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Le Flaneur de la Photographie 
à Paris
(The Wandering Photographer in Paris)

Flaneur means stroller or wanderer, but this French word implies a wanderer who is also keenly observing, not just out strolling. Arming a flaneur with a camera in Paris to record these observations creates a potent combination. Paris is truly a city you only fully appreciate on foot. No matter where you are there is always something special around the next corner - whether it is a wonderful 19th Century façade, an incredible street market, or a simple street sweeper in green coveralls going about his daily task of cleaning the Paris streets - Paris is special.

I love Paris. It is my favorite city in the world. I have been visiting Paris for business and pleasure for over twenty years and now that I live in France I go even more often. I have burned many rolls of film in what is probably the most photographed city on Earth. But I never tire of Paris and its marvels. Like all cities, Paris has its good and bad points; it also has its secrets and special photographic gems. 

My purpose here is to share with other wandering photographers some of the locations and views I have discovered while photographing Paris over the years. I hope these will be especially useful to those of you who may be on tight schedules and must maximize your shooting time in "the City of Lights".

In Paris, where virtually every aspect has been photographed from every conceivable angle, it is natural to question the value of taking "postcard" shots of much repeated classic views. I believe you should. Why? Because you are in Paris and an important part of what your images do is record your visit. Images become postcards because they are superb renderings of key landmarks and their associated memories. So by all means take these classic shots.

You should also challenge yourself to find different images or perspectives on the "postcard shot" that give a bit of a twist or edge to your image that may be unique or a little different. For example, when at the Eiffel Tower go directly underneath the tower and in the sandy area right in the middle you will find a small, round disk that marks the exact center of the massive structure looming above you. If you are young and nimble, lie on the ground with your head on the disk or in the evening set your tripod up directly over it and take the picture looking straight up. The image can be stunning.

Paris is so much more than grand vistas and historic and famous buildings. Look for small candid shots in the parks and on the streets, the "belle époque" store fronts, even the unique streetlamps. Note for example that the majority of chairs outside Paris bistros face out, toward the street. 

Why? Because that is where the show is. Parisians love sitting with a coffee or glass of wine, being entertained by the world passing on the street before them. Paris has a feel, an excitement that exists in few other cities. Capturing this feel in an image is a constant challenge and success is tremendously rewarding.

My favorite time to shoot in Paris is early on a Sunday morning. The streets are empty and the masses of tourists are still in their hotels and, thankfully, their busses are not parked in front of some of the spectacular views you want to capture - as they will be later in the day. Paris is peaceful and the light is often spectacular. My favorite place to go during the morning hours is the Île de la Cité, the island in the middle of the Seine on which Paris began over a thousand years ago. It is the home of one of the most beautiful buildings every built, Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral.

The flying buttresses on Notre Dame's eastern side are most beautiful in the early morning light - the building has an absolutely magic glow. 

The classic view is from the Left Bank end of the Pont de l'Archêveché just east of the cathedral, but there are many others. A very polite but firm guard once reminded me that tripods are not permitted on the cathedral's grounds including the small park, Place du Jean XXIII, at the back. 

However, what constitutes the grounds is really a very small space and nothing prevents using a tripod from any of the surrounding streets - another reason to go on a weekend morning when you are less likely to be bothered by Paris traffic. With a long lens exceptional images of the gargoyles that adorn the cathedral can be obtained from numerous vantage points, especially the end of the tiny rue Massillon just to the north of the cathedral.

Speaking of gargoyles, if you would like to get up amongst them, climbing to the top of the Notre Dame's twin steeples is a must. The entrance is in the left steeple as you face the building's beautiful west front. There is a fee, often a crowd, and the 386 step spiral staircase to the top is not recommended for the unfit, but the views of Paris and the intimate gargoyle portraits awaiting you on top are well worth the climb.

At the opposite end of the island is one of the hidden jewels of Paris parks, the Place Dauphine. Located just behind the Palais de Justice surrounded by 18th and 19th century buildings this small, quiet, triangular park with its geometrically placed trees and old benches provides a window into Paris of a bygone era. If you are lucky, you may see old men playing boules, a game similar to horseshoes, it evidently involves more animated conversation than play. At least it seems so to the uninitiated.

