Symmetry (at the Louvre)
I took this picture inside The Louvre during the fall of 2009. I’m proud of this image and a bit ashamed of it at the same time. I’ll explain shortly. First off, a quick answer to the question many folks ask straight away – yes, one can take photographs inside The Louvre (and most major museums around the world), the one requirement is that you don’t use a flash. Next, a point of interest and pride – The Louvre, not known for collecting photography in particular, acquired an original, limited edition copy of this print along with a dozen other prints of mine back in 2010.
A word about my parents that’s relevant to this story. My parents were eclectic artists who were married for seven years, had me and quickly split up. I’ve always said that I was a “save the marriage baby” that didn’t work. My father, many readers of this blog may already know, is a celebrated New York street photographer. In 1976, he published his second book, “Propaganda and Other Photographs,” and on page 20 is an image of my mother, Ilse Kalisher, sharing a meal with me as I sit in a high chair at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant. My mother felt this picture unflattering and disliked it intensely and was always frustrated that my father included it in the book against her wishes. I was 14-years-old when that book was released and my mother famously said to me as one of many life lessons and with no small amount of bitterness, “Photographers don’t give pictures, they take them.”
Clearly, I’ve never forgotten those words. And so, when I abandoned my advertising career at age 33 and began the odyssey of morphing into a fine art photographer I kept my mother’s words close to my heart. As I began traveling the world with my camera and searching for my voice, one rule I had – and still have – for myself is to never take someone’s picture if he or she doesn’t want it taken. I have my own personal code of conduct that goes with this. People in a public setting, a market, a town square, a museum, are all fair game. I don’t hide or photograph with a telephoto lens – I am out in the open where people can see me. If someone shrinks away or waves me off, I drop the camera from my eye and put my palms up – I may not be giving pictures, but I’m also not taking them – at least not at all costs.
Have I missed capturing terrific images as a result of my code of conduct? Of course I have. There was a great elderly woman in Vietnam whose face shared incredible stories – I can still see her in my mind’s eye, but she waved me off and I left her alone. In Morocco, in China, as well as here in the States, I’ve put my camera down and my palms up many times. If I were a photojournalist, I might feel differently. But as an artist, as a storyteller, there’s no image so important that I feel the need to invade someone’s privacy and take their picture against his or her will in order to capture it.
This image of the two women in the Louvre is as close as I’ve come to breaking my quiet promise to my mother to respect her lesson about photographers and photography. In 2009, Helen and I returned to The Louvre with Jordan and Tamar. I was excited, as I always am, to have time to explore a museum with my camera. Magic happens when we take in art – we let down our guard, stop posing for the world and start interacting with art in the most pure version of ourselves. This is the perfect arena for me and my camera. The stories I find inside a museum are as varied as they are endless.
And so imagine my delight as I walked into this room and found these two women sitting on a bench beside one another. When I first saw them, they were sitting upright and facing forward. What struck me straight away was how similar they looked. You can’t see all of it here, but they have similar facial features, clearly similar hair styles and they’re both in similarly styled skirts and sleeveless shirts. I am attracted to symmetry and knew immediately that I wanted to compose an image that featured these two women who I could only assume were mother and daughter.
There was only one challenge. The two women sat on a bench in the middle of a fairly open and empty room. I would have to stand in front of them and then face them in order to take the picture. Standing alone in an open room otherwise devoid of people, I would be far too exposed. I knew that once I faced them with my camera they would either waive me off and feign embarrassment, or they would pose, thus ruining whatever organic moment I hoped to capture. If my mom were there, I’m fairly sure she would have advised me to move on. But I couldn’t leave – the mother and daughter with so many similarities intrigued me and I didn’t want to give up.
Here’s what I did instead. I walked to the perfect position to take their picture, only I didn’t look at the two women at all – in fact I didn’t even face them. Instead, I stood facing 90 degrees to the right of the women and pointed my camera directly at a statue. I set my exposure for the light in the room and while my body and camera faced the statue, I looked out of the corner of my left eye at the two women. The women were looking up and in my general direction as I played out the scenarios in my head – how could I swivel 90 degrees to my left, face them and capture the image without drawing attention to myself? I was working out the possibilities when the mom and daughter turned away to reach into their respective purses.
I’m sure I let out an audible gasp. Everything about the two women moved in harmony. Look at everything from the angle of their arms to the position of their hands, their legs, even the dip of their heads – all nearly exactly identical. I saw this in an instant, pivoted 90 degrees to my left, clicked off two frames, then swiveled back to my right to again face the statue. When then mother and daughter looked up, they would be no more the wiser and would have no idea that I had just taken their picture.
I am, truthfully, a bit ashamed of that moment. It’s the only time I’ve moved to steal a picture of someone with the specific goal of that person not knowing what I’m doing. To be clear, I take lots of pictures of people in public places where I’m confident the people in the image have no idea that they’ve just been photographed. But, for me, that ignorance is always a matter of circumstance (or happenstance) and never a matter of such overt planning on my part.
I do love the image. And, I suppose, if asked if the ends justified the means, in this instance I suppose, when pushed, I’d have to say yes. Would I do it again? For this particular shot, yes. But I doubt I’ll sneak around for an image again in the future. There’s something inelegant about doing that. My mother is no longer around, so I can’t ask her perspective. But I know what she’d say – her voice is ever present in the back of my head challenging me to be a photographer of a different sort, one who can find creative and professional success without ‘taking’ from people, at least not against their will. I may not always succeed, but I will always try to live up to that.