That summer evening I thought of taking photos of the pyramid at Louvre lit up from below. In summers the Louvre shuts down long before the light fades from the sky. When I reached the square I found that my imagined photos were every photographer’s dream. There were barriers set up halfway across the square, and a deep scrum of photographers had formed outside it. Many of them were much better equipped than me. I felt like a tourist out for snapshots in that crowd of people with robust tripods, light meters, and enormous lenses.
I skulked at the back. The air of expectancy was replaced by a buzz of activity as the lights came on. I walked around behind the crowd, and got in a few shots. I was fascinated by the dedicated photographers. I still hadn’t thought of ambush photography, taking photos of other photographers, but it would have been a wonderful opportunity if I’d started thinking beyond tourist mementos then. I guess these photos are just that, but I kind of like them. They are photos from the last days of a very pleasant summer in France.
On one of our walks around Lyon we came on a square which looked pretty haphazard. Looking more closely I saw that the buildings were narrow and oddly matched. Among many late 19th century CE and early 20th century buildings, a sliver of a much older building was left. Lyon’s history spans a long period, so it requires a better eye than mine to start to guess the age of a building from these little clues. The door was topped by a lovely crescent of stone and wood. Above that was a single slit of a window which gave light to what I thought was five floors of the structure. Worth walking up closer to see.
The arch over the door was done in well-dressed light and dark stone. The same stones had been used in the pillars and arch of the window slit centered above it. The rest of the facade was far rougher. What was this place? The keys carved into the wood above the door was my only clue. It could signify skill, and so this could be a medieval or renaissance guild house. But it was more likely that it signified the keys to heaven, and make this a small church or chapel. The fact that it was left unchanged for centuries while the houses around it underwent renovations made this interpretation the more likely. Maybe then the thing above the keys was a bishop’s mitre?
My eyes slid away to the tobacconist next door. I used to love these old style Tabac-Presse shops: you could get cigarettes, newspapers, bus tickets, and any old thing there. This one had a fine piece of advertisement painted on its shutters. Lyon is large enough to retain its minor talent: not just the buskers making music around the square but also good artists who wouldn’t be able to break into the bigger art world.
When The Family asked me to design a different trip to France, the first place I thought of was Lyon. The home of the Lumiere brothers and Paul Bocuse: cinema and food. What could be more French? But also we hadn’t been there before. A TGV leaves Charles de Gaulle for Lyon every hour. Straight out of Mumbai, we hopped on to one, reached Lyon, and located our hotel overlooking the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers. We’d slept on the journey, so we decided to get to the very large Place Bellecourt and start a walk around the town. The featured photo is the first I took on this trip and shows the statue of Louis XIV in the center of this square.
It was a late spring day, mostly warm and sunny. Clouds kept blowing in every hour and covering the sun, so it never got too hot. Perfect for the walk we had in mind. Place Bellecour is part of the long finger of land between the rivers called the Presqu’île. We wandered north to see Bartholdi’s fountain in the Place de Terraux, and listened to the buskers around it. The little green “cushions” (coussins de Lyon) of marzipan filled with chocolate that we nibbled would have been much too sweet if it wasn’t for the coffee we had with it. Our walk brought us to the left bank of the Saône. Should we cross over and walk through the renaissance district on the right bank?
You can never say no to such a question. So we left the 19th century behind and walked into the old city. In the 15th century Lyon was a hotbed of strange ideas, disseminated through the new printing presses which the city adopted. If we’d arrived 575 years earlier, we would have been caught in the middle of an uprising against the royal bureaucrats and excessive taxation. Fortunately, things settled down, and the next couple of centuries as a prosperous center of trade in spice and silk gave rise to the parts we walked through. We found the traboules, a warren of passageways below the old houses which led us away from the river. Beautiful renaissance era buildings rose in a close mass above them.
