Saturday, July 14, 2012

Haunting

This is one of my own photographs from my time in Paris that I've altered quite a bit, trying to get it to look something like the photographs by Eugene Atget that I saw at an exhibit at the Musée Carnavalet.  Its close, but not perfect.

The Atgets were remarkable for the sense they gave of the historicity of the city - of its past as both distant and somehow present at the same time.   Of the city, then, as somehow haunted by its past.  Many of the sights he photographed no longer exist after a century or more of urban renewal projects.  And yet the Marais - the area right around the Carnavalet - escaped most of that and so looks more like Atget's Paris than much of the rest of the city.  So you can walk out of that museum and still see something like what you saw in his photographs inside.  The photographs were intended to document the old city even as it disappeared and so to capture it for the future.  But they are now visibly old too, sepia toned and mounted on grey cardboard.  And so you have these old things, documenting a still older city, but a city that you can still see around you in parts of the city as it stands today.

One aspect of the Atget photographs that I was not able to replicate here is the presence of the blurred forms of people who must have passed by during their relatively long exposures.   Atget's images, and so the city as represented by them, seem haunted by these fleeting Parisians.  Their presence makes these photographs become images of time as well as space or place.  And that time has passed, even if the places still exist, at least in part.  Seeing them just barely there in the photographs is like seeing the past made present, and seeing it disappear, both at the same time.

I would have liked to somehow include myself in this image as one of those blurred forms, first because it would do well in capturing my experience of this actual place.   Its the doorway into a church, Notre Dame des Blancs-Manteau, which has a statue of the Virgin and Child in a niche above the doorway.  I had walked by here several times without noticing it, until: on the Sunday before my last week there, walking to a yoga class in the rain, I heard the sound of voices intoning something together, coming out of the open doorway.   I looked to find the source of the sound and then looked up and saw Virgin and Child.  It was a perfect moment.  I went back later to take photographs of the doorway, but had a hard time finding it again at first, and then never was able to get that perfect moment back - of course.  The city was still there, but the moment had passed, except for the traces it left, this time in my memory.  I feel haunted by it.

At the same time I feel like part of me is now haunting this place and Paris in general.  And so I'd also like to insert myself as a blurred form into the photograph to show that part of me that got left behind there. 

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