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Woman looking in window and dog by door (Pic: Dean Scutt)
(All pics: Dean Scutt)

By Dean Scutt

The sound of a saxophone drifts out from an apartment window across the street, you’re sitting at an unremarkable French bistro eating an equally unremarkable cheese burger, but that doesn’t matter.

What matters is that you’re here, the setting is perfect, an idyllic Parisian scene, the kind that people dream about yet never find because they’re stuck running the gauntlet of cheap trinkets and doe-eyed couples taking selfies around the Eiffel Tower (by all means go see the Eiffel Tower though, it’s fine).  But this is not the time to think about tourist traps and the teeming masses; get back in the moment, back to what’s important.

What is important is that you made it here and you’re doing exactly what you said you were going to do, what you were told wasn’t for you, was foolish and immature now knowing none of these to be true, and the wine is good, its always good here so order another, you’ve earned it, the new sprinkling of grey in your hair as proof, along with the even newer blisters you will be nursing on your return to London. This is the end of a long road, a road that at times felt infinite and impassible (it almost broke you), but now the myriad possibilities of a life that feels like your own stretch out in front of you and you smile to yourself, as the saxophonist closes their music book and shuts out the light.

Couple kissing in Metro entrance (Pic: Dean Scutt)

To give some context its Paris Photo Weekend 2021, it’s my first trip abroad since Covid, when I lost everything. I had just started to claw the parts back that I wanted to keep. It was also my first solo trip abroad ever which was something I always wanted but never knew how much I needed until that moment.

If all that doesn’t spark inspiration in you, I’d seriously consider seeing a doctor. Although not my first trip to Paris turning up with just a rucksack, one camera and one lens, the city felt different, it wasn’t just the lack of ammonia smell that usually hits you square in the face upon exiting Gare Du Nord that felt different (maybe they cleaned it up during Covid) it felt new.

I was worried the city might have lost its edge but on finishing a roll of film by the time I got to my hotel I concluded that I was new, the city was all still here, the faded bohemian dream that was pre and post-war Paris only available now on stolen weekends away where one can stay at a down and out hotel in the 11th Arrondissement, smoking in a trench coat playing at Camus and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Man in bright cafe sunshine (Pic: Dean Scutt)

The reality being that living in a major city is more hostile now than ever, it’s no longer for us, the dreamers, we are forced to flee to the forgotten corners of our respective countries looking for scraps. But this is not about that, this is about photography, about how to approach documenting a place already so well-documented you wonder why you would even bother. I say this: pick your weapons and lean in, lean into what made everything that came before so great. Bruce Gilden (love him or hate him) said that in a good street photo you can smell the street, well Paris definitely has a smell and there is nothing smellier to my eyes than black-and-white film pushed to 1600 ISO.

I’m sure my lab hates me for it, but ever since I started I can’t stop, I don’t care what stock it is, some push better than others (Kosmo Foto’s own Agent Shadow fares particularly well here) but I push them all, it’s the only way to really etch the filth of the street into the emulsion.

So that was me for three days, just three days but not a minute wasted, pockets loaded with well underexposed film and a 35mm lens. Say what you want about the 35, some call it boring, but I say that its then up to you to make it interesting, no cheap tricks like dramatic distortion or dreamy bokeh, just exactly what’s in front of you, so be picky about what you shoot and pick well because nobody is coming to save you, you’re on your own.

Couple through Metro window (Pic: Dean Scutt)

Paired with a rangefinder for me this creates an unstoppable street machine, something that allows you to move quickly and quietly, not sneaking around like a spy or some sort of creep but a surgeon cutting through crowds, slicing elegantly, swiftly, with precision and purpose through the streets.

The brand of rangefinder is of little consequence, what matters it the unobtrusive view it gives you of the world in front of you, I find looking through a lens that’s always at its widest aperture very distracting, your mileage may vary but this is just how I prefer to see and with a rangefinder and 35mm lens I see everything.

It’s very rare in street photography that a shot you got excited about taking matches what you see when you finally lay eyes on the negatives. If you’re shooting film on the street take a deep breath and leave your ego at the door because this is going to hurt. It’s something I’ve grown accustomed to over the years and after many, many terrible rolls of film. Cartier-Bresson destroyed a lot of his negatives, I can only assume it’s because in reality they looked a lot like yours or mine only he had a mystique to uphold “the decisive moment”.

Man in mask looking at camera (Pic: Dean Scutt)

Some moments, however, everything just comes together and this weekend the muses were on my side, I knew I was taking good photographs. Some, like the man in the cafe window or the couple kissing outside the metro I did a good 10-metre dash to capture. The man in the mask on the metro (above) stared me down while I focused, he never even flinched but neither did I, of course a few stiff drinks can do wonders for the nerves but my eyes were so wide open no scene could escape them and I was hungry, starving even.

I was taking all the right turns, making all the right moves, I knew this may never happen again, I could very well have peaked at 34 or crossed a threshold in my creative output, raised me own bar. Both options were frankly terrifying.

Silhouette of man on street (Pic: Dean Scutt)

I couldn’t tell you how much I walked; it was a lot, enough to be limping by the end but being just about young enough to bounce back quickly so I didn’t let it stop me, my knees are still good. Of course, there is the Metro and there is fun to be had down there too, but like London, if you spend all your time zipping around underground you miss everything, life is happening up here, on the surface.

And yes, and on the surface of it Paris may seem as much of a tourist dystopia as London, but there are subtle differences. It’s smaller for one, so walking is an option, go ahead, walk from the 19th to the 5th and back, just like I did, it won’t kill you and you don’t have to walk far off the beaten track to stumble across locals living their lives, in their neighbourhoods that haven’t yet (unlike London) become homogenised copy-paste versions of each.

This is where it is, the intrigue, the photographs that could have been taken in 1921 or 2021 and not a Pret A Manger in site (in fact there might only be one in Paris, ironically), instead we see the grocers, the butchers, the cheese-mongers, the cafes, the bars all alive, all buzzing with activity, men with tiny beers at 9am sporting leather jackets and flat caps, women carrying fresh cut flowers and baguettes, they are all real and they are all here so document them and document them now because things change and when they do they change fast, I’d put money on this generation being the last to do this. I can’t picture someone from Gen Z waking up one day and deciding to don a flat cap, go smoke roll-ups outside a Parisian bistro with a group of friends who have had a similar awakening. No, this too shall pass.

But don’t think about that, try not to be cynical, you’re here now and you have a camera so use it, freeze these fleeting moments that you romanticise from art and literature, use film, use black-and-white film inconveniences be damned! Because you are, at heart, a romantic, or a sentimental fool (it doesn’t matter which), just do it because you love it.

It won’t always work out, but if you’re in a groove and you keep moving your feet you may just strike gold in the back streets of a well-trodden city.

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1 month ago

Wonderful piece. Everything came alive on the page.