Deliberate Anachronism — Travel in Analog


“You certainly love cliché,” the Frenchman said, looking at my photos.

He was a finance student at the university of San Francisco, and already bored with the professors, the program, and the city. He was from Paris, of course.

We had met up for a language exchange at a bar off the Embarcadero. The practice wasn’t really that necessary for either of us. His English was beautiful, barely accented, with only a touch of those guttural and Gallic vowels that can happen only in the mouths of Frenchmen. And as for myself, my French was awful beyond repair. Like a cow attempting Greek.

I had recently returned from a month abroad and felt I could probably hold my own in conversation. But in regards to my photos, I couldn’t dispute him. He had me at cliché.

All my photos seemed to show some vision of the classic tale. Classy ladies at cafes. Indifferent youths smoking cigarettes. Books, berets, and Belle-dames. There they were lounging at tables, leaning out of windows, their clothes fastidiously disheveled, their manners carelessly elegant. Looking at the photos you would think the entire citizenry of a casually cultured nation were somewhere out to lunch.

Part of it was the technology. I had been deliberately anachronistic, and brought with me a Bronica-sqB medium format film camera. I was thinking of Atget, and Cartier-Bresson, even though they shot with large format or 35mm. And thinking of Robert Frank too, though he had done his own photo travels in America.

But I liked the intention of film. The sturdiness of the camera. The classical aesthetic of the machine. And most importantly the camera served as an instrument of rapport.

Photography law varies by country, and France’s own code on the matter — le droit d’image as it is called — is notoriously restrictive. It is so nearly the polar opposite of American photography law that it’s best to assume that if it’s OK in the states it’s probably illegal in France. Still given such restriction, people who might otherwise be skeptical of having their portrait taken opened up when they saw the classic camera.

It may have partly been the reason that I looked for more classic scenes. It may also be that having an interest in a culture as a foreigner, it is first the cliché we latch on to. How many tourists travel to the US to see Hollywood, Disneyland, Times Square? To eat hotdogs, hamburgers, and wear tacky tee-shirts? For me, France was most approachable where it was at its most hackneyed, most threadbare, where it looked the most like it does in the movies.

Maybe it would have been different if I had brought a digital camera. Maybe I might have done a better job of photographing the modern France, and not just the one that resembles mid-century cinema. But then, I wouldn’t have gotten the photos that I did.

And there’s this to consider. France is a nation of nearly 70 million. That’s space aplenty for people to live up to stereotype. You cannot tell me that the French do not, at least on occasion, look French.