This project is a visual essay about street life in Paris and New York City. The photo series began nine years ago when I moved to Paris and was eager to discover my new home on foot. Over the years I have spent many hours walking and often waiting for interesting moments to unfold. At the outset I made a decision to photograph Paris in color, mainly because I prefer documenting the world as we see it.
In 2008 I photographed the American writer Adam Gopnik who spoke at the yearly gala dinner of the American Library in Paris. Gopnik, based in New York, also spent several years living in Paris with his wife and son. Author of the bestsellers “Paris to the Moon” and “Through the Children’s Gate”, the theme of his speech was about ‘commonplace civilizations’. His delightfully humorous and playful prose described Paris as a place where people, young and old, meet and interact. He referred back to the Jardin du Luxembourg where he spent many hours watching his son play with other kids, and most importantly riding the old carousel. He spoke about the nagging protestors that sometimes shut down Parisian public transport, and about the noble rivalry between the cafes Flore and Deux Magots, two spots where locals and tourists spend time to see and be seen. I immediately noticed a commonality between Gopnik’s witty way of describing everyday life in Paris and my spontaneous approach of visually capturing what went on in the city.
At several points during his speech Gopnik referred back to New York City and ways that it mimicked Paris and vice versa. For example, he compared Central Park to the Luxembourg Gardens as two different yet often times similar ‘commonplace civilizations’. This got me thinking about documenting street life in New York and attempting to weave it together with the photos that I had already captured in Paris. After all, I’m American and Paris was my new adopted home. Why not present my two favorite cities in a single body of work?
Since 2008 I have visited New York three times and feel that The City of Lights and the Big Apple are indeed related. At a basic level, Parisians love New York and vice versa. Almost every Parisian whom I’ve met has cited New York as their favorite place in the U.S. Someone once told me “they had visited New York but had never visited the U.S.” The same perception could probably be had when comparing Paris to the rest of France. There are vibes in these two cities that beat differently, but do intrigue visitors and draw them closer to their cores. Both cities are melting pots, where one can walk 15 minutes in any direction and land in unique socioeconomic subcultures. One example would be to walk from Montmartre to the Chateau Rouge metro stop in Paris, or from the Financial district in lower Manhattan to China Town. Paris and New York serve as symbols of two great nations that have influenced one another and shared ideas throughout history. The founder of my alma mater, Thomas Jefferson, served as the U.S. ambassador to France between 1785 and 1789. He brought many aspects of French culture including its literature and architecture back across the Atlantic. Two statues of liberty welcome vessels as they arrive in Paris on the Seine, or in New York on the Hudson. We must not forget about the many great American writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein who spent several creative years in Paris.
At a more complex level I’ve come to see that street life in both cities is a curious mix of sporadic colorful moments in places that seem to contradict one another. As an example the Eiffel Tower stands as a symbol of the city of elegant fashion and refined cuisine. One image juxtaposes this symbol with an illegal immigrant selling Eiffel Tower key chains on the Trocadero esplanade while wealthy tourists gaze out in the distance. Although often romanticized with clichés, gritty urban realities like homelessness are omnipresent in both cities. When writing this article, 21 percent of New Yorkers live below the official federal poverty line. In Paris and in surrounding parks like Vincennes and Boulogne it is not rare to find people camping who can no longer afford the city’s skyrocketing rents. These are hard social truths that reach far beyond the glitz and glamour of Fifth Avenue or the Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
Paris and New York are like stage sets with actors and actresses on every street corner who don’t have set roles. I somehow find myself trying to organize this chaotic beauty of everyday life into pictures. The challenge is to photograph in a way that documents, deconstructs, and poses questions in a single image. Sometimes elements in an image fit together cohesively and sometimes they push apart causing tension. At times it’s difficult to know whether a photo was taken in New York or Paris except for perhaps one discerning detail. Do Parisians wear white socks? Where can one see the Mona Lisa with an airplane flying across her face? In the Louvre or in Flushing, Queens. It is about showing reality, or what the eye sees, but at the same time twisting and playing with that reality. This project, which began without any particular concept, has slowly merged into a colorful duet about two magical cities.