Cemeteries are for the living. And Paris cemeteries are for photographers. My favorite is Père Lachaise, a 110-acre park located in the 20th arrondissement. Its rolling terrain is filled with 70,000 burial plots, holding the famous and not-so-famous. All hope for a type of immortality, as evidenced by the concrete, brass, and iron that rise above the holes that hold decaying bodies. Alas, immortality is an elusive thing, which is apparent from many of the collapsed structures, visible cavities that separate stone from dirt, leading to the bones housed below, and broken stained-glass windows.
Who is the most famous resident? The answer depends on your particular interests. Like classical music and opera? Bizet, Callas, Chopin, and Rossini are buried here. Like literature and theatre? The final remains of Balzac, Colette, Molière, and Proust are hinted at. Is art your thing? Then you might want to visit the remains of Ingres or Delacroix. Jazz your thing? The great Michel Petrucciani chose Paris as his final resting spot. Like to walk on the wild side? Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and James Douglas Morrison point the way.
When I head to Père Lachaise, I am not interested in who is buried there. I am drawn by the interaction of light and weather with the landscape, trees, and the man-made structures. In the fall, I have noticed mystery in the decaying leaves that line the pathways and the mist that accompanies fog. In winter, I enjoy the filtered blue light that cuts through the tree branches, casting light and shadows. In summer, the afternoon sun can be quite intense. Whatever time of the year, the photographic experience is always interesting.
I am also drawn by the unknowns that I stumble (sometimes literally) across. Last year, close by the Lizard King's gravesite, I discovered a freshly dug grave that now houses a young woman who had the misfortune of being at the Bataclan theatre during the terrorist attack earlier in that year. This year, I was struck by Toto, a child whose earthly interests were represented by a colorful toy car sitting atop a grave marked with a cross.
Although many of Père Lachaise's occupants are Christian, it is not all that unusual to see Arabic writing, Buddhist symbols, or Hebrew markings on gravestones. Dead is dead. Only the occupants know who held the right beliefs about the afterlife. The living may have faith, but they can only guess.
Paris has two other great cemeteries: Montparnasse and Montmartre. I have also visited those. In fact. this year, when I decided to take a closer look at the Montmartre neighborhood and Pigalle, I started the day in the Montmartre cemetery, which is now home to Edgar Degas, Adolph Sax, and Catherine of Jules and Jim fame--better known as Jeanne Moreau. She arrived earlier this year, so I was a bit startled when I turned around and saw her grave after photographing the sculpture that sits atop Surrealist painter Victor Brauner's grave.
The day before I arrived in Paris Johnny Hallyday's funeral procession rolled down the Avenue des Champs Elysées. It was an official state honor that is conferred on few. Johnny was France's Elvis. Unfortunately, his body was shipped to Saint-Barthélémy, in the Caribbean, where he owned a villa. Obviously I could not visit his freshly dug grave, but Paris can be a living cemetery. The citizens honored him in their own ways.
I always make a point of stopping by Jim's gravesite. It is one of the most unphotogenic gravesites in Père Lachaise. Usually I end up photographing the mourners who come to pay tribute, but there were few there this day. I do remember my first visit back in 1996. It was 10 below zero. Unfortunately my camera battery froze, but even if it hadn't, I didn't know what I was doing in those days. If only: A 17-year old teenager was paying his respects, which is odd since Morrison died at least a decade before this was kid was born. Nevertheless, the kid had it all going on. Lithe body, with flowing dirty blonde hair, dressed in a full buckskin outfit, with fringes along the shoulders and knee-high hippy moccasin boots, also with fringing. On the back of his jacket was an image of Jim.
My photomontage from this visit includes no photographs of Jim's grave or those paying their respects. For photographers there is a simple fact. No matter how infamous the grave's occupant or the grandeur of the memorial, if the light is bad or there is no weather of note, there is no photograph, which is why I keep returning to the Paris cemeteries: What was photographical this time could well be next time. I look forward to a visit in a snowstorm.
Montmartre: Surrealist Painter Victor Brauner and his wife, Jacqueline, Together Forever
Montmartre: "Till Death Do Us Part"
Père Lachaise: At Sunset in the Winter Light
A Second Head in Death
Montmartre: Aka Tony Dark (French photographer and filmmaker)
Père Lachaise: "A notre Toto"
Père Lachaise: "Non, Je ne regrette rien"
Père Lachaise: Kinda Blue
Père Lachaise: Figure Representing Six Million Souls Reminds in the Afternoon Sunlight
Père Lachaise: Washed Out Blue and Cement
Hands Across the Divide
Père Lachaise: Towering Above Others, But Still Dead
Père Lachaise: Nature Draws Its Own Grafitti
Père Lachaise: Altar
Père Lachaise: Broken Window
The Inevitable Decay That the Living Don't Anticipate
Père Lachaise: The Anguish of the Survivors
Montmartre: "Bury My Body, Oh Lord"
Père Lachaise: Winterlude
Père Lachaise: Power in the Setting Sun
The Gambetta Metro Exit Leading to Père Lachaise
Newstand Honoring Johnny Hallyday (Good Gift Idea)
Montmartre: Salon Lavoir