This part of the town was quite full of museums. We would come back another day to see them. For the moment we climbed upwards to an old amphitheater on a slope that overlooked this part of the city. From up there we had a nice view over the city which had grown for two and a half millennia outwards from a little military garrison of the Mediterranean empire which called itself Roman. Walking on towards a restaurant which we’d picked for dinner, I took a photo of the Basilica of Fourviere reflected in the window of a Renault parked on the road. It was quite a memorable walk, we thought as we talked about our travels over dinner last night.
In Mumbai you have a choice. You can stay in, and between bouts of worrying about family and friends in Delhi, Ahmedabad, and other towns which are equally overwhelmed but less in the news, between talking to others about loved ones they have lost suddenly, you can try to drown yourself in a gushing stream of multi-season TV shows. “Binge watching is hazardous to your health,” as that famous mental-health consultant, Washington Post, told us. So we watch only one episode at a time. But we watch several shows during the day, and take the recommended time off between shows to make tea, and exercise the muscles of our core. We also do alertness exercises now and then. For example, right now, I have set myself the goal of choosing a favourite among Peaky Blinders, Shadow and Bone, Friends!, Ugly Delicious, and Call My Agent.
The first season of the French serial Dix pour cent (10%), searchable as Call My Agent on Netflix, turned out to be unexpectedly good. Each episode features a real-life film star, whose agent belongs to a fictional company called ASK. Each gets into an unbelievable situation, which the agents try to retrieve by putting together a complex and unworkable solution. In spite of all these hilarious rushings about to no end, things always work out in the end in an unforeseen way. After a few days of roflmao it struck me that the absurd stories reminded me of Wodehouse. There is no Jeeves working behind the scenes to set everything right, and there is no one Wooster, but the agency serves very well as a Drones Club. All the agents and their assistants are as barmy as a Fotheringay-Phipps. But set aside the background. The most Wodehousean (if there is such a word) part of the serial is the plot, with the slowly mounting absurdities which collapse like a failed souffle, out of the ashes of which (to wildly mix metaphors which no man has mixed before) rises a perfectly acceptable solution.
I understand that as the serial became more and more popular in France, bigger names began to express their willingness to be on it. Eventually there were episodes featuring Isabelle Adjani, Juliette Binoche, Monica Bellucci, Isabelle Huppert, and others. I will continue to watch the remaining seasons in the hope that the screenplay remains as fresh as it starts off.
Light breaks where no sun shines; Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart Push in their tides; And, broken ghosts with glow-worms in their heads, The things of light File through the flesh where no flesh decks the bones.
A candle in the thighs Warms youth and seed and burns the seeds of age; Where no seed stirs, The fruit of man unwrinkles in the stars, Bright as a fig; Where no wax is, the candle shows its hairs.
Dawn breaks behind the eyes; From poles of skull and toe the windy blood Slides like a sea; Nor fenced, nor staked, the gushers of the sky Spout to the rod Divining in a smile the oil of tears.
Night in the sockets rounds, Like some pitch moon, the limit of the globes; Day lights the bone; Where no cold is, the skinning gales unpin The winter’s robes; The film of spring is hanging from the lids.
Light breaks on secret lots, On tips of thought where thoughts smell in the rain; When logics dies, The secret of the soil grows through the eye, And blood jumps in the sun; Above the waste allotments the dawn halts.
Light? What is gentle and beautiful about light? Light is a harsh thing, the kind of thing that sent Dylan Thomas off on long rants. When you have to deal with harsh tropical light all the time, you envy photographers in parts of the world where the sun slants down and filters through a thick layer of air to drip its soft light on things. They can keep their fatuous sunbeams. We know what sunlight is: a killer.
Midwinter’s light in Thailand (the featured photo) is so harsh that it has to be filtered through leaves to yield a photo with shadows. Compare that to the similar photo from the Camargue in the south of France. The contrast is less harsh as you go away from the equator. The mangoes and jasmine buds photographed yesterday in my balcony have to compensate for harsher light than the gentle summer light of Europe.
A response to a challenge by a Lens Artist needed some thought. A response needed me to show you my world. I decided to select a picture from each year, as close to mid-July as I can get. Usually the monsoon is at its heaviest in mid-July, which lets me show a season I love. I stayed home some years. In others I traveled. I see that this is a fair picture of what I spend my time on. The series spans the period from 2006, which is represented by the featured photo, to the hard lockdown of 2020.
