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  • November 18, 2015

After Tragedy, a Photographer Reflects on a 30-Year Love Affair With Paris

William Albert Allard has spent 30 years photographing Paris. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015, he reflects on the spirit of a city close to his heart.

Picture of a girl smoking in a French cafe
Girl smoking, Au Gamin de Paris restaurant, Le Marais, 2002
Picture of the Eiffel Tower
Eiffel Tower, 2013

The first time I was fortunate enough to visit Paris was in the fall of 1967. I was 29. I was passing through just long enough to taste my first pale yellow pastis and devour my first escargot immersed in garlic butter and accompanied by lots of bread and red wine. I ended that night below street level in a smoky, dimly lit jazz club. The next day I went on to the Pyrenees to begin an assignment for National Geographic on the French and Spanish Basque country. I wasn’t wise enough then to stay on in Paris for a few extra days while coming or going from that assignment. I regret that now. But I had a large family waiting for me at home. Almost 20 years went by before I returned to Paris and promptly fell in love with the city. I was on a short, self-generated assignment for a National Geographic Traveler magazine article called “The Sidewalks of Paris.” It was the start of a love affair that I know can end only with my passing.

Picture of the Quai de la Megisserie
Lovers, Quai de la Mégisserie, 2015
Picture of Cafe Republique
Café République, Place de la République, 2015

Early on as a photographer I was probably influenced more by painters than photographers. Many of those painters were French. The Impressionists: Degas, Renoir, and Caillebotte, among many others, and eventually my visual hero, Matisse. Often the subjects of these artists involved Paris—street scenes, a portrait of an absinthe drinker, a light-mottled gathering of young Parisians at a luncheon party, dancers at a ball. I loved how those artists saw space and light, the beauty they created from seemingly ordinary moments.

Picture of a bather on a beach along the Seine in Paris
Paris-Plages along the Seine, 2013

While working briefly in Paris this past September for my book (to be published next fall), I thought how frustrating it is to pursue a portrayal of such a wonderful city. There is so much; how can one ever do it justice? Perhaps one can’t. For every picture I made that I might consider worthy, I saw hundreds that I didn’t or couldn’t get. Still, I saw them and they filled me with the joy of a flâneur out on his typical, targetless stroll.

La Tarine wine bar, Rue de Rivoli. 2002
La Tartine wine bar, Rue de Rivoli, 2002
NationalGeographic_459738
Ungaro fashion models backstage, 1988

If I allow myself, I might worry about how one can compete with the marvelous artistic work the city has inspired over the centuries. But it’s best not to suffer such insecurities, so I don’t. I just keep walking and watching, wandering the city looking for nothing in particular and everything in general. And with each step I take I seem to love it more. I don’t think anything will change that.

Picture of people on the grass on Ile de la Grande Jatte in Paris
Île de la Grande Jatte, 2013
Picture of a couple photographed through a cafe window in Paris
Rue des Grands Augustins, 1986

What happened last Friday evening struck the heart of the Paris I love, along the kind of streets I’ve wandered, in the kind of cafés I’ve haunted, where Paris has always offered civilized societal exchange and, if one is in need of it, perhaps solace. As we all know, when something terrible happens to someone or something we love, it can be heartbreaking. And there seem to be no words to truly express the feeling of such hurt. I’m sure that is how all who love Paris must now feel. I know I do.

Picture of Rue Turbigo in Paris
Rue de Turbigo, 2015

William Albert Allard has contributed to National Geographic as a photographer and writer since 1964 and is considered one of color photography’s most celebrated pioneers. Producing images with a painterly quality—nuanced detail, rich color palettes, and intricate composition—Allard is as much an artist as he is a photographer.

There are 13 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Lesley
    February 16, 2016

    I was in Paris, for the first time, right before the attacks. It was not a great experience due to an ill organized tour director and the company he worked for. Never again. I now want to try again and get the pictures I longed to take.

  2. Simeon Goranov
    February 13, 2016

    “Almost 20 years went by before I returned to Paris and promptly fell in love with the city”
    Interestingly this is exactly how I felt a result of my first [belated] trip to Paris. I will probably never forgive myself that I was almost 50 before I took this trip. Life sometimes appears to be so short… Awesome article … can’t wait for the book to come out later this year.

  3. Diana Robinson
    January 14, 2016

    so beautiful.

  4. Skye Callow
    December 2, 2015

    These pictures actually filled me with the butterflies that I have not felt in a very, very long time. It broke my heart this morning in the most beautiful way, thank you.

  5. Cecile Poulain
    November 27, 2015

    Thank you Bill 🙂

  6. Susan Hayek-Kent
    November 20, 2015

    the photographs make me feel as though I’ve visited paris.
    I love seeing the city through his eyes.

  7. Prateek Dubey
    November 20, 2015

    Thank you Bill. Your work and words are always inspirational. There is so much to see, so much to love…

  8. Eswar Vadde
    November 20, 2015

    Beauty in the world.

    Beauty in the World, which can be visible to a beautiful Mind with beautiful intensions.
    If intensions are beautiful then the heart will become beautiful.
    If the heart is beautiful then the person will be beautiful.
    If the person is beautiful his neighbours and society will be beautiful.
    If neigbours and society are beautiful then every thing will be beautiful.
    If everything is beautify then the intensions of GOD can be can be reflected everywhere.

  9. Ann DeGray
    November 19, 2015

    Bill, I knew you would have a response to the tragedy. Your response is even more beautiful and moving than I expected. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Thank you.

  10. Mariella Duffy
    November 18, 2015

    Me encantaron todas las fotos, realmente hermosas, ese es el Paris que todos queremos ver y disfrutar.

  11. ruthibelle
    November 18, 2015

    Awesome work. Moving words. Ah, Paris …

  12. Steven McMacken
    November 18, 2015

    Beautiful imagery of a beautiful city. I think you have captured its heart.

  13. Neal F. Rattican
    November 18, 2015

    One of my favorite photographers, ever since years ago when I first saw his slideshow on the Basque Country as well as Fathers & Sons at the Southern Short Course in News Photography. Helluva photographer!

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