Robert Wheeler: Recapturing Ernest Hemingway’s “Lost” Paris

Since reading his first Hemingway novel in 1986, Robert Wheeler has been a passionate Hemingway enthusiast. He was deeply moved by the humanistic writings of this great man — a writer capable of transporting his readers to foreign settings and into the hearts and minds of his protagonists. Hemingway and his work inspired Robert Wheeler to travel throughout France, Italy, Spain, Africa, and Cuba, where he has sought to gain insight into the motivation behind Hemingway’s books and short stories.

As a teacher, lecturer, and photojournalist, Wheeler set out to capture and interpret the Paris that Ernest Hemingway experienced in “A Moveable Feast.” Through his journals and photographs, Robert portrays the intimate connection Hemingway had with the woman he never stopped loving, Hadley, and with the city he loved most, Paris. This is the story of how and why he created a remarkable visual and prose tribute to his literary hero and to the City of Light.

Currently, Robert Wheeler is an adjunct faculty member at Southern New Hampshire University where he teaches writing courses and a course he personally designed on Hemingway’s Paris years. He lives in New Castle, New Hampshire, a very small and historic island, with his wife, Meme, and daughters, Emma and Helen.

Q: What camera and equipment do you generally use?

A: A Leica X2 with a Luigi strap. Also I just purchased the Leica X 113.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I would say it is dramatically compelling photojournalism. I like to believe that my photographs whisper their profound story, and I hope my audience sees themselves within their compositions.

Q: Were you a serious enthusiast before going pro? What made you decide to go pro?

A: Always an enthusiast … never a serious enthusiast, and as a pro I am always serious now. The word pro scares me, but I suppose I am a pro simply in my quest to photograph the essence of a scene or an emotion.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?

A: As a child I always looked forward to viewing the photographs in LIFE magazine, and I would make up stories to accompany them. As a young student my curiosity and budding passion for photography was subsumed under a load of textbooks and lectures and tests. However, as an adult, I was able to fight my way back into art and into photography, and this is where I plan to stay for the rest of my life.

Q: How does your photography complement your writing and vice versa?

A: Years ago, I felt the lovely and significant connection that existed between my prose and my photographs. My current process is to find and take the photograph that captures the essence of what I wish to express, and then create the prose to mirror the photograph and its composition. The two exist as one, if I am fortunate.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught?

A: I had no formal training as a photographer, although I think I wish that I had. See, I am not a typical photographer who knows the many technical aspects of cameras and picture taking. I simply trust my intuition, I feel my subject thoroughly, and I trust my camera, which is why I use a Leica.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I learned early on that the best photographs were those taken by women and men using Leica cameras. I have tried to honor this reality and legacy in my career.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: My approach is to respect and create artful, meaningful and honest compositions, but also to come to my camera with humility and a respect for those who have come before me.

Q: All of the images in this portfolio are presented in black-and-white. What is it that draws you to the medium in general, and why did you choose it for this project?

A: When I first read Hemingway’s memoir, “A Moveable Feast,” I saw it all, in my mind’s eye, in lonely photographs, and melancholy paragraphs, in black-and-white. Hemingway’s Cuba, on the other hand, speaks to me in color … soft and rich and alluring color.

Q: Taken as a whole, the pictures in this “Hemingway’s Paris” portfolio have a nostalgic quality, as if they could have been shot 50-60 years ago. You have studiously avoided any elements such as cars or contemporary buildings that would suggest anything modern. I assume this was a conscious decision on your part, so can you tell us something about your visual and aesthetic concept of this project and the methods you used to execute it?

A: I am really happy that you noticed the years that have passed in my photographs. So many academics believe that nothing is left of Hemingway’s Paris … ’tis a pleasure, and a wink to Hemingway, to prove them wrong. As for any conscious decisions, most every single photograph was a surprise to me, truly. All I did during those many lonely visits was to feel my subject profoundly. Everything I had ever read by and about Hemingway collided and raged and then, finally, came together into a still and reflective sea. I was just fortunate to have the right camera, and a pen and a paper notebook nearby.

Q: You cite the “lovely and significant connection” that exists between your prose and your photographs, but have not furnished any examples of your writing. Will you please select a photograph from this portfolio and give a brief example of the prose associated with it?

A: With pleasure. Below is an image from the book, “Hemingway’s Paris: A Writer’s City In Words And Images,” and its associated lyrical paragraph:

“Love. Looking back upon his life, Ernest Hemingway said that Paris was the city he loved best in all the world. He wrote that when he and Hadley were young there, nothing was as simple as it had seemed. He believed that nothing – not being poor, not having sudden money, not the moonlight, not right or wrong, not even the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight – was simple in the City of Light. In the end, Hemingway found himself alone there. Alone in the city where he and Hadley were once in love with one another, and where they were very happy.”

See, the words and sentences and punctuation must come together, harmoniously, to whisper and mirror what the image is trying desperately to say and to show. To get it right is a brilliant and intense challenge.

Q: This image shows a night view of a Paris bistro, presumably one that Hemingway frequented. It is certainly a straightforward image captured by available light, but it does have an emotional character that is hard to describe. Can you tell us something about why you included this picture in your portfolio and what it means to you personally?