As always, click on any photo to get to the gallery.
For a few days now I’ve not been able to stop thinking of horses. Their origins mysterious, like the origin of everything we see around us. Their role in human history and culture, large and long. When humans arrived in most continents, the number of equine species had probably already dwindled to more or less what it is now: two or three. Historically, only two were domesticated, horses and donkeys. Although zebras have been trained (Lord Rothschild once drove to Buckingham Palace on a zebra-drawn carriage) they have not been successfully raised in domesticity.
Two sculptures of horses really stick in my mind. One is the pair of life-sized blue horses, polyester resin images made by the French artist Assan Smati, the other is the group of four harnessed to a chariot, made of fired clay in China probably 2200 years ago for the tomb of the Qin emperor Shi Huang.
I saw an unusually large bird perching on the edge of terrace of the furthest visible building. I zoomed in, and there it was: a black kite (Milvus migrans govinda), the T Rex of our times. It is a hunter which is not above scavenging. It is a bird out of my childhood nightmares, one which snatched the lunch out of my hands on my very first day at school. Its lifestyle brings it into occasional conflict with crows; I see bands of crows harrying it when they are all after the same piece of food. Despite its large size, the kite seldom wins.
Looking at the history of the naming of the bird, I was overcome by memories of Paris, walks from a friend’s apartment on Rue Lacepede near the botanical gardens up Rue Monge, past the metro station of Censier-Daubenton to Place d’Italie. The bird was first named in Buffon’s book of 1770 CE, The Natural History of Birds, with illustrations produced under the supervision of the French naturalist Daubenton. It was assigned to its current genus, Milvus, in 1799 by one of Buffon’s collaborators on the book, Lacepede. A morning of nostalgia!
Part of the charm of Paris is was that it is was a city full of les petit commercants. To buy your food you have to visit the local boulangerie, boucherie or poissonerie, alimentation, and fromagerie. Then, when you are tired with all the shopping, you need to stop by the local cafe, go back to the vigneron, and stop by the tabac to pick up a newspaper. And all of them will be ready for a little chat.
The charming central city which de Gaulle reconstructed out of the war: no buildings higher than 32 meters, facades to remain as original as possible, and low rentals, is a wonderful place for tourists. Everything at street level must have been bombed out, because if you looked only at eye level, every door and window looks modern. Although some of the shopkeepers take the metro to work, coming in from the suburbs which have more flexible building rules, there is a sense of local community. Over years, when I returned, I would pick up my acquaintance with the local caviste and fromagier.
After a year’s absence it would be nice to come back to the same cafe, where the unsmiling bartender would put a saucer on the bar in front of you and ask, “The same?”. I guess I was not easily forgotten with my newspaper and Petit Robert at one corner of the bar. In a strange and interrupted way, I became a local in one part of the border between the 5th and 14th arrondisements for a few years.
These photos were taken in the streets which I would pass through. I see now that these photos all feature non-European French. In those days all it required to be accepted as French was that you spoke the language and liked bread, wine, and cheese. These are not the shops I frequented. As so often in the days before phone cameras, one didn’t take photos of the most familiar places. I have no photos of the Parisian shopkeepers whom I knew well. They slowly went out of business, replaced by the chains of supermarkets which have now taken over the city. I don’t really miss this new city any more.
Looking through my photo archives for June, a decade back, I realized that I passed through Nice. I’d taken a lot of photos that clutter up tourist’s hard disk. But among them I came across this photo of the road seen as a black board. When we walk or drive we read the road in more senses than one: not just watching and reacting to traffic and pedestrians, but also to signs, many of which are written on to the surface of the roads. But looking at them from top makes everything look different. Are these markings a language? Like language they are arbitrary signs to which we give meaning. A dashed line means something different from a continuous line. Some combinations of dashed and continuous lines are allowed, some not; these are rules of grammar, and they can be different in different countries. Interesting, where your mind can wander if there are no warning signs to prevent it from meandering.