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.
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.