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As you’ve all likely discerned by this point in the semester, I’m crazy about France, and Paris in particular. So, for this assignment, I decided to compare three photographs of France’s (maybe the world’s?) most iconic landmark, the Eiffel Tower. The location is one of the few common traits all three of these pictures share; it’s amazing how such a great variety of feelings can be evoked by photographing the same statue from various angles, at different moments in history, and with completely intentions coming from their photographers.
I know the instructions were to select a black-and-white photo from before 1940, but hopefully this one taken in 1940 can be considered valid. This was taken by Heinrich Hoffmann, Adolf Hitler’s official photographer, on June 23rd 1940 at the Place du Trocadéro. On either side of Hitler are Albert Speer and Arno Breker, who were, respectively, his go-to architect and sculptor. Behind them, of course, is La Dame de Fer, suffering the fiercest moment of humiliation she has known in her 129-year lifetime.
Like many great historical photos, the context of this one is immediately clear and alarming. This was taken just after Germany had invaded and taken control of France in the spring of 1940. Hitler and several other Nazi leaders made there way over to Paris and immediately rubbed salt into the French wound. They forced France to surrender in the same spot in the Compiègne Forest where France had forced Germany to sign an armistice at the end of World War I. Hitler ordered the destruction of several monuments dedicated to France’s World War I heroes. And he made a triumphant tour around Paris, visiting several monuments and making the Third Reich’s presence known to all.
This picture is probably the best-known image of Hitler’s visit, the only time the Führer ever made it over to Paris. I couldn’t find the exact camera which Hoffmann used to take this picture, but this site lists a thorough variety of the cameras used in this time period, some of which were developed in Germany at the time (especially Kodak cameras). Hoffmann probably used some number of these cameras throughout his career– a career which was dedicated to contributing to “the Nazi propaganda machine.” Hoffman, “Hitler’s most prodigious image-maker and propagator,” shot over 2.5 million photographs of Hitler, images which “projected a Hitlerian image that seduced Germany and left quite a pictorial legacy.”
I would certainly classify Hoffman’s famous picture as a token of the World War II era. Not only because it is a well-known image of the conflict’s central villain and one of its most pivotal moments, but because it is a token example of a prominent element of the Nazis’ strategy throughout this era: visual propaganda. By glorifying Hitler and his entourage by means of posters and photographs like this one, the Third Reich facilitated its own rise to power and control over its people.
Hoffmann’ image feeds into the impression of Der Führer as an all-conquering leader– no one, not the great nation of France, not one of the world’s most beloved and iconic structures, is safe from his clutches. This image was heavily circulated in German newspapers and press, I imagine with the intention of making the news of the fall of France instantly obvious, as well as to send a warning to the countries Germany was planning to invade next (namely, Great Britain) of what was to come. The tremendous symbolism packed into this single image make it a startling and memorable one, almost 80 years later.
My time spent living in Paris was full of happy and exciting memories, but also one very dark one: the Charlie Hebdo shootings, which took place midway through my year there in 2014-2015. Since the perpetrators were tracked and taken down relatively quickly, I didn’t really feel unsafe in the aftermath of the attacks, but I do remember the great feeling of shock and unease that took over Paris during that whole period.
Seeing this image, which French photographer Aurelien Meunier took on a digital camera and released to Getty Images, really brings me back to that grim moment. What’s especially jarring to me is that the Eiffel Tower is traditionally thought of as a positive symbol: it was first built to mark the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, and when it lights up every night as the tallest, brightest structure in the City of Lights, it seems to represent all of the vibrant culture and technology that Paris has to offer. Whenever we pick up a travel guide or brochure encouraging us to visit Paris, the Eiffel Tower is always right there: generally speaking, the simple image of the tower is very inviting and plays a major role in Paris’ status as one of the world’s most visited city.
So, to see all of that symbolism reversed by the sight of this unlit tower on the night of January 8th 2015 is very powerful, about as compelling of a gesture of mourning as Paris could have possibly made in the wake of these shootings. I am not surprised to see this image was scooped up by a lot of major news outlets, including CNN, BBC and the Daily Express. In today’s digital media environment, such an image has the ability to travel far and spark thoughts about how to properly respond to moments of tragedy: a fine use of “interfacing,” if you ask me.
This picture was taken in April 2015, while I was spending the year in France teaching E.S.L. Melissa, my Canadian sightseeing buddy and fellow E.S.L.-teaching assistant, was accompanying me that evening. She took a picture on her iPhone of me playing basketball at Centre Sportif Emile Anthoine, which was my destination-of-choice for pickup ball throughout my year in France (with good reason, as you can tell!)
After Melissa sent me the picture, I knew I had a keeper. I posted it on social media with the caption “Nothin’ like some evening HOOPS! Watch as I grab yet another rebound (my longtime speciality!) in what is genuinely the most awesome place in the world to play pickup.” No one argued.
One quality that makes this picture so effective is how familiar and yet unfamiliar the setting is. Everyone can imagine what the Eiffel Tower looks like; who knows how many pictures we’ve seen of our friends standing at Troacdéro or the Champ de Mars, smiling in front of the Dame de Fer or pretending to pinch the top. And yet only so many people have heard about Centre Sportif Emile Anthoine or know that there is an amazing place to play basketball right by the Eiffel Tower (not to mention another one not too far away, down the Champ de Mars).
Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch, but this picture is effective rather in the same way that Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mt. Fuji collection is (I saw an exhibit on Hokusai at the Grand Palais while I was in Paris, so the example comes readily to mind). Hokusai’s original perspectives on one of the world’s most famous mountains make for a fascinating display of paintings; similarly, my original perspective on one of the world’s most famous monuments makes for a picture that never loses its appeal. Never. All I ever have to do to sum up how great my year in France was, I just have to pull out this picture on my phone… and I’ve sold my case.
In a sense, this picture is a token of social ritual— it’s a major rite of passage for everyone to make it out to Paris and take pictures of ourselves in front of the Eiffel Tower. I’ve engaged in that social ritual as well, only in my own personal manner by having the picture be taken from a non-traditional point of view, and also have it be a picture of me in action playing sports, rather than smiling with my friends and trying to pinch the top. This idiosyncratic spin on a classic tourist ritual makes this a picture I’ll always cherish.