Thursday, January 11, 2007

Photographing Paris cemeteries

In 1992, just two year sbefore his death, Robert Doisneau, who grew up in the Paris suburbs of Montrouge and Gentilly, and became one of Paris' most famous "street" photographers, told an interviewer that "Photographers have become suspect now" and that he didn't feel welcome on the streets anymore.

After two incidents in Paris cemeteries I think I now know how he felt.

Recently I took the no. 13 Metro to Batignolles cemetery, at the very edge of historic Paris in the 17th arr. I walked into the cemetery had strolled over to division 1 where I began taking images of the striking sculpture of Jane Margyl, the late opera singer. A few minutes later a guard approached me. Pointing to my camera said "no photos!" He stood there waiting and watching me until I shut the camera off and put it away in my bag.

This is the second cemetery where this has happened to me. I was stopped in Bercy cemetery, in the 12th arr., several weeks ago and again told I could not photograph there. I thought at the time it was just a policy particular to that cemetery.

So what's the deal I wondered?

Since I'm not from these parts and have little clue as to the intricate workings of the French bureaucracy I asked a French acquaintance about this. Well come to find out that in France it is against the law to photograph in cemeteries -- any cemetery in fact -- since the graves are considered private property. It would be akin, I was informed, to photographing people's homes, which is also prohibited. But then I got to thinking that if it is prohibited to take photos of private property then certianly that must include: automobiles and nearly all buildings and structures. . . . almost everything!

I thought how on earth can such rules be enforced in an age when even cell phones have increasingly powerful cameras? I then wondered why photography is permitted in a place like, say Pere Lachaise or Montparnasse? It is also tolerated in Montmartre and perhaps two or three other cemeteries in Paris because those places have in effect become tourist attractions. And tourists love to take pictures. Soooooo. . . .

OK, so where does that leave us photographers who struggle to capture the moment, the feeling, the mood in a cemetery?

Well, it seems to me that there at least two significant issues at stake here.

First is preservation of the history surrounding the graves themselves. A cursory glance in some of Paris' oldest cemeteries will tell you that nothing is forever, and many of the graves are in a terrible state of ruin and thefts of funerary artwork is not unknown even today. (At least nine pieces of sculpture have been stolen from Pere Lachaise within the last several montsh alone.) It is only through photography that we can hope to at least preserve what once was a wonderful work of art or a unique form of funerary architecture, and at the same time to preserve a bit of French or Parisian history as well.

And speaking of artwork, one doesn't have to look very far online to see that cemetery photography can and often does produce some stunning art. The Parisians are very tolerant of many things, most certainly when it comes to art.

For these reasons alone the French should encourage photographers to go into the cemeteries and take as many images as they would like, to spread the word that open air funerary art is worth the time and trouble to preserve. And if along the way more art comes from such imaging so much the better right?

Wish you were here,


(photo: billboard advert of the mP3 music player wars. It has absolutely nothing to do with the post; I just thought it was pretty cool.)

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