Reims: the curious tale of a cathedral

I wear many hats in my varied life as a photographer in the South of France: portrait photographer, food photographer, corporate photographer, property photographer, event photographer… But last autumn I left Nice to photograph a subject that I’d never been assigned to shoot before. The New York Times sent me away from the French Riviera to cooler climes in the north of France and the city of Reims. “Excellent” I thought, “the home of Champagne“. But no, I was assigned to shoot one thing, and one thing only: I was to spend 2 days making a reportage of the cathedral.

kings, fire and headless angels

Notre-Dame de Reims is indeed a magnificent cathedral and, arguably, France’s biggest. Beautiful and imposing, this 13th century edifice is soaked in stories. 90 miles to the east of Paris, Reims was the chosen location for the coronations of the kings of France for over 500 years. Even further back in time, Clovis (the chap who not only first united warring tribes to create a place called France, but also introduced Catholicism to pagan Frankish hoards), was baptised in the 5th century on a spot under the present-day cathedral.

Accounts of World War I destruction stand side-by-side with stories of heroism. At the start of the war, a group of volunteers managed to dismantle and take down the precious rose windows, made in 1250, for safekeeping (they were restored to their rightful places after the War). Notre-Dame survived countless shellings by German troops, one of which set fire to her roof (the reddish hue of the front façade is testimony to the molten lead that once poured down the walls) and she nobly bears her scars to this day. The ‘Smiling Angel’, the most famous of over 2 000 statues, grinned benevolently down at cathedral goers for 600 years before losing his head during the fire. He has been restored, but there are still plenty of limbless statues and pockmarks attesting to Notre-Dame de Reims‘s grizzly past.

paying a photographer’s full attention to the subject

Not intending to commute any further than necessary, I had booked a room 150 metres from the cathedral. Reims was a sharp change from the French Riviera in terms of the architecture and the weather, both of which seemed rather gloomy, grey and cold. On arrival that evening, I was transfixed by the spires I could see from my window, as Notre-Dame de Reims loomed out of the foggy darkness, beckoning me to see more…

I certainly got to know the cathedral well over the space of 2 days. I had a guided tour and photographed the building inside and out. I examined details of her smallest gargoyle, anticipated the changing light and weather to best capture her various façades and waited for the right angle of sun to show off her finest stained glass windows. I photographed ancient religious relics next door at the Palais du Tau, crossed the city and talked my way onto a fine hotel terrace to see how she looked above the rooftops in the special light of dusk and got up early to see crowds leaving the cathedral after mass (in the event, the ‘crowd’ consisted of 5 people). Members of the clergy got very used to this photographer, dressed in several padded layers of thermal clothing, pacing around the cathedral’s icy interior.

an unexpected machine gun

Dealing with French rules (and their often enthusiastic enforcers) is a fairly usual part of my work as a reportage photographer in France. Despite having arranged photography permission with the Powers that Be beforehand, this assignment at Notre-Dame de Reims was no exception.

In anticipation of the cathedral’s dark interior, I had brought a tripod with me. However, when putting it up on the first morning, I was swiftly reprimanded by an eagle-eyed clergyman. “Tripods are forbidden“. On patient discussion, it was agreed that I could use one, although “not for very long” – which rather defeats the object of a tripod. I was told that I could take pictures of most stained glass windows, but not those designed by Marc Chagall, which were absolutely forbidden to photograph unless the photographer had been granted prior written permission (I hadn’t. No-one had told me that beforehand).

In a sign of the times, I was surprised to see that heavily armed soldiers patrol the cathedral twice a day. One spotted me photographing him from behind.
No photography: photographing the patrol is strictly forbidden“.
But I am not photographing your face, you are not identifiable” was my reasonable response.
That is not relevant. I said no photography!”, he repeated, fingering his machine gun.
As usual, pragmatism was my preferred approach.
OK, I understand. So if I say yes, then leave, and actually walk just behind that bush, continue to take pictures, but you’ll no longer know I’m here, that would be OK?
He paused for a minute and shrugged. “Er, yes, I guess that would be fine“.

Chasing sunbeams on a single speed bike

German lines had been situated within little more than spitting distance of Reims during the latter part of the First World War. I had come across a photograph of the city that had been taken from the trenches and I was keen to go, curious as to how the cathedral looked from the perspective of the German soldiers who had once done the shelling.

Naively assuming I could get a bus to travel the 10 km or so up into the hills, I planned to head out early on the second morning, a bank holiday, before the fog lifted entirely off the plain. However, public transport doesn’t appear to be Reims’s strong point and there are no bus routes to the village of Nogent-l’Abbesse at all. So I thought I’d hire a bike, surely a perfect bank holiday activity – except that all the bicycle rental places were to be closed that day. Ditto for car rentals. Apparently, people in Reims don’t move all that far on public holidays.

I’d finally exhausted all avenues and decided that it was time to give up, and time for dinner. As I munched my way through a couple of crêpes at restaurant Louise, I happened to noticed that the waiter looked like he had cycling legs. “I don’t suppose you have a bicycle that you’d like to lend me at the crack of dawn tomorrow do you?” I asked, accidentally giving voice to a passing thought. Incredibly, the waiter not only lent a sympathetic ear to my story but promised to meet me at 7.30 am the next day.

In the morning, I got to our agreed rendez-vous on time, although I was fairly sure I’d just be sitting around for a while. To my amazement, a car pulled up and the waiter popped his head out. “I’m sorry, the bike’s gears don’t all work. So I’ll drive you up the hill, then you can just coast back down when you’re ready and lock it up outside the restaurant“. The generosity he showed towards a complete stranger virtually brought tears to my eyes.

A short while later, I found myself chasing sunbeams through the morning fog, singing aloud as I waited. When the mist properly lifted, I saw that, extraordinarily, the cathedral still towers above the other buildings of the city. Notre-Dame de Reims is as an appealing target for a photographer as it once must have been for the German army.

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