A: This is actually not a bistro Hemingway frequented, but it is one he would visit often I am sure. In this book, I hope to have shown that one need not be in any exact and particular location to feel Hemingway’s Paris. Hemingway’s Paris is in the light and the reflection and the expression and in the weather of this stunning city. I included this photograph because it is alluring and stirring in all of its characteristics. I included it because this composition reflects the essence of the Hemingway I see in his memoir. I see a sensitive and sensory artist and lover, and this is what I also see in this photograph.

Q: Many of these images include classic sculptures. Why do you feel these works of art are an essential part of your vision of Hemingway’s Paris and did you select this particular group for any historical or thematic reason?

A: Statues in Paris, more than anywhere else, speak to me. They really do, in the early mornings especially. The expressions on their faces – the anguish and pain, the triumphant joy, the hands, and their contorted bodies – they seem to silently scream their stories. And I listen with my camera. Yes, these statues were there when Hemingway walked the worn paths and streets, and they are there now. They do not hesitate to let one know that both Ernest and Hadley sought inspiration through them. And no, there is no reason for this particular group. Having a set, or contrived, reason would be too easy; plus, I’m just not that smart!

Q: Both of these images include professionally attired waiters at an elegant outdoor café and restaurant respectively. What do you think these images convey to the viewer about Paris in general and about Hemingway’s lifestyle in particular?

A: In Paris, being a waitperson is a distinguished and respected profession. I see, and I know that Hemingway saw, these men, perfectly attired and attentive, as disciplined artists. Hemingway admired those people who knew what they were doing and who did so well and with intention and with grace and with dignity. This is life as a waiter in so many of the cafes and restaurants and bars that dot the landscape of Paris, and this helps to prove that Hemingway’s most beloved city is alive and well.

Q: Here is a masterful composition that really conveys a sense of being in Paris, from the woman seated on the weathered bench at the side of the scene to the ornate streetlamp in the foreground, to the magnificent tableau of an ancient bridge and (mostly) ancient architecture in the background. The lighting, sense of depth, and tonal gradation are impressive. What were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release, and will you kindly provide the tech data for this image including camera, exposure ISO, etc.?

A: I, too, feel this photograph completely. As strange as this sounds, I fell in love with this woman and never even saw her face. I simply loved how she sat, rather proper, and looked out over the Île de la Cité. Before ever thinking about taking the photograph, I studied her for a brief moment. I wondered about her story and what she was seeking on that bench on that bridge with that view. I thought of Hadley, Hemingway’s adoring wife, sitting there, eighty years past, wondering what had become of her marriage to Ernest and what would become of her life now that he was gone.

When I did take my camera out, and did gently press the release, I felt sad and a touch guilty: sad for what I had imagined of Hadley and guilty for ever thinking I could interfere with this woman’s moment in her time and in her place. And, as for the technical aspects of this image, as with all other images, I set the knob on A and shot what I felt. When uploading to iPhoto, I most likely raised the contrast a bit but that was all. Really wish I knew, and could remember and cared more for, all those technical things … or do I?

Q: This one is a classic composition showing an imposing building framed in the transparent face of a huge clock with Roman numerals. It’s all about time, but it has a timeless and eternal quality. Do you agree, and what do you think this image says about Paris and Hemingway’s relationship to it?

A: Lovely connections. Yes, I agree that this image is directly about time and timelessness. In Hemingway’s memoir, he turns back the hands of time and returns to those Paris years where he was in love and hungry for knowledge. For years after Paris, and after Hadley, time, for Ernest, was never as significant and engaging and important and romantic and alive. I imagine this being the lens Hemingway looked through, and lived through, when transplanting himself back to the streets and cafes and galleries of Paris from his wooden lodge in Ketchum, Idaho in 1961.

Q: How do you see your photography and your writing evolving over the next few years?

A: As time progresses, my true test is to continue to connect deeply with my subject, and to create more lovely and alluring compositions within my images and my prose. Cuba, Spain, and East Africa are currently on my artistic radar screen.

Q: Do you plan to publish a print or online book based on this Hemingway’s Paris project, or perhaps exhibit these images at galleries or offer fine art prints of these images?

A: I am happy to exhibit my images in galleries and am excited to see them for sale in the private market. All are currently available on my website. My agent, Peter Riva of International Transactions, is currently making such gallery inquiries. As for any online books, I assume Peter would have those answers. I do have plans for two books outside of the life and work of Hemingway. One centers on Boston’s Freedom Trail and the other on my fascination with our English language.

Q: Since you obviously have a penchant for black-and-white, have you ever considered shooting with a Leica M Monochrom, which is said to provide the best overall image quality and tonal gradation of any digital camera when it comes to capturing black-and-white images?

A: The Monochrom is my dream camera. I have read about it and admired it, thoroughly, and will, one cold winter’s morning in Paris, have it securely and lovingly around my neck. I am so very proud of Leica for developing such an elegant and, in my humble opinion, progressive piece of art and technology.

Thank you for your time, Robert!

– Leica Internet Team

To see more of Robert’s work, check out his Instagram or connect with him on Twitter.

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One comment

  • I’ve been to Paris and visited most of the places depicted in Robert Wheeler’s “Hemingway in Paris” publication. I’m also an avid reader and devotee of Hemingway’s writings. Wheeler’s photographs, the imagery, and the emotional depth of feeling he melded together to describe the complicated emotions surging through Hemingway as Hemingway reflected upon his life with Hadley and his love for Paris are incredibly insightful. I find Wheeler’s work to be a wonderful depiction of the inner feelings and soul of Hemingway. Wheeler’s work is magnificent.
    Robert T. Brzycki, Sr.

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