I daresay Raoul Dufy would be surprised if, raised from the grave, he could see Nice’s Promenade des Anglais today. Known for several artworks that feature Nice and the French Riviera, he painted ‘La Baie des Anges à Nice‘ in 1927; a sweeping view of a quiet, timeless seafront.
But landscapes change. Today, the French Riviera has around 11 million visitors a year – more than any other part of France (except Paris). Together with the permanent population, that’s a lot of people to fit into a narrow strip of land, caught as it is between mountains and sea. Dufy’s distant, green hills are now a patchwork of red roofs. Elegant, parasol-shaded figures strolling across Dufy’s canvases have been replaced by herds of joggers sweating it out in head-to-toe Decathlon lycra.
A photographer in painter’s boots
The contrast between the Côte d’Azur‘s recent past and present came alive for me a few weeks ago. I set out in the footsteps of celebrated 19th and 20th century artists to photograph some of the spots across the South of France where they had once worked at their canvases.
Putting masterpieces in the picture
My clients at ‘N’, Norwegian Air’s new in-flight magazine, were game to run a photo-based feature on the Painters Trail, a route marked by lecterns, from Menton to Cannes, that reproduce well-known works of art ‘in situ’.
Instead of creating photography to faithfully reproduce these landscapes, which were mostly entirely absent of people, I wanted to bring them alive. Placing myself in the original location of the painter’s easel, I waited to capture people moving through the scene, doing their thing, in their world. Each artwork was additionally placed within the photograph, to make the painting belong to the scene and its people, rather than vice-versa. This was done in post production, I hasten to add. I didn’t roam around the South of France with actual Impressionist masterpieces in the back of my car…
Winter light and deserted streets
Given that I came up with the idea, I can’t reasonably complain about the difficulties. Writing the copy was straightforward. However, I hadn’t envisaged shooting in winter, and the editorial decision to photograph the feature in mid-January posed some challenges.
Light, the raison d’etre of both photographer and artist, is, of course, not the same in winter as it is in summer. The low, winter sun never fully lights up the narrow streets of medieval villages in Provence; the contrast is harsh and days are short. Where my painters had clearly been inspired by the Côte d’Azur‘s beautiful summer light in their scenes (and most probably getting a glowing tan to boot), I was dressed up in countless woollies, sitting under lifeless trees, on the steps of shops shuttered up for winter, waiting for rare signs of life (winter road resurfacers and hardy all-season policiers on the look out for parking indiscretions didn’t count: ‘N’ is a travel magazine, after all).
A photographer armed with a large unwieldy easel does not pass un-noticed in quiet back streets. In one spot, the only living beings to move through my line of vision in a hour were a woman, who unfortunately attempted to crawl under my lens to avoid ruining the photo, and a cat. The editor, needless to say, chose the scene with the cat…