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
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
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.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral