Whatever the weather, whatever the season, this place is busy most of the days. After school time, and during the week ends. The fog was not thick enough to keep them from seeing. And they were spending a lot of energy and determination to succeed in what they were trying to do. The noise was surprising, the kids were so concentrated that they were silent. The only sound came from the wheel of their surfboards, roller skates, etc…And of course, they were not interested in the occasional photographer trying to catch their daring figures. This foggy weather suited very well the smooth sound of the wheels. I wish I had taken a microphone and a sound recorder.
There are not only cargo ships in this huge harbor. The “Transat Jacques Vabre” is one of the great sailing boats races in the world and it starts in le Havre. On the eve of departure, there is a great show where all the boats are presented to the public. It looked photographically interesting, but conveying this atmosphere of intense preparation on one flat surface was not so easy for me. And I am not sure this shot translates the feeling. But I had never seen the harbor with so many illuminations. The perspective was tempting and I was at the limit of the possibilities of my faithful Leica.
Of course it could be anywhere, any harbor in the world. Wildness and industry, there is some grass in le Havre harbor. Not much, maybe, but nature can regain space in the most minute places. That and the sky would have been enough to make a picture. For me. But there is a ship, with a red cabin. And there is a gasoline tank in the back, maybe more. So here is this weird mix up. It almost made me think of a strange appearance among some wild meadow. I like it. some will probably disagree, but the sky is very strong, and it makes the shot.
They are not here at this time of the year, but I wanted to move forward in time. These huge ships start arriving in the spring. As much as I do not imagine myself in one of those floating entertainment centers, I like to see them leaving the harbor. Around 8 pm, you can hear three hoots. The ships are going. They are sumptuous. It is a known fact that they are an enormous source of pollution. Imagine about five thousand passengers on board… and the crew. As big as they are, they have to be very crowded. I know, there are many different restaurants, all sorts dance halls, night clubs, sports installations. But sorry, it is not for me. In the morning, I can see the many tourists out of the ships, walking around the streets. Chinese, Germans, Dutch, English people. They look a little lost, and they don’t seem to know what to do in town. But the vision of the giant boats at dusk, leaving their mooring, is glorious.
The power station of le Havre… You cannot escape seeing it. Wherever you are in the town, you see, or I would say, you feel the huge chimneys of the power station. It has become iconic. Exploring areas I had not seen yet, I was lucky to benefit another typical feature of le Havre: the sky. So I moved around to try and find an unusual perspective. And there was this truck trailer, probably awaiting some container, with these red stickers. It could not be more a representation of the atmosphere in this city. The feeling of the harbor, the sky… and the power station. I had the appropriate lens to render this symbolic picture, and that was my luck. I rarely move around with several lenses in a bag. I generally choose one for the day, and work consequently. Of course without this sky, I would not have been interested.
The hazy air made the street light cones visible. That is what attracted me first. Then I saw the shop on the corner and it looked so desolate, so much like a very early morning street should be that I could not resist fetching a camera and pressing the shutter button. Again, I used a short telephoto lens to slightly compress the perspective and give a three dimensional effect on what is in fact a flat succession of layers of darkness. For me it is at the same time slightly frightening and it would push me to go out and wander around the empty city.
Here is another strange telephoto effect. The “Volcan”, the theater created by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, is cut in the framing and seems to split the image in two.It looks as if a giant poster had been teared from a white wall. As I said earlier, most of the time I do not use telephoto lenses. I prefer normal or wide angle focal length. But sometimes, it works and distracts the viewer. I think the hazy weather added to the atmosphere. Le Havre is definitely a photographic city.
I must have been inspired by 1930’s photographs. Andreas Feininger comes to mind, maybe. The sky is not an effect, it was really the thick cloud of fog that was covering le Havre, and it was starting to lift. Ih the background, the sun is bound to appear and in a short moment, the city will be totally cleared and shiny with sun. The chimneys of the power station are still in the haze and the harbor activity is obvious with the shades of grey of the smoke coming out from everywhere. I rarely use a telephoto lens but for this one, I was glad to have one. Much smaller that Feininger’s huge contraptions when he was photographing New York from the East River shores in New Jersey …
Hazy mornings produce flat pictures. Low contrast is often not recommended in these days of bright, over contrasty, over saturated photography. Well, I happen to like these pictures where values are restricted within a very narrow scale. But you need a camera system that can deal with this sort of situation. This is the center of the city. Here the Niemeyer “Volcan” architecture almost disappears but is still strong. And early in the morning the place is practically empty. No people, no cars. Le Havre seems to be a ghost town.
It looks like an old colorized black & white picture from the early 20th century. But it actually did look like that. Early in the morning, I saw through my window that the town was sunk in a thick haze. I hurried out with my Leica and started shooting my nearest environment. And I got that. I never look at the back screen while I am out recording slices of time. I need this differed effect that was a common thing with analog film photography. Once home, I transfer the card on the computer and start watching. Editing comes later. Usually it is just like looking at good old contact sheets. The one interesting shot seems to jump out. Sometimes I am wrong and the obvious becomes less interesting than a weird picture that only appears after a certain brewing time. Anyway, when you are in the fog, you don’t really know what you are doing, so…
This new concrete floor at the end of the Rue de Paris does not absorb water. It makes for an eery but beautiful ambience. No cars, one pedestrian. It is a movie set for a science fiction movie… Or an old Alain Resnais French film of the 60’s. Meaning more than half a century ago… Timeless landscape ? This kind of vision is almost everywhere in le Havre, a strange city indeed.
