foto-friday – the search for meaning

What does a hill mean, or a cloud? Is red still always life, green still always the material world? Are riches always gold? Is documenting our daily life enough?  This building, this Apkallu or Annunciation that speaks to me – what does it say? This Icon with piercing eyes and this Maravijaya pose – will it tell me what I need to know?

Every once in a while, a question comes along that needs to be answered. I got one the other day and decided to respond. “What does this picture mean to you?” Good question. Why am I taking pictures. What do they mean?

A long time ago I was told that pictures were a way of pinning a message to the posts that we pass as we venture farther and farther afield. A way to let others know this section of the trail was once traversed…

Picasso said that pictures were a means of hammering another plank into the life raft that keeps humanity afloat.

I listen to Shivkumar Sharma and Beethoven specifically because they are not randomly presenting me with the sounds of birds, vehicular traffic, wheelbarrows and kitchen utensils one after the other. It is because they understand something of the world and have sought for a meaning and understanding they can bring to bear on their creation.

I’m not trying to be obtuse here…. I believe the question was “what does this picture mean to you?”

To be honest, this photo is complicated. To me it is a moment that captured all of the things we don’t speak about. The shadows and silhouettes of the past beyond the modern world. It sits on that dividing line where the modern world came into being. It’s about adoption, assimilation, conflict and direction. It’s a link to something that surrounds us yet has been lost to us and when we re-confront it, it seems strange, possibly violent and bizarre. The imperfect pearl. It’s about certain lines, shapes, forms, and contrasts we need to re-understand and become re-accustomed to.

Where and when did “if it’s old it’s amazing” get replaced with “if it’s totally new it must be amazing, especially if it’s pretending to be old and is in fact fake and really new”?  Does it matter, where is it pointing to and where does it leave us? Are we adrift, a violent ship charging towards an idea of a golden past ideal that never existed? Opulence and the light of reason with an electric fan cut into its side. What is the memory and shape of history? How do we see ourselves?

These are the immediate thoughts that come to mind. And to be fair they might seem a little jumbled at first but maybe a little story could give them a little shape.

I’m North American by birth. And like most people on the continent, history doesn’t really stretch back to much beyond the mid 19th century. By 1850 the general idea of what the world was going to become had pretty much solidified in place. The next hundred years put it through its paces to see how it would hold up; and after that it’s just been constant tweaking and improvements because there just ain’t no goin’ back.

The real past starts around 1850 so say we all. Sure there was 1776, the Mayflower and the Louisiana Territory but that’s all costume drama stuff. The stuff that we can see and touch – it comes from the Second Empire which everyone will tell you is real class!

The old city halls in Boston, Providence, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Montreal and Buenos Aires. Town halls in Sydney, South Melbourne and Collingwood Australia. The State, War and Navy building just west of the American White House. Post offices in St Louis and Raleigh and Bendigo. The Windsor Hotel in Melbourne and South Hall at UC Berkeley. Provincial legislatures in Quebec and New Brunswick. All of these say expensive, impressive, European and old.

They aren’t hard to recognize and if you’re a photographer you will wind up taking pictures of them. They’re the go to for history and culture. And to really take it in there’s no better place than The City of Light, the spot where it all began. The home to Liberté Égalité et Fraternité, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and of course the Phantom of the Opera.

Like New York used to be, and somewhere in China is probably becoming; Paris of the Second Empire was the centre of the world’s finance, fashion and the arts. The largest city in Europe it was rapidly expanding through annexation. And in the middle of all this Georges-Eugene Haussmann turned it into one giant construction site that razed the center of the city and rebuilt the Paris we know it today. In fact you could say “if it ain’t Haussmann, it ain’t Paris”.

Boulevards! monuments! buildings! – lights! camera! action! A hundred thousand trees to line the two-hundred kilometers of new streets. Squares, aqueducts, sewers, fountains, parks and uniform building codes for every building facing any of his boulevards or avenues. Massive new railway stations, hospitals, government offices, five new theatres, finish the Louvre, rebuilt the central market, oh and did I mention the Opera?

If you have a picture of Paris in your head, it was probably put there by Haussmann and constructed around the same time as all the rest of the institutional buildings in the colonial west.

What made it all possible was the figure of Napoleon III. No slouch himself, after staging a coup in 1852 to save the country from itself. He made himself Emperor of France and introduced a new Constitution that said he held all executive power. There were no democratic rights, he nominated all the members of the senate and the council of state. The legislature was not allowed to elect its own president, regulate itself, propose a law or amendment, vote on the budget or make its deliberations public. Voting was supervised and controlled, candidates were appointed, free speech was forbidden and election boundaries were constantly redrawn to ensure the outcome of elections. The press was restricted through economic penalties and outright orders to prevent publication of certain articles. There were sanctions, suspensions and suppression of all news. Books were subject to censorship. Authorities began programs of public and individual surveillance to identify and prevent opposition. An Italian ‘terrorist’ attack became a pretext for a general security law that authorised imprisoning, exile or deportation of any suspect without trial. Schools were closely supervised and monitored. All teaching was done in official Lycées with special disciplinary powers and the suppression of subjects such as philosophy and other questionable subjects. Oh and did I mention the Opera?


So what does this photo mean to me?  This picture of Paris …the city of light.

At the beginning of the second empire there were about eight-thousand gas lights in the city. Twenty years later there were nearly fifty-eight-thousand. You could find gas lights every twenty meters on the boulevards. A final push towards modernity, lighting the night would become a totalitarian obsession, hallmark and rite of passage for any culture that wished to participate in the future of the world. It was imperative to leave behind a primitive past lit only by fire.

And the opera? Well the Palais Garnier is in fact the Opera where the phantom lives. A sort of neo-renaissance-cum-neo-baroque sort of ostentatious construction thingy designed by Charles Garnier himself. Considered to be the most famous opera house in the world, it reeks opulence and expensive. It also happened to be the largest theatre in the world with most of the interior space devoted to grand stairways, huge foyers and large private boxes for the patrons to show off.

The Emperor had his own private, secure entrance built which is what you’re looking at on the right hand side of the photo. And right in front the two ramps …the gold statue on a pedestal, that’s Charles Garnier who the Emperor has to go around in order to get inside his own door. Go figure :)

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