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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.