I'd gone there in the weeks prior, more than once, usually in the mornings, searching for the right frame– of mind, of light, of mise-en-scene. Everybody with a camera who comes upon that great facade for the first time does this:
I abandoned strong lines and colors and went for a subtler take, involving the surroundings; first the clouds,
It was in the days after the massacre that the great facade and its plaza would gain new meaning for me. All of Paris was in shock. As I wrote in the days following November 13, 2015:
The tones are hushed, raw, somber, torn. Laughter has been replaced with silence. These are grown men now, with red eyes, ugly from crying but who cares, tears running down their stubble as they point at blood on the ground. You hear the question in every heaving sigh: when did the world stop making sense?
The date will be remembered as its own noun. The names of the concert hall, the restaurants, and stadium will forever shift in meaning, something sinister about them now, sounds which carry the weight of lost years.
Do you know about being alone in the world, like she is there? Or him, defined now not by what is there, but what isn't there, what is forever lost?
This post is not about Notre Dame. It's about what we were thinking about when we thought the fire would ruin everything. Before we learned they preserved the essentials, that the structure still stands, that no one perished. It's about what the parents of those kids in Las Vegas still think about every night and every day, after the world has moved on and somehow managed to forget about 851 killed or injured, an event that remains low profile because it has no political, religious or otherwise easily blameable motivation. It's about what I think about when I think about Paris.
If I had walked the regular way home on November 13, 2015, this would have been the last known photograph:
Those two figures are living in the After, whereas my self-portrait snaps were taken before the event. But the mysteries that call to us are the same. This is what we were thinking:
Who writes the names of all the days, setting down the joy and the horror we don't yet know we will live? Is there really a wispy figure up there, long on years and maddeningly patient? Or is it the cynic's favorite explanation, a meaningless collision of atoms determining all that is ecstatic and all that is wisdom, a theory as ludicrous as its deterministic opposite? How human of us to guess, to presume we can even comprehend. Might it be something in between? What I know is that I don't know, and the fact of the universe being so much more than what we can grasp... that I find a comfort. Wouldn’t it be depressing, limiting, to know everything? I have seen miracles big and small, alignments and intersections far too sublime to insult by calling mere chance. There's something lurking in the light before memory, that lived in the dawn of our time, that lives within us still, even now.
I went back to the Notre Dame. I took comfort in its size, its art, its simultaneous resilience against and embodiment of time.
Without succumbing to the myth that tragedy makes people wise (that only happens sometimes), I want to voice the possibility that terrible experiences can open your eyes to goodness in ways you only thought you knew before. You learn the value of things.
I now saw how much that family was onto something. You have to laugh your way through this life as much as anything else. I am most impressed by those who conflate lightness and wisdom, playfulness and thoughtfulness in the same breath of their lives, without compromise to either. If there is a hidden presence linking all things, don't you imagine it would approve equally of the Notre Dame's intricate artistic virtuosity... and the giggle in a preteen cartwheel? That there might be as valuable of an answer in her spirited and innocent verve, equally deserving of echoing through the centuries?
I like to think so. It was with that in mind that I picked the camera up again, and exposed three times on the same negative. The girl was gone, of course, but I wanted to impose her joie de vivre onto the great cathedral in a way that would let the best things about both attitudes live. It cannot all be somber. There must be movement, energy, and sometimes it won't be sitting there waiting for us to pick up. We have to create it from within ourselves.
That was what I could see now, that I couldn't see before.
If some of the above images are too small to view– here they all are, plus a few extra, in a slideshow: