Diary (archives) - Claude Lavoie Photo

Photographic chit-chat

Photographic chit-chat (image unavailable)

Saturday 2008-12-27 :

The lull days between Christmas and New Year's Eve; as calm as the eye of the storm. Smack in the middle of this long awaited vacation, I feel lonesome and bored.

I spent the last two days developing, printing, sorting and filing films and prints, trying to catch up on a backlog of six months I felt increasingly preoccupied with lately. I got a lot accomplished, but feel tired; I need to set my mind on something else.

So I hop on the downtown bound bus for a tour of the bookstores. It has been raining hard on the snow all day long : the streets of the city look gloomy, the icy sidewalks are treacherous and nearly deserted.

I first walk into a store selling new books, curious to see what has been published purposely for the Christmas season. The place is brightly lit, neatly ordered, and smells of freshly cut paper. When I get to the photography department, I cannot believe my eyes : on a shelf, two brand new copies of Jeanloup Sieff's Time will pass like rain; an English version, published by Contrejour, I have never heard of. A hardcover in a matching protective jacket, and Contrejour's distinctive velvety paper, as pleasant to the touch as it is faithful in its rendition of the black and white images; the perfect gift straight out of a timely Christmas tale. An expensive one though : three hundred dollars. Intended for the American market, I suppose (French publishers seem to believe that all North Americans are millionnaires). I resist the urge of possession, knowing all too well I will later regret my being so reasonable. Better to leave.

I then half-heartedly tour the used book shops. Nothing compares to what I just saw; everywhere the usual disarray of tattered and outrageously overpriced photo books. No wonder some of them have been gathering dust on the same shelf for months, sometimes even years.

I finally retreat to my favourite café on Rue St-Denis, and sit by the window. Chin in hand, I look at the rain falling on the foot deep snow still covering the summer terrace, just a few yards away from my seat, but completely out of reach.

Idleness : desirable from afar, but so boring to stand close to. Such is the plight of mankind.

Saturday 2008-12-20 :

I spent most of the day in the darkroom, contact printing two rolls of film I shot in France and Italy last summer. Almost half a year ago already.

I intended to shoot black and white film during the trip. As I wanted to travel light, I settled for a fully automatic 35 mm camera small enough to fit in the pocket of a shirt, smaller even than its digital counterpart that was also coming along. I had received it as a gift long before, but had barely used it. Once abroad, it soon revealed itself to be untrustworthy. When it deigned to function, it was erratically at best : something seemed to be wrong with the built-in light meter and when released, the shutter would stay open for minutes, or else remain stubbornly closed. Still, with a little practice, a lot of patience and numerous battery changes, I finally managed to get it to behave quasi-normally. I shot two rolls in six weeks.

I then knew beforehand that contact printing the rolls would be a daunting task. Indeed it was : thanks to the whimsical light metering, the exposure varied widely from one frame to the next. I had to cut the rolls into short sections of roughly uniform exposure, expose and process test strips for each, and contact print the sections separately. In several hours of meticulous work, I salvaged half of the frames. I might enlarge one or two.

No wonder so many photographers have switched to digital photography and abandoned film. It has always been time-consuming; and sometimes, just like today, it can be very frustrating. Yet, although I now shoot digitally more often than on film, I still get more satisfaction from the latter and still devote it much time. Shooting film makes photography more real to me.

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As soon as I finished, I took refuge in this favourite café of mine. Although it is only late afternoon, on this day before the winter solstice, it is already dark outside. With only a few days left before Christmas, stores will be open late tonight. Two chess players and myself are the only patrons. A soothing silence fills the room.

Saturday 2008-12-06 :

On my way to a photo shoot, I pass in front of a café I know well. Being ahead in my schedule, I decide to enter.

I notice that some letters are now missing from the small faded wooden sign hanging over the door. I turn around on myself, pull the photo gear-laden cart up the concrete steps, push the door open with my behind, and walk backwards into the place. Nothing has changed : the same cream and chocolate walls, the same tables and chairs, the same pleasant smell of freshly brewed coffee.

I used to come here often before. Being just a few doors from the school of the Grands Ballets, it is a convenient place to meet the dancers participating in photo projects. Jean, the owner and a friend of the arts, even had me hang prints on the walls on a few occasions. When I enquire after him, the man behind the counter answers he bought the place from him two years ago.

At the tables, parents sit with their young daughters, enjoying time together after the Saturday morning ballet lesson; at this time of year, most of it was presumably devoted to the rehearsal of excerpts from Nutcracker to be featured in the school's Christmas show. Many young girls have their hair pulled back in a chignon or tied in a ponytail; when they walk to the counter to fetch pastries or drinks, they keep the uppper body stiff, the chin high and the feet turned outwards : I hesitate whether to attribute this bearing to the stern discipline of classical ballet sinking in, or to plain affectation in front of parents and classmates.

