I don’t get selfies. Why would I want a million pictures of myself in front of a famous place? Why wouldn’t I want a picture of the place itself? As someone who spends a great deal of time photographing in historic churches and cathedrals, I am well aware of how difficult it is to understand and appreciate what is in front of my eyes.
But what I’ve noticed more and more recently is that people do not even look. Last June, PJ and her dear friend Sonnie went to Notre Dame de Paris for a visit and during the 90 minutes that they were inside, I sat on the parvis and examined the exterior as I have done for years on end, continuously surprised by the details and the harmonies. But I noticed the behavior of the masses of people who showed up to see the cathedral because it is a “sight”. They simply do not look at what is in front of them.
Instead they march up to their spot of choice and take selfies, many of them with “selfie sticks” that are now sold everywhere at tourist venues. Occasionally one member of a group would take a picture of the others and then switch places for a second photo, but most of the time they all crowded in and took the selfie. Many times they would do fashion poses, like a European couple I saw. She stood in front of the cathedral as he lay on his back in the middle of the crowd and took a picture of her. Then she took the camera and took a picture of him lying on the ground. Then he got the camera back and took a selfie of himself lying on the ground. I saw a young Asian couple, the girl dressed in a glamorous sparkling outfit, the boy with a sophisticated camera with a very long lens. She posed in front of the cathedral as he moved around to get different views, kneeling, standing. Most likely they were working on an amateur portfolio of some kind, but Notre Dame de Paris was simply a backdrop. And with the telephoto lens he was shooting with, the cathedral was nothing more than a blur.
In many cases, parents and children stood for photos in front of the cathedral and I saw something disturbing. The children would pose with wide happy grins for the photo and then instantly relapse back into whatever mood they had prior to the picture, often sullen and disgruntled. But to look at the photo, one would think that they were having the time of their lives.
I saw that people behave as they were expected to behave. They take pictures of themselves and each other in front of the great cathedral, but in most cases I don’t think they could answer three questions about Notre Dame itself. How many towers does it have? How many levels of sculpture? How many portals lead to the interior of the west facade? They simply expect that they will remember through their photograph if they need to remember at all. The fact is, they were in Paris and they saw Notre Dame and the photograph proves it.
There were two exceptions in the entire time that I was watching. The first was a young Asian man with a camera who stood out front and looked for a minute or two, and then took a quick series of photographs. The second was a young woman, I believe she was American. She stood mute in front of the western facade, hands at her side, staring at the church for at least two or three minutes. She looked down momentarily and then looked back up again for another long while. Then she shook her head and walked away. But she looked carefully and long, and certainly got more out of the church than the thousands with their selfies.
This is not an attempt to belittle other people as ignorant or uncaring, and I understand wanting to document a family trip or a visit with a loved one. But most people simply do not know how to act when confronted with something of the enormity of Notre Dame. It is just another tourist destination like the Eiffel Tower or a bateau mouche filled with tourists, with as little intellectual or cultural content as either of these. It is like going to the Louvre Museum and heading directly for the Mona Lisa. It is another check-mark against a bucket list.
PJ, Sonnie and I went to the museum at the Orangerie the day before; we wanted to see the Nymphéas exhibition. In two large elliptical rooms the eight canvasses are displayed, two yards tall and almost 100 yards long. They depict a landscape dotted with water lilies, willow branches, tree and cloud reflections with no banks and no horizon, Monet’s life masterpiece. Sonnie had never seen these works and we felt it was something she would enjoy for her first visit to Paris. We were there for an hour and a half and I never made it out of the first of two rooms of the exhibit. In fact, I never made it past the following image, Les Nuages (The Clouds).
For thirty minutes I stared, trying to understand this single painting and then something happened that changed everything. I took off my glasses. All of a sudden the painting came to life, especially the topography of the work, the density of the paint. I could see how Monet layered the yellow paint so that the sunlight literally exploded off the canvas like photons rebounding from the water and reflecting into our eyes. So profound was his conception of painting and light that he was able to accomplish this miraculous effect. The concept was so grand and eloquent that for a moment I was angry at him for having the genius to imagine and execute such an idea, but the feeling resolved into a simple thankful awe. I could only bow my head and rub my exhausted eyes. After ninety minutes, PJ and Sonnie came into the room and woke me from my reverie.
I tell this story because there is so much that is wonderful and astonishing in this world and it is important to really look, not to be intimidated, and to try and understand. The first thing PJ and I do when we go into one of our churches is to sit in the back and study it, let it speak to us. Sometimes it is a matter of a couple of minutes, but other times we sit for half an hour before we begin shooting.
Sonnie, by the way, was completely taken with Notre Dame and she looked long and carefully. I don’t believe she took a selfie, and it was my pleasure to take a picture of PJ and Sonnie together when they emerged from inside.