I have no idea how much I perceive the world through the long-established images and conventions of the photograph. But clearly, in cities like Paris, cities that have been subject to a fairly long history of documentation by photographers, I find myself in the very scenes that they originally represented. Their black and white photographs are not neutral: they carry a romantic or sentimental or mood-laden charge. They may even evoke pathos and suffering – and they may invite me to imagine how the world got to seem that way.
And, just the other day, at around 11 p.m. in the evening, I suddenly experienced a phantasm of one of those wonderful scenes of Paris – the kind that Robert Doisneau’s photos portray. I ‘met’ the Doisneau girl.
I was in the second arrondissement of Paris. The weather that day had been gorgeous. Now, the late evening shaded into velvety night; I started walking down the Rue de la Villeneuve towards the Grands Boulevards. The air was warm and somewhere high above the soft glow of the street lights an orange moon glided across the ink-blue sky. As I walked I heard a distinctive sound behind me. I turned round and saw an old man who was also walking down the road. He supported himself with the help of two wooden canes. Alongside him trotted a small dog. The dog most surely must have been called ‘Patch’. Patch had a white coat of hair but one largish area of black covered half his head and,of course, his eye. (The whole suggested the look of a pirate) Then, the Doisneau girl appeared. She was aged about six and was manoeuvring herself along the road whilst sitting on an old battered skateboard. The skateboard now served as a crude but charming mode of transport.
The girl (so sitting) allowed the skateboard to roll down the slope of the road until she came alongside the old man and Patch the dog. Then, she reached out and patted Patch and murmured something to the old man. He was her grandfather. She had a delightful and sweet optimism in her voice. What was it about her that made her appear the ideal child? She wore a simple cotton dress – and her long fair hair streamed about her cheeks and down her back. She glanced at me; her black eyes sparkled; she smiled at me – a simple, direct, happy smile.
I continued walking towards the Boulevards but I noticed that the girl had retraced her steps and returned to the highest point of the road. I turned to watch. She sat on her skateboard and then I realised that she was preparing to descend the length of the road – a full 50 metres. In a moment she was off: faster and faster she sped down the incline of the road. By now she was adjacent with her grandfather and Patch. She used her feet to brake the speed of the skateboard – and with a cry of delight she continued to the point where I was standing. I clapped my hands and she smiled again – the smile of a child who knows that she has risked a great deal and won. I clapped again, bowed and smiled – and then waved goodbye to the beautiful girl – as I turned onto the Grands Boulevards. As I walked on I thought of her charm and of how she was at the point in a life before the full weight of french culture would bear down upon her.
If I had had my camera I would have been able to capture (in 2014) the kind of moment made famous so many years earlier by Robert Doisneau. I would have frozen, in time, a point where the past merges with the present. I would have represented a convention – an idea – a sentimental narrative – here in the narrow unseen streets of Paris.
But who knows who this ideal child might actually be? And who knows how far french culture has already pervaded her soul and shaped the contours of her psyche? And who knows whether I gilded the whole scene with an escapist romance that had little to do with reality? Yet, there’s no doubt that the child felt elation as she sped down the road on her battered but still reliable skateboard. There’s no doubt too, that she felt safe alongside her grandfather and the little dog. She felt the simplicities of pleasure – and, through her conduct and her smile, she made my day.