Some things do not change over time. I suppose the dancers I work with today used to parade in exactly the same way before their parents and friends, one or two decades ago. And who knows? Some of the aspiring ballerinas from the neighbouring tables might become the dancers I will be working with in a few years from now.

Thursday 2008-11-06 :

I sigh with relief as I sit on the subway bench, glad to be released from a social event that took place after work. I attended half-heartedly, going from group to group with a glass of spritzer in hand, exchanging small talk. I stayed just long enough to abide by polite conventions, then took leave.

Both of the boys are going out tonight and are not to be expected back for a few hours; my beloved and I will therefore have some time to ourselves. We will cook a meal and eat beside one another, sitting both on the same side of the kitchen table. Then we will boil tea and talk at ease, holding hands.

This is what I look forward to. I cannot wait for this train to take me home.

Thursday 2008-10-09 :

A typical opening night reception at an art gallery : almost all of the guests have gathered round the refreshment table; only a few outliers stand before the photographs of the exhibition.

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We say that war "breaks out"; only in Jacques Brel's songs does it "happen". Maybe was he among the few, clear-sighted enough to see it coming; or maybe he knew as unescapable this curse that periodically beleaguers mankind and lives on with it.

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The past is a bizarre thing : predictable by anybody, changeable by no one. No wonder we so hastily forget its teachings!

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Schedule-free weekends one longs for and during which, surprised, one feels bored.

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I vowed to drink beer until my navel precedes me!

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You know you have turned fifty when you hear yourself prefixing sentences with "I should instead have . . .".

Thursday 2008-09-25 :

The calendar claims we are well into autumn already; yet, Mother Nature seems to have decided otherwise : the weather is mild enough to sit on a café terrace, after the early sunset, and sip a coffee, undoubtedly for the last time of the season.

Were it not for the maple leaves that have turned red, the advent of autumn would be but an improbable and remote event.

As usual, warmth brings in its wake a languorous nonchalance : women in sleeveless dresses and sandals leisurely walk by; the terraces of the cafés are as lively as on a midsummer night.

Mild weather is an unexpected yet welcome friend to spend some time with; an unhoped for diversion, at this time of the year, in our harsh northern climate.

Wednesday 2008-09-10 :

Almost autumn. I make the most of every fair day by stopping at a café terrace before heading back home. Why come here? To relax after work, for sure; but also to entertain myself with the presence of others. And I use all my senses for this.

While my nose busies itself with the scents of the food and drinks from the neighbouring tables, my eyes follow the drift of the passers-by on the sidewalk of Rue Saint-Denis. Ladies wear warmer clothes, sweaters and scarves over long-sleeved blouses; the bare feet have retreated to the warm comfort of closed shoes. Like migrating sparrows, students have reappeared, books tucked under the arm or weighing down a backpack.

Without any outward sign, my ears eavesdrop on the conversations taking place all around. I am surprised at how casually opinions and confidences are uttered aloud, without the slightest concern for secrecy; as long as I pretend to look elsewhere or simply to be absorbed in my thoughts, my presence is overlooked. I therefore innocently cast a glance about while listening.

These bits gleaned from other lives do not diminish them in any way; by allowing me to feel what they are like, they enrich mine.

Tuesday 2008-08-12 :

Last week, a cultural venue in town announced that the performance of a new creation from a popular choreographer had been added to its regular programme. Since another feature was already booked in the evening, the event was scheduled at five o'clock in the afternoon. I snuck out of work at a quarter to four, and found myself among the first ones to wait in line at the entrance door.

Now that the curtain has come down, I cannot tie in a coherent whole the tableaux of this daring work : some were poignant, leading me to the verge of tears; others seemed unnecessarily provocative, if not downright outrageous.

I regularly see dance shows. Often, I am puzzled by the choreography that seems to go off in all directions. On those instances, I wonder why I keep going back. To some extent, this is how I feel tonight, although the sequences were both disjointed and coherent.

And it suddenly dawns on me : the very duality of its nature makes dance a perfect metaphor for life. It is ambiguous and confusing at times; yet, unexpectedly and for the briefest moment, it rises above perfection, as clear and piercing as a flash of light through the darkness.

It is the hope of seizing these all-redeeming moments of grace that draws me back to the show.

Wednesday 2008-07-16 :

Many guests had already convened in Rue des Orfèvres when I stepped through the portal that guarded its entrance; I could hear the rumour of their animated conversation, and see above their heads a cloud of cigarette smoke flared up by the rays of the setting sun.

My fiancée and I had followed this very same path the day before. Expecting a courtyard, we rather found a short alley lined with shops; no one in sight, except for two men talking in a low voice. At the far end, we had entered a doorway under a sign announcing an art gallery.

