Mark Steinmetz on Paris
1. What has Paris given your work that Georgia couldn't?
Hmm, that sounds a bit like a croissants versus biscuits question– it’s a little tricky to make a fair comparison. The state of Georgia is vast – it has mountains, rural areas, the ocean, small towns, and there’s also the behemoth Atlanta. Atlanta is strikingly modern in some places while in other parts it feels like the America of the mid-20th century. Its gas stations and parking lots can be exciting places to photograph, and much in Atlanta or in the rest of Georgia has scenes that are typical in America.
Paris, on the other hand, is Paris. It’s unlike any other city, and it’s unlike the rest of France. Paris has been photographed and filmed extensively and brilliantly; it’s a city that many artists have shared. When I photograph in Paris I can join in the dialogue among artists who have in some way described Paris. Paris is softer than Georgia and its classical parks and beautiful monuments have no equivalents in Georgia. People tend to be better dressed in Paris; you see fewer people wearing t-shirts promoting sports teams.
2. How is the Paris of your time different to the Paris of your mother's time?
My mother was born in 1928 so she was a teenager during the German invasion and occupation. We have bits of shrapnel from bombs that landed on her balcony. Nowadays, with the embrace of the EU, the political situation is astonishingly different. Parisians have always been eager to adopt modern technology and novel ideas while also preserving their heritage. I saw a movie from 1928 where the cinematographer photographed Paris from a barge moving down Canal St. Martin and then down the Seine. Not much looks all that different from today except that the people are dressed differently – the men are wearing bowler hats – and the cars are different – but the bridges and monuments haven’t changed. People in the past made the city we experience today – it’s been passed down through the generations without any generation really ruining it. Today, everyone is clutching a cell phone but tomorrow they might have something else.
3. Tell us a bit about your first visit to Paris - what memories or events stay in your memory? How did you feel during that trip?
I visited Paris a few times as a child with my parents but those trips were rather brief and my memories hazy; mostly we would visit my grandparents in the south of France. The buildings, the boulevards, the sounds of the sirens have always seemed familiar to me. I remember one trip I took when I was around thirty where I had spent a week in Venice and found Venice exquisitely beautiful. Then I took an overnight train to Paris; when I stepped onto the streets of Paris I was stunned – it was so much better than Venice – more open and generous.
4. Tell us a little bit about how you see and think of Atget's Paris work.
Atget’s work is as good as it gets; he set the bar the highest for photographers. In his late work in the Parc de Sceaux, he is in dialogue with the Gods. I’m not really a fashion photographer but I’ve done a few fashion shoots in Paris. When asked once whose work I was thinking about for my fashion photography, Atget was what popped out of my mouth. He’s a big influence for me even here in Georgia. I like to picture him in old age getting up before dawn and going out on the streets with his tripod and heavy camera.
5. Where does your ideal walk around the city take you?
I love walking along the Seine and Les Tuileries – when the rest of Paris might be in shadow, those places still have light. Lately, I haven’t been working so much in the most beautiful areas but more in busier, mundane areas, such as La Place de Clichy, which has a large cinema and metro stop, so it is something of a meeting spot.
6. Can you recommend some places off the beaten track a visitor should venture to?
Canal St. Martin is not exactly off the beaten path but it’s becoming a very interesting district with a couple good photo bookstores and restaurants. Parc Monceau is very royal and wonderful. The Gustave Moreau museum is a gem.
7. Conversely, what's over-rated and not really worth the visit for you?
I guess I could have more affection for the Eiffel Tower – maybe it’s a good and comforting sight at a distance - but really any place can be of interest.
8. What draws you back to Paris over and over again?
Hard to say – it’s in my blood – I love the wine and the croissants, the smell of the streets. A part of me is very happy when I’m over there.