In black-and-white: Photographer Mark Steinmetz sought inspiration from the 1930s to deliver a contemporary depiction of Paris

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Steinmetz has reverted to the traditions of the French masters of the early 20th century – albeit with a subversive edge – in order to capture the expressive vitality of a city pulsing with life

Mists swirling around Art Nouveau lampposts, reflections mirrored in the Seine, romantic clinches on charming cobbled street corners… gay Paree has never been captured better than in those wistful black-and-white photographs of the 1920s and 1930s.

Which is why one contemporary American photographer chose to use the aesthetics of those dreamy shots to provide an image of the modern capital that nods to its photographic past. Yet, while Mark Steinmetz's images are classical in composition, they often offer a little twist.

The son of a French mother, Steinmetz says he has always "felt very close to Paris", and he has been shooting its streets and parks, rivers and ponds for a quarter of a century. "In 1985, I was in my mid-twenties, in love with those photographers of Paris, and thought that was the place to go to," he says. Steinmetz considers the 1930s the golden age for Parisian street photography, name-checking André Kertész, Brassai and Eugène Atget as favourites.

He studied at Yale University School of Art, worked with another black-and-white photography master, Garry Winogrand, in Los Angeles when he was 22, and suggests that the American tradition has "a harder use of photography, a little bit tougher". Rather than fully reverting to the romantic swoon of those 1930s artists, he wanted to bring this edge to his Paris series. "I wanted to photograph the beautiful light and photograph it lovingly, but not in an easy, romantic way. In [my new book] Paris in My Time, there are some sequences about loneliness or the difficulty of romance. Photography in Paris is sort of [its own] genre, and I loved and understood that, but wanted to play against it a bit."

Splashes of modern technology and dress disrupt the nostalgic glow – a girl on a smartphone, a baseball cap blown off in the wind. And while some poses seem to be taken straight out of classic black-and-white Hollywood movies, others feel crashingly contemporary (check out that chilled yet streetsmart young man lounging on a sculpture).

Rather than arrange his shots chronologically in Paris in My Time, Steinmetz put them together intuitively, highlighting recurring motifs (birds, dogs and boats all appear and k re-appear). Pairings and series of pictures speak to each other, the meaning contained not only within each photograph, but through their juxtaposition. "Pictures paired together become about something… your mind has to make this big reach and stretch. That's the fascinating part," suggests Steinmetz. "For me, it's not just a group of pictures, it's literature. The prints are beautiful and yes, they can go on the wall, but when they're all contained in sequence [in a book], it's literature, it's cinema." Not surprisingly, his style is also influenced by French filmmakers such as Jean Renoir and Jean-Luc Godard.

Shooting in black-and-white is obviously a necessity to evoke the photography of the past, but Steinmetz is a long-time fan of the format, and his various books and series on America are also monochromatic. He explains that the materials are better – there's just something special about "the light of silver on paper", something magical about the time and care needed to expose the negatives properly, to print them just so.

Steinmetz may, it seems fair to say, be something of a perfectionist. "I want the pictures to seem casual and spontaneous, but still they have to linger and last, they have to sustain your interest [and have you pulling out the book again] a month or years on."

Underscoring his naked affection for black-and-white, he admits to actively disliking much about colour photography: too bold, he says, too distracting, somehow impure. "Colour has a lot of information: it's too much," he explains, slightly preciously. "Black-and-white has more stillness to it, you can be absorbed into it in a different way. You have to employ your poetic imagination. With colour, I just have an argument! Is the green really this green, or is that the green of Kodak? I'm more interested in the narrative, the human, the interior depth of what I'm photographing – I really don't want to be distracted by bright-red outerwear."

But how does he catch that interiority? Are his subjects posed, or caught unknowingly? A bit of both: "In some cases, I'm talking to people, some are candid." Many of the images are transient, involving movement, and Steinmetz shoots in passing. "It's not just portraits of people: they're in the midst of activity," he says, adding that it's a shame that – thanks to tighter privacy laws – it's getting harder and harder to shoot on the hoof. Not that that would put him off: "Paris really has a lot of movement. It's a wonderful contribution to photograph people as they are, with the real pulse of life."

'Paris in My Time' (£50, Nazraeli Press) is published on Thursday

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015