Today I discover something new in le Havre. The Quai de Southampton is being renovated and a new coating has been applied on the ground, reflecting the water from last night’s rain. The city seems to floating, specially in this winter morning light where the sun is very low at ten in the morning. I don’t know if this effect was planned or if it is a kind of miracle. So far this new “promenade” has not been very much used by the public. If ever it were to freeze, people might be ice skating soon !
We could be in New York… but this is still le Havre, France. The touches of light reflecting on the brick wall are a bizarre reminder of the colored spots seen in Saint Joseph’s Church. Seing them while walking in the street, I had to stop and catch them because I still had in mind the multicolored light touches I had seen in the Perret church a few days before. But what they reminded me most were a street of New York. Walking around the huge American city, I have seen these reflections many times. Signs of clashing generations of architecture, the austere brick walls of industrial buildings on one side of the street, and the glass surfaces hit by a low sun from a modern apartment building. A bit like Hell’s Kitchen, when it was not totally rebuilt and still had remnants of a past industrial activity of the area. A symbol of “gentrification” happening in le Havre ?
What makes this church surprising is the touch of multicolored light projected through the concrete patterns covered with colored glass. Totally unexpected as a source of light compared to the usual stained glass, these geometric shapes produce an amazing lighting when the sun hits them. Along with the strong concrete pillars on which the tower seems to hold, the patterns of holes give the building its unexpected personality. Again I find them extremely difficult to photograph, since they are so fugitive, depending on the sun and the clouds. They can disappear totally and then suddenly illuminate the heart of the church in a kind of miraculous atmosphere. Mr Auguste Perret was very inspired when he designed this church.
This place is a nightmare for photographers. As soon as you walk in this unique church, you are stunned by the amazing architecture. Auguste Perret has mastered an incredible building, that looks from the outside like an industrial chimney. Inside is a completely different feeling. Although very big, it has a kind of intimate atmosphere. But it is extremely difficult to convey in a photograph. Whatever the angle, whatever the lens used, I have not been able to get one single satisfying image. I chose this one because it is confusing. But it does not convey the elaborate sturdiness of the concrete construction. If you look at the building carefully, you discover how Perret cleverly designed the church. In fact, it is quite simple, but still a daring structure.
Outside the wind is strong. The sea is rough and you are inside, taking advantage of the beautiful morning light with a breathtaking view on the harbor entrance. But this is the museum of art. It has a wonderful collection of impressionists and early 20th century painters, all set in a perfectly lit by daylight succession of galleries. Although I know these works by now, it is always a pleasure to go back and admire them in this quiet, well designed environment. The feeling of comfort and serenity helps to appreciate even more the paintings by Monet, Marquet, Derain, Valloton, Boudin and many other artists. I just love the place. The only difficulty is the moiré effect produced by the texture on the windows that interfere with the camera digital sensor. But it makes an inserting disturbance when you blow up the pictures.
One of those huge container ships arrives at night in le Havre. From the deck of the ferry to Portsmouth, it looks daunting. I would not mind crossing the Atlantic on board one of these giants. I know there are very few people on board. Everything is computerized and the more than 20 000 containers are duly registered in some weird data base. I am curious to know the variety of goods entering the country at the same time. And I would be even more interested to understand the dispatching of the merchandise. Standing on the ferry, watching this amazing thing just makes me feel tiny. Thinking that there are many of those ships arriving every week is mind boggling. What if suddenly all this world trade stopped for some undue reason ?
You cannot see the harbor from this angle unless you are on the deck of a ship. And as I already mentioned, the ferry to England is probably the easiest way to achieve that if you are not acquainted to officials in the harbor. That was the main reason to go to Portsmouth : Have a vision of le Havre from a departing ship. And as soon as you board the ferry, you are taken by the sailor's atmosphere. Even a simple trip to cross the Channel is exciting. And leaving le Havre, where I live, by sea was an experience I wanted to have. Of course, at this time of the day - we left at 10 pm in the summer, you don't have much time because the light is changing so fast that you better be ready with the right lens. This two chimneys from the power station are a kind of symbol, because that is probably what you can discern from the farthest once at sea. Next time I must take the ferry back, to see le Havre growing slowly from afar.
Ever since I saw the ferry to Portsmouth from the windows of my place, I have wanted to take it, just to have a view of the city "from outside". I have not been disappointed. It is worth going to England just to see le Havre from the deck of the ship ! And I have done it… I was lucky to have a beautiful evening. I feared it would be too late since the ferry was leaving at night, but it was just in time. My camera is not very sensitive to low light and I chose a lens with a large enough aperture to try to catch the last bits of light over the city's architecture. I now wonder how this striking vista looks under the rain. Must also be quite interesting.
I have become very familiar with this station, going to Paris very often. The Art Deco building was designed by Henri Pacon and inaugurated in 1932. It is always tempting to photograph a train station. But the activity is irregular. So at some point, the place is packed with busy crowd and it becomes difficult to get a general picture. You inevitably have somebody doing something so you have basically people pictures. But in between trains, the place can be rather empty, like it is in that shot. Then what matters is a balance of masses and colors that can become rather abstract.