It was April, 2002 when Helen and I landed in Paris. It’s worth noting that Helen and I were coming off a year of travels around the world, mostly in hot climates, the previous three months having been spent in India. I mention this because April in Paris is decidedly cold. We had no idea, and were ill prepared. The result of the cold April winds combined with our light clothes was that we endeavored to spend as much time as possible indoors, which in Paris is certainly easy enough to do.
The Louvre is a labyrinth into itself and one in which a person could spend several days exploring and still not see everything, or at least not see it properly. Of course, the single most visited indoor attraction in Paris is likely the painting of Mona Lisa. For the uninitiated, here’s what you need to know about The Mona Lisa: it’s small. The actual canvas measures 2.5 feet tall by less than 2 feet wide. It’s not large. It’s not like Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon at the Park, for example – or a typical Jackson Pollack. Compared to many famous paintings, Mona Lisa is the equivalent in size of a postage stamp. I didn’t expect that.
Non-flash photography was (and still is) permitted in The Louvre, as it is in nearly all major museums worldwide. Still, tourists couldn’t contain themselves nor their cameras when they stood before what is arguably humankind’s most famous painting. And so The Louvre placed Mona Lisa behind a thick case of tinted glass to protect it from errant flashes.
One year after our visit, in April 2003 Dan Brown’s novel the da Vinci Code was published and in May, 2006 Hollywood released it’s version. With the da Vinci Code a worldwide sensation, traffic to see the Mona Lisa in person rose to a point where The Louvre reportedly stopped tourists from taking pictures anywhere on the second floor of The Louvre. Today Mona Lisa resides in a newly designed room on the first floor and photography is, once again, permitted.
Back in April, 2001, Helen and I explored the Louvre for the better part of a day. At one point, we allowed ourselves to be pulled into the vortex that was the viewing room for Mona Lisa. We squirmed our way to the front of the crowd where a single metal post served as a barrier. Like countless others, we leaned against the barrier and marveled at the painting’s small size absorbed every inch of this small canvas that is seen as the pinnacle of renaissance artwork. Once I had taken in Mona Lisa for myself, I picked up my camera and began shooting. I was at the early stages of adding to my Art Watching series and I hoped I might capture clever and amusing images of people interacting the world’s most famous painting. I wasn’t disappointed. I have several images of people interacting with Mona Lisa including one that I’ve blogged about previously in which a woman looks downright miserable in front of the masterpiece.
When I had my fill and felt I had taken up too much space up front, I retreated to the back of the room. There, I would be out of the crush and, I hoped, would get a good overview of the scene. I didn’t want to photograph peoples’ backs, exactly, but I wanted to see what the entire room looked like. I let my camera down around my neck, power still on, ready to go, but I was clearly taking a break.
That’s when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a woman walking into my field of view. I registered immediately that she looked like Mona Lisa herself and so I pulled my camera to my eye and with no time to think to or consciously frame the image, I captured this moment in time. It’s one shot, one frame on a roll of 36 pictures (remember film?). I never spoke to this woman, I had no idea who she was. It wasn’t planned or set up, it just happened.
Back in the days of film, before we could press a button and see an image immediately on the back of our cameras, I would very occasionally snap a picture and realize I had something special – something that I planned to pounce on once I got the film back from the lab. This was one of those times. I knew what I had the moment I took the picture and was excited. When I returned home to San Francisco and processed the film, I wasn’t disappointed. The woman is Mona Lisa’s doppelgänger – from the part in her hair to the crook in her smile, she is the woman in the painting.
A fascinating postscript: Earlier this year I received an email from the woman in the photograph. She’s a New Yorker who had been on vacation in Paris – she even remembers me taking her picture. I’ve since sent her a signed, limited edition fiber print. And I look forward to meeting her either here in North Carolina or on a future trip to New York. Amazing that twelve years after the fact, that she ran across this image and got in touch with me. It’s all incredible, really – life is full of fascinating moments, many of which are hard to believe. I am fortunate to capture some of those moments, such as the one shown above, with my camera.