I am in Lyon, France, to shoot on the streets for the day, its my first visit specifically to make pictures and I am being guided through this large, stunning and rather underrated city by my friend and Lyon inhabitant Nicolas Denis. It has long been a mystery to me why there are no notable contemporary French Street Photographers, for a country that combines such a long and significant photographic heritage with a vibrant and very public cafe society street life…there is a distinct black hole where there should be thirty years of wonderful French street imagery…where are those pictures? what happened to those photographers? I spend the day looking for clues.
France and particularly Paris produced some of the most famous street photography of the twentieth century, photographers like Eugene Atget, Andre Kertesz, Robert Doisneau , Willy Ronis and Henri Cartier Bresson defined street photography and were the inspiration for photographers subsequently working across the Atlantic and in particular the New York of the sixties and seventies where photographers like Garry Winogrand and later Joel Meyerowitz took up the street challenge and carried the baton into the eighties. So why is it that now the pendulum has swung again towards Europe it has arrived in the United Kingdom rather than in France? why is it that the current generation to be inspired and influenced by the history of Street Photography is shooting on the streets of London rather than Paris?
At the Gare de Lyon Perrache I am on my knees photographing a man reading a newspaper, his face obscured by the broadsheet journal, my eye caught by the juxtaposition of his hand and the life size hand of a styled model in the full bleed back page publicite, I take two frames before a hand on my shoulder alerts me to the fact that ‘Pas de Photo ici’ is the rule for French Railway Stations.
This makes me wonder about the impact of the famous French privacy laws which, it turns out, have been in existence long before Willy, Robert and Henri were shooting on the streets of Paris. Protection of privacy in France is long established and can be traced to the end of the nineteenth century when the right to control ones image was first recognised in 1858 in the case of the famous actress Rachel in which her family received damages over the unauthorised publication of a portrait of her on her death bed. It wasn’t, however, until 1970 that a general right to respect for private life was added to France’s Civil Code in its article 9 which says that ‘everyone has the right to respect for their privacy’. Under article 9, protection of privacy prevents the disclosure of elements of a persons private life as well as the unauthorised taking of photographs of people and their publication’.
It is obvious to me that we now inhabit quite a different cultural environment to that in which the early French Street Photographers worked, people on the streets are very aware of there own image and its possible dissemination through publication both traditional and electronic and stories of the paparazzi have made them aware that photographers can make a great deal of money from the pictures they take. The image of the photographer certainly took a battering following the death of Princess Diana in a Paris road tunnel in 1997. But I know the French and I simply don’t believe that privacy laws would stop them making street photographs if they wanted to, which can only lead me to wonder if maybe they don’t want to, if they are simply not inspired by this form of the documentary tradition.
Taking a break at a restaurant beside a busy market on a hill above Lyon, over Oysters and chilled white wine with my guide for the day, Nico, I mention to him that a Paris photographers agent had recently declined to represent me because ‘the French would not get your work’….a statement that I found difficult to understand but one which prompted Nico to confess that he and his wife had said exactly the same thing in a recent conversation. This made me wonder if France is simply ‘not in the mood’ culturally for street photography, if the popularity of documentary street style photographs fifty years ago has given way to a passion for fantasy, surrealism, fashion, glamour and style…..this idea was reinforced when I stood in a newsagents back at Lyon Part Dieu station where two of the countries most popular photography magazines featured the surreal and fantastical nonsense of David la Chappelle on the front cover and another, a semi naked woman. I think there is an escapist aspect to the French psyche of the past twenty years, one that is fed both by a diet of style, fashion and celebrity publications and a denial of the mundane, the everyday and the unglamorous. Further along the newsagents shelf was the section for the adult fantasy comic books so popular in France known as the ‘graphic novel’, elaborately illustrated comic strip stories featuring fantastical heroes, brutality and often a degree of erotica….perhaps another clue to why the French psyche is now so removed from the drama of the street.
The best French Street Photographer I know lives in New York and shoots mostly there, it seems a large proportion of young French creative people have escaped France’s high unemployment to work in the creative industries of other countries.
On the train back to my village in the Alps I came to the conclusion that there is probably not a single answer to the question ‘Where are all the French Street Photographers?’, it remains a mystery and a very interesting cultural phenomena.