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A Tribute To Notre Dame and The Value of Photography

A Tribute To Notre Dame and The Value of Photography

Following yesterday’s tragedy, I found myself reflecting on a moment ten years ago and the impact photography has had on my life.

The first thing I did was to call my father. When I flipped on the news last night, like millions of people around the globe, I was horrified to see the historic site ablaze. Notre Dame has stood for hundreds of years. For more than just the religiously oriented, the site serves as a signpost for all things French to many around the globe. Similar to the way the Eiffel Tower does for the city. Similar to how the Hollywood Sign, the Empire State Building, the Sphinx, or the Taj Mahal serve as visual shorthand for their respective cities.

But, to me, the tower of Notre Dame meant something else. To me, it meant three lost weeks in August spent with my father, strolling about Paris without any particular timetables other than a standing reminder to meet our upcoming tour bus first thing in the morning.

To be fully transparent, I hadn’t intended to share this particular trip with my Dad. I love to travel. I love to travel alone. There’s something about the experience of wandering aimlessly through unfamiliar streets, unable to communicate aside from the few mispronounced phrases you were able to glean from a hastily bought phrase book, that I find exhilarating. Freed from language and the trappings of everyday life, traveling allows me to be alone with my thoughts. It allows me the space to devise new ideas or come to terms with unanswered questions.

Also, this was going to be Paris. The home of Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. The hometown to more than one of my both cinematic and real-life crushes. The idea of being set loose in a city full of Audrey Tautous was, shall we say, appealing.

So when my casual reference to my upcoming trip in a phone call with my mother was quickly followed by “oh, your father’s never been to Paris,” which was quickly followed by an uninvited “oh, he’d love to go with you,” followed instantly by “should he just meet you in Paris or do you want to travel together,” all I was left to say was, “wow, that escalated quickly.”

My solo mission to retrieve a French bride was now to be replaced by a Griswald family vacation. Visions of “Breathless” or “Vivre Sa Vie” quickly faded away to be replaced by parental guidance and deep discussions about what direction my life was headed. To be clear, I love both my parents and love spending time with them. It’s just that this isn’t exactly what I had in mind for my first trip to The City of Love.

At least I’d have my camera with me. Long before I would ever use “photography” and “career” in the same sentence, at this point I was still an obsessed hobbyist channeling my OCD into a new passion for pressing small rubberized buttons. My revitalized love of travel, in fact, was really just the result of my having exhausted every possible photo subject in my hometown of Los Angeles. Buying plane tickets had become the main way I had left to discover new sources of inspiration.

And while I have traveled all over the globe since, I still maintain some ten years later that there is no place on Earth more inspirational than Paris. The busy streets. The endless art galleries. The somewhat astounding tendency of locals and tourists alike to stop for a cinematic drawn out kiss in public set against the backdrop of historic sites that makes for a perfect picture postcard. It is simply impossible to take a bad photograph.

And we haven’t even begun to discuss landmarks including The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Opera, and, of course, Notre Dame.

The gargoyles that sit atop the structure are as famous as cathedral itself. Their birdseye view of the city seeming heaven sent. I knew I wanted to see what they saw. And the only way to do this would be to climb the steep winding tower that leads from the ground level chapel to the very top.

As we made our way up the stairwell, my camera finger came alive. Chomping at the bit to complete our ascent so that we could emerge out into the open and get to work. Unfortunately, my shutter finger wasn’t the only part of my body with an opinion on our decision to climb this particular set of stairs. While my thighs appreciated the idea of an aerial view of Paris, being the ones who actually had to put in the work to climb this entire tower, they had second thoughts with each successive step.

Eventually we reached the top and found the journey to be worth every inch of altitude.  Right away, I introduced myself to the nearest gargoyle, took out my Nikon D200, and started snapping away.

My father, on the other hand, some 33 years my senior, took this moment instead as an opportunity to mock his only son. My pre-fitness transformation body had survived the climb, but apparently the muscles in my thighs were still living through the post traumatic stress. Shaking uncontrollably like a marathoner at the 26.1 mile mark, I must’ve looked something akin to a trembling jellyfish, and that memory has lived on in my father’s mind ever since.

I know this because yesterday, when I called my father last night to talk about the flames that engulfed the very place we stood all those years ago, the first thing he did was to have a laugh at the memory of me and my shaky legs. It was a welcome bit of humor on a sad day. And it was a welcome reminder of the value that both the location and my camera had provided to my life.

Prior to getting into photography, it’s unlikely I would have found myself standing on top of one of the world’s greatest structures. Without my camera in hand, I would have been less compelled to see what the gargoyles see. I would have probably left the idea of one day visiting Paris as only a notion while going back in for a repeated viewing of “Funny Face.” It’s unlikely that I would have ever booked a plane ticket. And, as a result, my mother would have never taken it upon herself to invite my father on my solo vacation.

And, while I was, in fact, not able to return home with a French bride, I did return home with three full weeks of getting to spend time with my Dad. It may not have been my original idea, but, like Notre Dame, it was a memory that will last a lifetime. And I have my camera to thank for them.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Great article .......


Nice article !
Now, I'll refer to my job as "pressing small rubberized buttons" :-)
From a former parisian point of view, it's funny to consider that we might have the exact opposite view on our cities. I can't imagine that it might be possible to exhaust all the subjects in Los Angeles. But then I remember that I stopped photographying Paris because of the boredom I felt doing it.
And, in my new city, I take photos of buildings that might be part of history one day. And I often think of it when shooting architecture.
I spent more than 15 years in Paris, and I have to admit that I visited only once Notre-Dame, with my mum. But during two yearsl, I could see, from the metro line I took every day, from my crappy student room to the photo school, the east side of the cathedral, and I was thinking : life is not so bad. Yes, Notre-Dame was (and still is) a landmark for parisians and french people. The kilometer zero stand on its parvis.

I know how you feel. Most of the "sites" in Los Angeles, I haven't been to in years. It's always easy to pass things by when they are in our own city.