ANY SELF-RESPECTING TOURIST can’t visit Paris without snapping a picture of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris from the Quai de Montebello. It’s one of the ‘must do’s’ on the Parisian tourist itinerary.
The Quai de Montebello, in the 5th arrondissement, stretches from the Petit Pont to the Pont de l’Archevêché on the Left Bank of the Seine and it’s a popular place for visitors not least because of the spectacular view of the cathedral.
Taking advantage of the gorgeous weather we have in Paris at the moment, I went to the Quai de Montebello the other day and like just about everybody else there I couldn’t resist taking the obligatory photograph.
I don’t consider myself to be a serious photographer, I’m more of a ‘snapper’, but I do have an interest in photography as an art form and I’m particularly interested in the work of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Parisian street photographers. In fact, the work I do recording the soundscapes of Paris is inspired to a great extent by the work of these photographers. When I’m recording Parisian soundscapes I often think of myself as a street photographer but with a much longer exposure time.
Street photography is all about the art of observing. From Eugène Atget’s painstaking photographic documentation of a Paris being torn down in the late 19th century to make way for Baron Haussmann’s massive urban development scheme, to Robert Doisneau’s evocative street photography and pioneering photojournalism, Parisian street photographers have always spent much more time observing than shooting.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, the doyen of street photography and photojournalism often used to spend hours observing, searching out a scene, or a ‘frame’ for a picture, and then with camera in hand he would wait for something to happen within the frame. Some of his most iconic photographs were made using this technique.
Any sound recordist intending to record urban soundscapes would do well to study the work and techniques of Atget, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson.
While these giants of Parisian street photography are a great inspiration for me in the Parisian soundscapes work I do there is also someone else who has inspired me.
The French novelist, filmmaker, documentalist and essayist, Georges Perec, was fascinated by the notion of ‘ce qui se passe quand il ne se passe rien’ – what happens when nothing is happening. In fact, it was reading Perec’s essay, ‘Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien’, a detailed written record of the minute observations he made of what he could see happening in a Parisian Square while sitting in a café opposite, that launched me on my work to observe and record Parisian life through the city’s soundscapes.
Which brings us neatly back to the Quai de Montebello.
Taking up a position on the Quai I took this picture. It took a fraction of a second to capture the scene.
I then took another picture to the left …
… and one to the right.
But what would happen I wondered if, instead of a using a camera to observe the Quai, I used a pair of microphones? Instead of capturing the scene in a fraction of a second I could observe it for much longer and what might the microphones reveal that the camera didn’t? How would my sonic observations of a quintessentially Parisian ‘street’ scene compare to the observations captured on film by Atget, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson or in words by Georges Perec?
Unashamedly using Cartier-Bresson’s technique of framing the scene and then waiting for something to happen, I set up my microphones, switched to ‘record’ and waited.
A Soundscape of the Quai de Montebello:
Thankfully, capturing scenes of Paris is not a competition between pictures, words or sound. The important thing I think is not the medium but the art of observation.
In our modern world where we’ve got used to being informed by instant pictures, newspaper headlines, 140 characters on social media and 20 second sound bites, it seems to me that we are in danger of losing our ability to stop, look and listen and to make time to observe the real world around us.
Quai de Montebello – Eugène Atget
IN MY PREVIOUS POST I recounted how I went to the Marché aux Fleurs last Saturday shortly after the visit by Queen Elizabeth II and how the market had been renamed in her honour as the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II.
The next day I returned to this flower market to witness its transformation into the Marché aux Oiseaux, a bird market.
The main part of the Marché aux Fleurs comprises two iron pavilions filled with a cornucopia of plants, shrubs, flowers and garden accessories. But on Sundays the road between the two pavilions is taken over by temporary stalls selling a wide variety of birds, from the rare and exotic to the more prosaic, together with a selection bird related accessories.
When I went there on Sunday, the road between the iron pavilions of the flower market was awash with people who, as with most markets, obviously come here not only to buy and sell but also to meet friends and other like-minded people.
Marché aux Oiseaux – A Soundwalk:
I found the soundscape in the Marché aux Oiseaux fascinating – an intriguing interweaving of sounds from two different species in close proximity, the avian and the human, with both speaking to themselves but not to each other. It seemed as though the air was filled with a cacophony of conversation.
At the end of my Sunday morning walk through the Marché aux Oiseaux this cacophony of avian and human conversation seemed to be reconciled by the unifying, man-made sounds of the distant bells of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris drifting across the market on the warm, summer air.
Here are some more sights of the Marché aux Oiseaux:
THE FRENCH SELDOM name places after living people but in the case of the Marché aux Fleurs in Paris they’ve made an exception.
Last Saturday, at the end of a three-day State Visit to France which included attending the 70th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day landings in Normandy, Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, Anne Hidalgo, the newly elected Mayor of Paris, and the French Président, François Hollande, visited the Marché aux Fleurs, which has been renamed the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II in her honour.
It’s quite a while since I’ve been to the Marché aux Fleurs so I thought I would go along on Saturday and reaquaint myself with this renowned Parisian flower market.
Close to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris and bordering La Seine, the Marché aux Fleurs, in the Place Louis Lépine, has been here since 1808. Housed in iron pavilions each with a glass roof, the market offers a wide range of flowers, plants, shrubs and garden accessories as well as other hidden treasures.
Sounds of the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II:
I arrived at the market shortly after the Queen had left and so, on this beautiful sunny day, I was able to walk around unencumbered by the restrictions surrounding Royal visits.
I spoke to some of the stallholders and they seemed delighted with the Queen’s visit and with the new name of the market. I also came upon two young ladies clutching an iPhone who were particularly excited since they had just found a photograph of themselves meeting the Queen on a French Television website.
Not everyone is happy with the new name though. Some on the Left said it was ‘ridiculous’ that an unelected monarch was getting such an accolade in a republic that executed most of its royals more than 200 years ago.
At the entrance to the market next to the Paris Préfecture de Police, where earlier the Queen had unveiled a street sign with the new name of the market, I discovered that work was well underway deconstructing the paraphernalia that had been erected for the unveiling ceremony. The four white, padded chairs that moments ago had hosted distinguished bottoms were now stacked on top of each other looking rather forlorn as if contemplating their fate.
In my next blog piece I will reveal what happens to the Marché aux Fleurs on Sunday mornings when the flowers and plants take a back seat and the market is transformed into the Marché aux Oiseaux, the bird market.
In the meantime, here are some more sights of the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II.
The Queen visiting the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II
Image via PA