On two floors, the plaster walls were covered with drawings by Dorothée Jost : wide strokes of China ink on white canvas, minimal renditions of nude women. We toured them all, then looked at the catalogue. On our way out, one of the two men came to us and introduced himself as Frédéric Lichtenberger, the owner. We expressed our appreciation of the drawings. He replied that we were lucky to get to see them, for this was the very last day of the event, about to be replaced by a photo exhibition that would officially open the following night. He invited us to the reception.

So here I was, nervous and exhilarated at the prospect of meeting photography aficionados on this continent. First I saluted my host, then went inside and toured the exhibition : Cabo Verde, by Sandra Fischer; colour photographs, mounted in diptychs, of everyday life on Cape Verde Islands.

After viewing them all, I joined the other guests outside. Knowing nobody, I dared not barge into any of the small groups that had formed. I walked up to a young man who was also standing by himself. An illustrator, he told me about his art and its practice, here in Strasbourg. Then, he motioned towards someone else and excused himself. I was alone again.

All the while, someone was walking around, taking photographs of the exhibition and the attendance; as he paused near me, we engaged in a conversation. His name was Benoit Linder; he was a professional photographer covering cultural events for the local media. We discussed many aspects of photography, then leafed through a book of prints, from two of his personal projects, he happened to carry with him : first pictures of Venice in which he paralleled the movement of the people with that of the lagoon on which the city is built; then portraits of writers, among which I remember vividly Jean d'Ormesson and Frédéric Beigbeder.

He mentioned how he still preferred analog over digital photography, although he used the latter much more in his work. I share this opinion, without knowing the reason why; so I posed the question. He put forward two interesting hypotheses : first, while a great variety of film emulsions and chemicals are still available for analog photography, there are only a few different sensors on the market, so that most digital cameras produce similar results; second, digital sensors are so accurate and precise that they leave no place for the subjectivity that is an essential ingredient in any rendition of reality.

My fiancée and I had agreed to meet at half past eight in the Petite-France Quarter that night. Shortly after the bells of the cathedral rang eight o'clock, I had to put an end to our long conversation; I took leave of Benoit, thanked my host for his kind invitation, then walked away in high spirits, thinking to myself that it is well worth crossing an ocean for the pleasure of a conversation like the one I just shared.

Tuesday 2008-07-08 :

We both looked up from our book at the second rap; I had vaguely heard the first one, but had dismissed it as the faint echo of a distant noise in the night. This time, there was no mistaking : somebody was knocking at the door.

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My beloved and I had whiled away the day walking on the pebbly beach, at the foot of the chalky cliffs atop which our love nest was perched, just a few yards from the edge.

We had arrived from Tuscany the day before. Although we enjoyed every second of it, after a week of elbowing our way through hordes of tourists (which we were part of) under the beating sun, we badly needed a vacation! So we reserved over the phone this miraculously available cottage, hopped aboard the night train from Florence to Paris, where we switched to the baggage compartment of an overbooked express for Rouen, and in Bréaute took the last connection of the day to Fécamp. Our amiable landlady was waiting for us at the station; she drove us to the grocery store, then to the cottage.

The place was perfect : a small but comfortable summer cottage at the very end of a narrow road winding down towards the shore; it overlooked the English Channel, and a tiny patio provided an ideal vantage point from which to watch the sun set spectacularly into the sea. Exactly what we had been dreaming of.

Earlier in the day, not knowing anything more of our whereabouts than the name of the nearest village, we had phoned our friend Jean-Paul (previously introduced in these pages), who lives in Fécamp, just a few miles to the West. As he was not home, we left a message that we would be spending some time in the area and would call again to arrange for a meeting.

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So, upon hearing the knocks, I walked to the door and opened. There, in the complete darkness, stood Jean-Paul. After reading the message, he had come looking for us. A few inquiries in the village, and there he was. How pleasant to see him after months of separation. We talked for hours and, upon his leaving, made plans to meet again soon.

We got together several times during the following days. We went to his place and he showed us around town and his workplace. He visited us two more times : once for a meal with his lovely girlfriend Martine; on our last night he came over with Martine and his son Maxime, a fishing enthusiast, whom he was obviously very proud of. It was a moment filled with emotion (so much so that we forgot to take pictures). We spent this last time together walking and talking on the beach, and then we ate dessert at the cottage.

Throughout the week, we travelled the length and breadth of the Norman coast, from Étretat to Dieppe, stopping over in Fécamp, Eletot, Les Petites Dalles, and elsewhere. The weather was cool, the wheat high, and the seaside splendid. The presence of our friends and the beauty of the landscape made our stay in Normandy memorable.

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