15. A Tale of Two Cities

(Or, what the Dickens am I doing here?)

Paris, 1973

One never knows what lies ahead. That was certainly true one rainy day in 1973 as I stood on the corner of the Rue de Seine and the Boulevard Saint-Germain, taking a photograph of a young woman with an umbrella as she waited to cross the busy street. I was young then; and awestruck by the fact that I was at last in Paris, the city that I had dreamed so long of visiting, that had become the centre of my universe. Photography was my passion; and Paris had become my muse. I wandered the streets with my bag of cameras, through every arrondissement, almost every quartier, in search of the elusive images that would capture, forever, the way I felt just being there. But little did I know then that by the time the decade was over, I would have forsaken my ambition of being a photojournalist and become, instead, the very antithesis of what I had imagined that stood for. I became a foot soldier in the army of commerce.

And little did I know at that time, that more than three and a half decades later, now retired from the treadmill of commerce, I would find myself once again wandering the streets of a foreign city, a different city this time, camera in hand, driven by an unexpected enthusiasm, searching once more for those elusive images that would capture, forever, the way I felt just being there.

So this, then, is a tale of two cities: Paris and Barcelona. But it is also a tale of two images, one taken in each of those places, thirty-six years apart. And by rights, neither of those images should have been taken.

In chronological order, the first image depicts an old man, rather shabbily dressed, sitting on a park bench, watching two boys in the distance playing with a ball. I cannot know precisely what was running through his mind at the time but as I observed the scene, it seemed to me that he might have been looking back on his life, perhaps wondering what had happened to his own exuberance, his own dreams and aspirations. But I was still young then, still looking forward, with dreams and aspirations of my own to focus on, and these thoughts should not have occurred to me; this possibility of regret should not have found its way into my consciousness. I should not even have registered the significance of this moment at that time in my life.

Paris, 1973

The second shot depicts a young woman walking hurriedly past an old couple in a narrow street in Barcelona.  Her posture, and in particular the hand that seemed posed to calm a feeling of anxiety, brought to my mind a line from the song My Generation by The Who: “I hope I die before I get old”. But when I took this, I was already old; I had lived most of my life and it seemed that it was already too late for me to harbour such thoughts. I should not have registered the significance of this moment either.

Barcelona, 2010

So why do I single out these particular images for reflection? I could wax lyrical and claim that, even if I had never taken any other photographs, I would be satisfied with these two. But that would false. There are other photographs that I have taken over the years that I still look back on fondly. And compared with others I have taken, these two are such simple images, devoid of artistic devices and post-processing trickery. By any objective standards they might be considered competently composed and executed but they wouldn’t win prizes in any competition. Nor do they depict any particularly significant moment in my life. So why to I cleave to them so strongly? Well, to borrow from the words of Walt Whitman, “they expose me more than all my other poems[1]”.

These images are like the bookends of my (photographic) life, although, ironically, the end was taken at the beginning and the beginning was taken near the end. Am I the old man, sitting on a park bench in the gardens of the Palais Royal in Paris, thinking about his life, wondering what happened to his dreams, how they withered before the  more powerful demands of reality? Or am I more like the young woman in a back street in Gracia, seeing an old couple walking symbolically out of the picture in the opposite direction and hoping that her own life will amount to something more than simply growing old, and dying? Perhaps the truth is that I am a little of both.

Do I have regrets? Some. But none that torture me. I have had too much to be grateful for in my life to dwell on what might have been. Besides, we have no way of knowing where the road not taken might have led us, so regrets are ultimately futile. But what encourages me is that, on that day in Barcelona, I could still see my life from the point of view of the young woman; that it is not over; that there is still room in it for dreams and ambition. But they can only be realised if I continue to look forward, always searching for those elusive images that capture the way I feel just being here. The morbidly obese lady of my personal opera may be standing in the wings, head held high, hands clasped below her ample bosom, ready to stride proudly onto the stage to the applause of the audience; but she has not yet begun to sing; and as they say, one never really knows what lies ahead.

Sydney, 2010

[1] The Frailest Leaves


3 thoughts on “15. A Tale of Two Cities

  1. Thanks, Keith. Sharing your thoughts makes me think about those things, too. One never knows what lies ahead, indeed. We start somewhere and life takes us, shapes us, rolls us, polishes us, torments and destroys us. We move along the decades, that is if we are lucky, preferably healthy, strong and determined at first and as time goes by, we become more tolerant, more understanding and hopefully more self-compassionate. The journey is long, you might think you’ve got all the time in the world, but once you reach a certain point, the one of no return, you look at the signs and you recognize the changes. To die young, I wouldn’t want that, although to grow older, maybe sick, maybe cursed by Alzheimer, maybe dependent on your family, a heavy burden, who would want that. In between, that life, the one we had just lived, that life, the one we reared our children, that life, that time when we experienced stuff not really grasping that it was life and every moment of it went fast into the past. Regrets, I have a few, as goes the voice of Frank Sinatra, too few to mention. That’s life too. We make choices as best as our abilities allow us and we grow in thinking, in becoming a better person, in understanding and forgiving and kindly loving. In reaching out and being there for each other. That life. That miracle. Si jeunesse savait vieillesse pouvait. A tale of two cities. Young and eager, old young spirit at heart and love to last us a life time.

  2. One thing I regret is not having taken up photapraphy earlier. I enjoy philosophical and technical thought behind the craft, and only wished I discovered the wonders of it earlier.

    But life is for living, not reliving moments that could have been. Or they say, but it’s easier said than done.

    I like that you have used your old photographs to compare and contrast perspectives and lives past. Think of it as a “Sliding Doors” moment – imagining how parrallel lives are led if for that split second, we had taken different actions and hence different paths. It’s fun, for a while. Then we go back to the present, fumbling through life as we know it.

  3. Hi there – it’s Paul..Andrews from flickr. I really enjoyed this post. It was really moving and I actually felt a lump in my throat and had to hold back a tear. You are right of course, the end is the end only when it is the end and right up until that moment we should all look forward (with occassional reflection on the past of course). The beauty of photography, writing and art is that as long as you can physically do it, then age is irrelevant. You are lucky indeed to have had the chance to live in those two wonderful cities…and the places along the journey in between. Many are not so fortunate.
    By the way, your photography is great 🙂 and thanks for commenting on mine.
    Best wishes

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