I was standing behind the Gare St. Lazare last week looking around at the morning light in Paris. We were taking the train to Vernon to go to Giverny, where Monet had his house and famous gardens. There was a lot of construction around the train station, but I didn’t see anyone jumping over puddles. Even if I had, I probably would not have grabbed a picture of it.
I have long thought that the famous Cartier-Bresson photograph of the man jumping into a puddle behind the train station has caused more people more confusion over the years than any single image. There is a romantic notion that Cartier-Bresson stood there, perhaps for hours, waiting for exactly the right instant to stick his camera out and hit the button. But without knowing the whole story, I bet he was just walking by and saw something interesting. Maybe a glint of light, or a reflection in the water. Then he stuck his camera out and took a few frames. Then the man jumped at the right time, and history was made. It’s true that he captured the “decisive moment”, but I think it’s equally true that the decisive moment found him just as he was hitting the button anyway. This sort of thing tends to happen when you are at ease and in sync with your subject matter.
I thought about this over my coffee because here, in Paris, on my tenth trip to the city over the last twenty years, I had not been feeling photographically in sync. This was unusual for me in this location, where I have probably taken more pictures than anywhere else. Usually I walk around the city for a day or two and all the familiar patterns of light and street and architecture fall into place and there are pictures everywhere. Maybe we weren’t walking around enough. Maybe it was because we were staying in a different part of the city this trip. Maybe it was because we went in the summer instead of the spring. Who can say. I just wasn’t feeling it. I looked around and all I saw were things I had seen before. I wasn’t shooting anything, and because I wasn’t shooting anything, I was not “exercising” the shooting parts of my brain.
I did fool around with some lame ideas at the Musee D’Orsay, trying to create a visual play on words while looking some of the favorite Monets. But, this wasn’t great.
But then we went to Giverny and I perked up. Because really, when you are looking at this, how can you not.
Paradoxically, because the weather was overcast with occasional rain, it was perfect for taking pictures in a garden. The overcast sky brings with it low contrast light that does not destroy the subtle details in the flowers. Also, for some reason wet green is much better than dry green. In any case, I finally found something to latch on to and start thinking more photographically. There were wide shots, small details, and interesting textures. I ran enough frames to drain the pathetic battery in the D200, and even if most of them were just generic “pretty” scenes, the exercise at least got me seeing things again.
Back in Paris, everything looked better.
That magic light that dances over all of the grand architecture in the city was finally registering in my photographic consciousness. People even started showing up in just the right part of the frame for me while I was looking at something else.
Over the last two days of the trip, I took more favorite pictures than in the first six combined. And it’s not just because I burned 500 frames at the Tour de France. In the end, as always, I was sorry to leave the city again. But at least on the morning that we left I was treated to a perfect sunrise shining through a perfect blue sky, and was able to grab one last shot.
To me this was a sure sign that I’d be back and looking for more.