisted. Every request for stock photography of Paris I received for the next decade included the Eiffel Tower.

Eventually we found ourselves sitting at a cafe on a corner in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Being an American, after a short while, I got restless. It was hard for me to sit idly for so long. I was not ready to adapt laissez faire: smoking cigarettes and drinking espresso so I excused myself and went off to photograph along the boulevard. When I returned he excitedly exclaimed that James Baldwin had just passed him a minute ago. Of course I chased off down the street looking into every storefront and alley. I ran for blocks.

I never did meet James Baldwin. But I took photographs in a way that led me to a new way of life. What the trip lacked in bravura, it made up in authenticity. I had been schooled in journalistic responsibility. It was a simple time with no cataclysmic discoveries or pictures, just slow-burning revelations and enduring images. I had always been an outsider, even in my own country, but my first assignment overseas brought me home.


Cemal Ekin October 4, 2014 at 2:10 PM  

Nostalgia is the reward for aging Lou. Nice memories, good to reminisce, good to be able to reminisce.


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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.