Peter Turnley: French Kiss-A Love Letter to Paris Revisited

For more than four decades, photojournalist Peter Turnley has created an enduring legacy of memorable images that reveal the depth and pathos of our common human experience and history. Turnley has photographed monumental moments of historic change and revolution including the Gulf War, Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya, the fall of the Berlin Wall, revolutions in Eastern Europe, Tiananmen Square, the release of Nelson Mandela, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and many world leaders including President Barack Obama.

Previously, we talked to Turnley about his book “French Kiss-A Love Letter to Paris” in October 2013 and featured a complementary video on his work that’s viewable here. As Valentine’s Day approaches along with the Leica Fotopark Valentine’s Day Challenge, we sat back down with Peter to hear more about his time photographing Paris and the love he has witnessed and experienced there.

Q: When did you first fall in love with Paris and why do you think you did?

A: I first set eyes on Paris in the fall of 1975. So many of my heroes in photography were either French or had lived in Paris: Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, Boubat, Doisneau, and Capa. Immediately the French language was like music to my ears.  I found the styles and attitudes of the people attractive, complex, and sensual, and there was a sense of history everywhere I looked. I spent eight months starting in the fall of 1975 photographing the life of the old cafés and bistros of Le Marais, which was then a rather popular and largely working class neighborhood. France was divided down the middle politically, with half of the population on the left and the other half on the right, and I found the conversations and discussion of ideas very dynamic and exciting. After that first sojourn in Paris, I was determined to live in Paris and make the city my home. I moved back to Paris in 1978 and have lived there ever since. The city has changed in many ways over the years, but the beauty of the city, and the opportunity to find grace, romance, affection, and exciting diversity in moments of daily life remains constant and timeless.

Q: After photographing Paris for 40 years, how did you know the time was right to publish “French Kiss-A Love Letter to Paris?” Was there any specific inspiration or spark that contributed to its creation?

A: From 1975-1984, my primary visual preoccupation was in photographing the daily life of Paris. In 1981 I became the assistant for the great Paris photographer, Robert Doisneau, and also began to work in association with the French photo agency Rapho. At this time, aside from my personal love of photographing the life of Paris, I began to receive assignments from publications like the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and several French publications.

After having the cover of Newsweek about the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984, I began to travel the world for the magazine Newsweek covering international news. From that time until today, I traveled to over 90 countries worldwide and photographed many of the most important stories of world news and moments of history of the past three decades. My career as a photojournalist brought me in touch frequently with war, conflict, revolutions, geo-political change, famine, man-made and natural disasters, and world affairs. My eyes and heart often witnessed moments when life is at its most difficult. During all of this time, there has been one constant-I return from my travels to my adopted home of Paris where I continually walk the streets of this city. In Paris, in spite of the fact that it is a large, metropolitan city with many problems common to all big cities, and some of its own evolving challenges, I have always found moments of life that offer my heart hope.  Scenes of love, romance, tenderness, affection, grace, sensuality, and beauty are part of the daily backdrop of this city. In 2001 I first published my book “Parisians,” which had a preface by Robert Doisneau and Edouard Boubat. This past year, in 2014, I self-published my latest book, “French Kiss-A Love Letter to Paris” which is a visual tribute to now 40 years of moments that have touched my heart in this city. This is my seventh book, and I am very grateful for the overwhelmingly positive response this book has generated by readers worldwide.

Q: What, in your opinion, do you think makes Paris the epicenter for love? Have you documented “moments of romance, beauty, hope, and love” in other cities?

A: It seems to me that one of the constants of life in Paris is a recognition among people that while life and the world can be very challenging, complex, too often unfair and tough, that one of the ways to make the most of life’s opportunities is to embrace themes that offer hope, joy, and solace for the heart-themes of love, romance, family, friendship, grace, and beauty. There is an art-de vivre that is found so often in Paris, in its cuisine, bistros, restaurants, fashions, and in the world of art and culture. I have traveled now worldwide and have visited most of the world’s important capitols-and I can affirm that possibly there is no where in the world where one can see as often in public in the midst of daily life, scenes of public affection, kissing, tenderness and love. This is not to say that the life of Paris is only soft and tender-it does have its own both general and specific evolving urban difficulties and challenges. I am well aware and sensitive to the very real challenges of life I’ve witnessed all over the world, and recognize some of those themes of difficulty in Paris. But, now for over 40 years, in my constant walks through Paris, I continue to be inspired by the ubiquitous and timeless scenes of grace, dignity, sensuality, love, which offer my heart much hope.

Q: What, if anything, have you learned about love through documenting Paris?

A: One of the most beautiful aspects of witnessing scenes of romance in Paris is the way in which expressions of love – scenes in public of kissing, hand holding, dancing, tenderness, and sensuality – remind the heart that in the midst of life’s difficulties and challenges, life can be so beautiful and hopeful.

Q: Do you have a favorite image from this work. If so, which one and why?

A: I recall someone telling me that Cartier-Bresson once said when asked what was his favorite photograph, his response was, “the next one I’m going to make.” I’ve made many photographs over these past 40 years that I like very much, and often when asked which one is my favorite, my response is, I’ve made many photographs over these past 40 years that I like very much, and often when asked which one is my favorite, “the latest one I’ve made.” A few weeks ago, only days after the very tragic events of terrorism which struck in the heart of Paris, I was walking on the Ile St. Louis in Paris, and on a very cold January day, I saw a young couple sitting in a bistro window with beautiful light illuminating their youthful beauty. I stopped for a few minutes to observe, and lifted my camera to make a photograph when the young man leaned over to give his girlfriend a tender kiss on the cheek. I walked into the bistro and showed the couple the photograph and offered to send it to them, which I did. They wrote back telling me how much they loved this photograph, and how much this moment I had captured meant to them.

