“I have always viewed every area of photography — reportage, illustration, fashion, advertising, portraits, and personal work — as a pretext for traveling and meeting people, a way of life, and a means of self-expression.”
~ Sabine Weiss
“I mean planning and chance seem almost to be the same thing.”
~ Robert Smithson
I have Sabine Weiss (and Smithson, too) to thank for pointing the way — for showing me how to write this sixth installment in the series. I began in a stone cottage in Umbria surrounded by ancient olive trees, of which more in a future letter. There was a roaring fire in the wood stove that night, but we were still cold. As I continue, the stone cottage, the wood stove, the olive grove, the cold, and Umbria, too, are stored away on the hard drive someplace. Right now I’m in a lovely, modern kitchen in Genoa. The Mediterranean is just down the hill. It’s Thursday nite, February 2nd. The return to Paris is two days away.
To talk about Lyon I have to talk about what’s already happened. This trip has turned out to be so many things but, much to my surprise, it’s been a miraculous journey of chance, and something of a photographic odyssey. I had vague notions of trying to investigate Paris to see if any good photography shows were happening. But I did very little planning or research. Instead, by chance, we have fallen into one illuminating show after another. The first was Made in Chicago, a small show of black and white work centered around photographers who either worked or lived there. That was at La Galerie Rouge in the fourth.
Then – chance again – came Boris Mikhailov at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. In Letter #2, I talked about the 800 print retrospective by one of Ukraine’s greatest living artists.
There was more work right around the corner from our apartment in the Marais. Polka is a photo center here. They publish a magazine, they have a small, well designed exhibition space and a bookstore. The day I went, (after happening upon the space by chance) they were showing a Russian photographer, Alexander Gronsky.
I loved this work so much I asked the staff if they could translate the show’s information sheet and they spent half an hour working it out and then handed me a sheet — in English — that talked about how Alexander works and how he balances his image making instincts against intense political constraints. “My work is deliberately neutral. I prefer that it remains so that it does not turn into propaganda, for anyone.” I’ve since learned he was arrested and briefly detained after protesting the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (The excerpt below is from .coda.com, and not from the show. In the same interview he revealed that his mother views him as a traitor.)
“As a Russian person I feel powerless, ashamed and furious about everything that’s going on. I cannot influence it in any way and I perfectly understand that blame as a result will be put on everything Russian: Russian culture, Russian language and that in the nearest hundred years people will not make films about Nazis, but about awful Russians. Overnight, from being strange, mysterious, aggressive, foolish people we turned into monsters and we will not be able to wash this blame off for a very long time, it’s terrible. I am afraid that my son will hide the fact that he is half Russian when he grows up.”
We didn’t plan for chance to play such a role in all of this, but chance has been walking with us down every cobblestone street and up every punishing hill, to deliver one pregnant moment after another. Chance took us by the hand and worlds have opened up.
The Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation (nearby in the Marais) mounted a beautiful show of Jan Groover’s work. I knew some of her pictures from years back, but only a sliver. I hadn’t realized she is one of the medium’s truly great artists. I think of her as the traveler in this Antonio Machado poem.
Traveler, your footprints
By Antonio Machado
Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship’s wake on the sea.
Jan Groover made her own path, again and again. She did whatever she wanted to do; still life’s, conceptual work, portraits. She worked in platinum for a while. Everyone knows Cindy Sherman, but Jan Groover is easily her contemporary, but is less well known, I think, because she was so restless—she experimented with everything. With Cindy Sherman, you know it’s her right away.
If that weren’t enough, there was a terrific show (again, found by chance, around the corner in the Marais) at the Mexican Cultural Institute. They were showing the work of the Mexican and Franco-Hungarian photographer, Nadja Massun, (1963-2022). This was classic black and white documentary work with some truly memorable pieces.
Onto Lyon. The train from Paris to Lyon was strangely quiet and quick. (Perhaps because we had booked the quiet car?) No one spoke. An hour into the journey, I looked out the window, and to my great surprise, snow.
A confection upon the fields of France? I realized much later, it was a foretelling. The gods had dusted the world white at precisely the right place—on the way to Lyon, the gastronomical capital of France. Like all the other children on the train, I pressed my face against the glass to stare at the wonder flying past and to store the beauty in my memory. (And on my iPhone.)
What were the chances? Arrival in Lyon. A swarming mass of humanity. A cold, big city train station, foreign and funky. My stomach rumbled. By chance I’d booked a houseboat for our Airbnb. I’d been given a set of clear, specific directions I could barely make sense of. Beyond the station the city clanged and churned. Sleet blew in furious horizontal sheets. It was absolutely freezing. Somewhere in Lyon was Tram No. 1. Tram No. 1 would take us to a bus. The bus would take us to the houseboat on the Saône river. A warm dry bed would be waiting.
Small miracles. The houseboat was found. Locals pointed this way then that, and after what seemed like the trek of the damned, (the walking in circles, the tram, more walking in circles, the luggage, more walking, the argument, the sleet, the wind, the bus), the houseboat appeared and we were welcomed on board. There was more than a warm bed waiting. So much more.
Our Airbnb hosts would turn out be Florence and Gil Lebois. Gil was a fine art photographer and how could he not be? Chance was now fully in charge of this operation. Gil was an exceptionally fine, fine art photographer too, the best of his kind. Technically skilled at portraits, landscapes, with an unusually good touch with people. Creative and possessed of a sensitive heart. (By which I mean he was and is, an artist. He has left still photography behind and turned to video.) He is a voracious reader and lived for years in America making photographs. It was surprising and not surprising at all then, that we both loved many of the same photographers.
There was a glorious dinner in La Croix-Rousse, Lyon’s Arts District. There was laughter and wine and incredible food and stories. There was friendship too, which is more sustaining than food, books, photographs, snow, travel, trams, buses, cathedrals, or the sea. They loved Genoa, they said. Come to Whidbey Island, we said.
So now I am leapfrogging over a few places (Orvieto, Florence, Umbria, Genoa) because I want to talk a little bit about photography, and chance, and the Swiss born photographer and longtime Paris resident Sabine Weiss, and her notions about photography.
I wasn’t familiar with Sabine; not her name, or her work. I certainly didn’t know there was a retrospective of her life’s work in town at the Palazzo Ducale. But as we wandered the caruggi of Genoa, we looked up at one point and the image you see above, that gypsy girl, was staring us in the face. It was probably 30’ across, affixed to a brick wall. This massive, beautiful thing. And so we went in. Linda noticed Sabine’s words about photography being a pretext for meeting people, for travel, for self-expression. As a way of life.
As a younger man, I had very serious ambitions around photography. I wanted to be the next Robert Frank. Or the next Atget. Or Koudelka, or Josef Sudek, or any number of practitioners. I wanted books with my name on the cover. I wanted gallery shows. (Gil Lebois always wanted to be a writer.) I wasn’t wise enough to understand photography could be a means to a rich life, a way in, a way forward, a road to walk down to find other people, to hear their stories, to be invited into their lives. It was the supremely talented photographer Sabine Weiss, a member of the French Humanists, who combined photo reportage with street poetry, who taught me this. It was 2023, in Genoa, when we met in the street by chance—and it was pure poetry. Traveler, your footprints.
She died in Paris, at the same address she’d maintained her entire adult life. She credited her long and amazing career to a series of chance encounters and happy accidents. Au revoir, Sabine. Merci.