Great photos let you travel to faraway places without leaving home
I got the best picture – literally -- of what New York City really looked like in the aftermath of the big Christmas weekend blizzard from a great street shot that was emailed to me by my friend Max Addison, who is a professional photographer as well as an attorney.
The image depicts a city street whose curbs are overflowing with mountains of snow and uncollected trash. Max tells me he shot this scene Dec. 29 in the early afternoon, when the temperature was in the mid-30s, “looking east on East 54th, between 1st and Sutton Place.”
The more I studied that graphic image — which itself looks blue with cold — the more I felt I was standing right there, shivering, on that stretch of East 54th. I had a sense of what it must have been like for that great old American city to have been temporarily thrown off its stride by a veritable avalanche of snow. “Limited” residential collection was supposed to resume the first week in January, The New York Times reported, wryly observing, “Garbage is the new snow.”
Some viewers may see a bleak, stark reality in that shot. I see all that urban reality, and I love it. I love the idea of getting down into the heart of a street-wise old city like New York at street level, getting the feel of all of it – not just the pretty parts -- on a long series of strolls through different areas.
That cold blue image reminded me of the heightened exhilaration I’ve always felt when walking briskly through the streets of other interesting old cities in wintertime, like Salzburg and Geneva and Paris. Staring at the scene Max captured, I smiled as I remembered the time I was enjoying myself so much on a stroll through Lucerne despite subfreezing temperatures, I bought not just one, but two new pairs of gloves to wear atop the ones I’d brought. I didn’t want to turn in early just because I’d lost all feeling in my fingers. After all, I only had so much time on my trip.
I remembered feeling the same way more than once while walking through the streets of Paris, shivering in delight as well as the cold. Where a camera would have been intrusive, I memorized the gorgeous winter outfit on a Parisienne of a certain age on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore; the discreetly intimate gaze shared by two sweethearts on a Metro train; the warm welcoming smile every Parisian shopkeeper has always presented to me, looking up as I enter the store to melodically wish me “Bonjour, Madame,” like the opening of a beautiful aria.
When I returned to earth from my dream-trip, I promptly phoned Barnes & Noble to see if my neighborhood store still had the book of 14 large, frameable prints of Parisian street scenes, shot by renowned French photographer Robert Doisneau (1912-1994), that I’d seen there several days before.
At the time I noticed this beautiful Taschen Portfolio book, the sole goal of my post-holiday trip to the bookstore was to buy discounted 2011 calendars. So even though it was bargain-priced at only about $10, the Frugal Fraulein passed up, as an impulse requiring further consideration, the alluring Doisneau book, whose cover bears his signature image: the romantic kiss captured in 1950 at the City Hall in Paris, “Le Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville.” Coincidentally, I’d recently spotted several framed prints of classic Doisneau photos in a group exhibition at John Cleary Gallery on Colquitt. Suddenly, I really needed that Doisneau book.
Over the phone, I was chagrined to hear the last copy had been snapped up at the Voss store, but the clerk checked other B&N locations and came up with gold at the River Oaks bookshop. Talk about good luck to usher in my New Year! I rushed right over and claimed my book.
Although I understand the remaining copies there subsequently were marked down to an even more astonishingly low $5, I’m just glad I was able to get a copy of this treasure trove of vintage Parisian street scenes when I did. To me, these pictures are priceless, partly because I remember my excitement discovering the extent of Doisneau’s talent in December 2006 at a major retrospective of his work in the Hotel de Ville.
I remember how I came to have the good fortune to see “Doisneau, Paris en Liberte.” I had noticed long lines of Parisians waiting patiently in a cold, light rain— some with umbrellas, many without — outside the Hotel de Ville, and I figured: This has to be good.
I was right. I still have the brochure from that exhibition, which Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe described as an “imaginary stroll through the Paris of Robert Doisneau (and) also a walk through time” from 1931 to 1991. “All of Paris is here before our very eyes, a black and white kaleidoscope of a city whose every nook and cranny were examined by him as by no other,” Delanoe wrote of Doisneau, who took daily walks through Paris, seeing the innate beauty of everyday scenes of life, which he unwrapped and revealed like so many lovely presents.
Of course, I’ve snapped many of my own photos in the cities to which I’ve traveled over the years. Scores of 8-by-10 prints of favorite scenes decorate my walls, so I have a beautiful view wherever I turn. But I’m always searching for others’ perspectives of a particular subject, and how they framed their own views in their own time. You can learn so much from others’ photos —especially from museum exhibitions of photography — and then see and appreciate so much more, all around you.
Since last October in Paris, the Musee de l’Orangerie has been featuring a major retrospective of the work of internationally famous photographer Heinrich Kühn (1866-1944).
Check out that site, and you’ll find a local connection. The Kühn exhibition credits cite, first, general curator Monika Faber, chief curator of photography at the Albertina Museum in Vienna ; and next, two participating curators: Francoise Heilbrun, chief curator of photography at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, and Anne Tucker, chief curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Read further, and you’ll find that before it was shown in Paris, this world-class exhibition was displayed last summer at the Albertina in Vienna -- and this spring, it will be unveiled at the MFAH.
Imagine that tour of three select cities: Vienna, Paris, and Houston. We Houstonians can count ourselves exceptionally lucky to have the chance to see, and learn from, a spectacular series of uniquely beautiful perspectives of interesting people and sites in a different time and place, right in the cultural heart of our own city. I’m definitely planning on making this trip.