This moment was important for me not only for its visual interest, but because it offered my heart hope and strength.

Q: Over your many years in Paris, how would you say the city has evolved?

A: Without a doubt the city has changed in many ways over these past four decades that I have lived there. It seems that the impact of globalization has touched the city in both some very positive ways, and also has challenged many of the small very authentic, artisanal aspects of commerce and the expression of Paris’s uniqueness. The population of Paris has become much more diverse over these past many years, and I see that as a great source of richness, interest, opportunity, and hope. Most importantly, Paris remains in my eyes the most beautiful city in the world, and still to this day, every morning when I walk out my door, I have the sense that I may encounter a moment that will move my heart, and possibly change my life. I will never forget the afternoon when my good friend, the great photographer Edouard Boubat, leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Peter, if you keep your head up, your heart and eyes open, there is a gift waiting for you at the corner of every street!”.

I believe this to be as true today in Paris, as ever before.

Q: What about the medium of a book drew you to publishing “French Kiss-A Love Letter to Paris?” And do you feel it achieved everything you set out to?

A: My latest book, “French Kiss-A Love Letter to Paris”, is the seventh book I’ve published and it has been far and away the most exciting publishing experience to date. I self-published this book and it can be purchased uniquely from my website. This deluxe first edition book that comes with a slip case, was beautifully printed and designed, and has now sold more than 3,000 copies in the first year. It has been a major success and I receive daily messages of appreciation about this book from all over the world. I think one of the most exciting aspects of the life of a photographer today is the opportunity to build a community of people worldwide with whom we can share our work. I have thousands of people that follow my photographs and writings on Facebook each day, and also teach workshops worldwide on street photography and have now a group of over 1,000 alumni of my workshops. All of this, the people I interact with on social media, the people that follow my books, and exhibitions, publications, newsletter and workshops, offer me a great source of inspiration.

Q: Paris has a rich photographic history. How do you add your own perspective when shooting the city?

A: I am a strong believer that our biggest challenge and opportunity is not to reinvent the wheel, but to keep our eyes open to the marvel, interest, and splendor of daily life all around us. Others have photographed, for example, many moments of romance and kissing in Paris, too. When I photograph, I embrace each new moment I witness, feel, and observe as something both fresh and timeless, and a testament to how alive we are in the present.

Q: You clearly know Paris very well. For a photographer that’s never visited Paris before, what tips or advice would you give them when they visit for the first time?

A: My strongest advice would be to wear comfortable shoes and walk, walk, and walk. I would also push people to work with a rather wide lens, 28 mm or 35 mm, so that there is a sense of intimacy in their images, with a rich sense of context so the viewer of their photographs, like themselves, can feel the moment rather than simply look at it. I also would encourage people to approach the subjects of their photographs after they’ve made a photograph, and either give them a business card or ask for their email, so they can send them a photograph they’ve made. This way, there is a sense of a photograph being a gift to all parties. I never say that I take a photograph, I prefer to say that I make a photograph-it is a creation and both the photographer and the subjects in the photograph are part of this creation, and it can be a beautiful and generous thing.

Q: When it comes to printing your work, how do you handle the mix of digital and traditional originals?

A:  I am very fortunate to have a wonderful printer that prints and all of my prints are traditional silver gelatin prints. I use a very exciting technique for files that were made with a Leica Monochrom or Leica Digital M-P camera. When I have a digital photograph I like enough to be seen in a book or as an exhibition or collector print, I take the file, and have a 4 x 5 negative made from the file, and then my printer can continue to make traditional silver gelatin prints, helping me maintain a continuity with all of my life’s work. I use a very good laboratory in the north of Paris, Central Dupon, to have these 4 x 5 negatives made from digital files.

Q: Do you have any other future projects or exhibitions that you’d like to share?

A: I will have a new book, “Cuba-A Grace of Spirit” published in the fall of 2015. I have always tried to be present in the midst of moments of history and change all over the world. I have been traveling to Cuba since 1986, and have made 15 trips there in the past 3 years. Cuba is in the midst of a very important moment in its history, and my book will be a compilation of almost 25 years of photographs which will speak visually to the timeless, beautiful spirit, and grace of the Cuban people. This new book will be in color and there will likely be many exhibitions of this work worldwide as well.

Thank you for your time, Peter!

– Leica Internet Team

Connect with Peter on his website, Facebook and Twitter. Purchase “French Kiss-A Love Letter to Paris” and view all of his books. Also, learn more about his prints and workshops.

Make sure to enter Leica Fotopark Valentine’s Day Challenge! Upload your creative image idea at Leica Fotopark with the title #LeicaValentine under the motto “Pictures with love.” The best three will win a voucher for a high-quality print product (first prize: 50%-voucher for a print, second prize: 30%-voucher, third prize: 20%-voucher.) To participate in the challenge you need to register at Leica Fotopark for free. Please note that the print service is currently only available in the euro-zone.

 

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One comment

  • This is a stellar interview with one of the best photographers of our time, and any time, for that matter. Although his love for Paris is immense and touching, my connection to Peter (and his brother David) hinges on our common home in Indiana. “McClellan Street” reveals the God given gift of photography along with an uncommon love for humanity that has now spilled over in Peter’s latest work, “French Kiss”. Both of these classics are within an arm’s reach in my home and I look at them often. Peter took the time to hand write a touching message inside the front cover of my copy of “French Kiss”.

    I plan on joining Peter for a class, either in Cuba or Paris, in the future. Along with Craig Semetko, I believe Peter and his brother David have shown that a new generation of masters of photography are in our midst. Hopefully, all of us who benefit from their gifts so freely shared can support them while they are around to appreciate the support.

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