Heading west or down the Seine on the Right Bank is the Musée du Louvre. The classic views are in the interior of the open, west facing courtyard with its famous IM Pei glass pyramid entrance to the museum. Views from inside the pyramid looking out at the building are also very strong. Wandering a bit further west the Tuileries Garden offers views of marvelous sculptures with the Louvre as backdrop. Also look for candid images of older Parisian ladies sunning themselves by the 17th century statues or of families just enjoying the park.

The Place de la Concorde at the far end of the Garden offers terrific views up the Champs-Elysées toward the Arc de Triomphe and within the Place itself with its obelisk and ornate fountains with the Eiffel Tower in the distance.

But my favorite spot in this section of the city is not on any tourist map. Walk toward the Pont de la Concorde that crosses the Seine here to the Left Bank and just before you cross the bridge on the right you will see stairs leading down to the river bank. It is from this bank, in my view, the best vista of the Pont Alexandre III and Eiffel Tower in the distance is available for your classic Paris at night image.

Pont Alexandre III bridge from NW corner

The Alexander III bridge is Paris' prettiest, or at least most ornate, and offers extraordinary photographic opportunities with its huge gilded statues topping pillars on each end, fantastic sculptures and light fixtures, and a view of the Dôme des Invalides (the Dôme Church in some guide books), which contains Napoleon's tomb, in the distance. Further on, of course, is the Eiffel Tower. Investigate the Palais de Chaillot on the Right Bank that features sculptures and fountains to include in your imaginative images of the Tower across the river.

Other favorite sites away from the Seine include the Marais, a short walk northeast of Notre Dame. It was once a swamp that when drained and developed became a very trendy neighborhood during the 16th century. Its old narrow streets, chic shops, and the wonderful Place de Vosges, built in 1590 and known as a Renaissance jewel of Paris show a different face of Paris to the photographer.

You'll find a wide variety of subjects and more than a little history in Père Lachaise Cemetery

An intriguing and very special spot is Père Lachaise Cemetery in the northeast of the city. No ordinary cemetery, it is a tree filled oasis that includes incredible sculptures and tombs as well as the chance to visit and photograph the final resting places of its famous residents including Frederic Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, and Jim Morrison. 

There are, of course, many more places I could recommend; but I have to stop somewhere and hope you will be happy with the images you collect from these recommendations. 

At least they can be a start for your wanderings.


Let me close with some practical observations and suggestions:
  • Despite what you may have heard the French in general and Parisians in particular are not "anti American". Though many may not agree with some recent US government policies, they are quite capable of differentiating that view from their positive feelings about Americans. I have never experienced any problems of any kind in Paris before, during or after the hostilities in Iraq, nor have I had any bad reports from the many American visitors with whom I have spoken. 
  • The Metro is safe, efficient and easy to use to get between major locations, but remember it is very crowded during rush hours. 
  • When to go? I have been in Paris in every season and each offers its own special charm. Summer is when the Parisians leave and tourists arrive in droves. Some restaurants and other businesses close in August, though much is still available. But August can be hot and many places are not air-conditioned and the days are very long, which means that early morning and late evening light are very early and very late. 

Spring and fall offer milder temperatures but can be wet. Winter can mean day after day of gray skies, but my experience is that the weather, while very changeable, can also present wonderful opportunities and though the days are short; the winter light is hard to beat. 

  • Paris is a quite safe, but like all big cities one should take the normal precautions. Let your instincts be your guide.
  • Finally, I believe, it is important that every visitor find "Their Paris". 

By that I mean that Paris, like most big cities, has something for everyone and as a result "My Paris" may be totally different from "Your Paris". 

There is art, fashion, and culture as well as the bohemian, the beautiful, the tacky, and the seedy; it's all there depending on where you go.  You should take Paris as it comes, enjoy the photographic gems it offers, and capture what you like - Paris is almost certain to satisfy.

John has lived and worked in Strasbourg in Alsace, France since 2002 where he moved from his longtime home in Washington, DC. 

His travels have taken him to over 60 countries and Antarctica. For obvious reasons travel photography has been a passion of John's. He'll be providing us with articles on world destinations in the coming months.


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