"What's past is prologue."
The Tempest - William Shakespeare
As I exited the RER B Place Saint-Michel on July 25, 1995, sirens approached from multiple directions. I joined the crowd being ushered away by the police and soon found myself opposite Notre-Dame just as two helicopters were landing to evacuate victims of the bombing which had decimated the train after mine. In the rush of events, I snapped one picture, then fled the scene.
Summer transitioned into fall. Unemployed, I wandered Paris, randomly photographing passersby and street scenes. With no training in photography, my visual exploration of the city was informed by the literary, social, political, historical and personal perspectives I had acquired from studying and living in France. Gradually gaining in confidence, I began to "cover" events such as the Fête de l'Humanité and the massive demonstrations against the Plan Juppé which paralyzed the city for three weeks. I also researched the rich history of street photography. I was particularly struck by William Klein's photographs of New York, a reprint of his seminal work having been published shortly after my arrival in Paris. In fact, Klein photographed the Fête de l'Humanité for the newspaper Libération on the same day I photographed it on one of my self-assigned "reportages". His photographs appeared in the paper the next day. Mine were not developed for weeks.
Once I found work as an itinerant English teacher, I had little time or energy to continue my "reportages" so I put my camera away. My hours on the train were spent reading some of my favorite authors, such as Baudelaire, Cendrars, Miller and Céline, the grueling winter months made more bearable by their company.
When summer arrived and my teaching schedule abated, I resumed my photographic outings, this time inspired to find a way to visually reflect what I had felt during my solitary métro rides. Where I had previously adopted the guise of a photojournalist covering newsworthy events, I now saw myself as a surreptitious observer whose mission was to record the non-events of everyday life which others had so eloquently written of. I became a flâneur, sensitive to the contingencies of the street, sometimes photographing instinctively, other times adopting a more cerebral approach. I was influenced by Baudelaire's "Correspondances" and the concept of synesthesia. Where the poet had spoken of the interplay of scents, sounds and colors, I was alert to the way recurring motifs could take on symbolic meaning and link disparate scenes. I did not seek to realize series of like images, but rather imagined a visual narrative which would tie my personal experiences and feelings in with those of my fellow Parisians past and present, seeking to represent contemporary life in a historical perspective.
Confronted with the difficulty of living on a meager salary in a big city, I often felt trapped and alone and developed a resistant's mentality. I saw myself as a spy in hostile territory and the urban environment became a labyrinth to navigate and decipher. I explored every arrondissement, often doing research before setting out on my long, solitary walks. Some days I would walk for ten to twelve hours, returning home covered with the grime of the streets, black soot encrusted in my nostrils.
I had contact sheets made, which I endlessly pored over, designing virtual books in my imagination. Due to the vicissitudes of life, however, I wasn't able to go any further. Although the images I had collected lived on in my head, the contact sheets went into a trunk.
It is only now, more than twenty years after beginning this project, that I have managed to assemble the images into a photo essay. As I have edited and sequenced the images taken between 1995 and 2000, I have sought to recreate the feelings and intuitions I had at the time, depicting Paris as a theater of angst (public and personal), which to a certain extent reflected my own ambiguous relationship with both the city and France (as an immigrant, I had a hard time assimilating). At the same time, France was going through a very difficult period with the threat of terrorism as well as the social unrest brought on by globalization.
I like to think of these photographs as documents for historians, just as Eugène Atget produced documents for artists during his late 19th and early 20th century wanderings around Paris. I am currently working on the sequel to this project, entitled "En attendant la révolution" (Waiting for the Revolution).
Copyright © 2018 James Anderson. All rights reserved.