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The Glow of Paris: The Bridges of Paris at Night

Dr. Jessie Voigts interviews Gary Zuercher about his new photography book, "The Glow of Paris: The Bridges of Paris at Night."

Paris bridge, Pont de l'Archevêché.
Pont de l'Archevêché. The name Archevêché means the diocese of the archbishop. The bridge connects the left bank of the river with Notre Dame on the island named Île de la Cité. Photo © Gary Zuercher.

The many moods of Paris — we’ve seen some of them, while others hide away from us, and slowly unfurl (if we’re lucky). However, one thing about Paris strikes awe — that of Paris in the evening. In the summer, the streets are alive, with people celebrating, heading home, heading out, and taking the air with their dogs. In the fall, the crisp air makes the bright lights stand out. But in the winter? Oh, those lights do glow. And until I read The Glow of Paris: The Bridges of Paris at Night, I had no idea just how much.

The Glow of Paris is an extraordinarily beautiful book of photographs that reveals a new side to Paris — one that, I imagine, few of us have ever seen. It’s lovely to see Paris in a new light, so to speak. The book, written and photographed by Gary Zuercher, is the best book photography book I’ve ever seen. But it’s so much more than that. This book combines history, geography, architecture, engineering, and art. It teaches us to look at Paris with new eyes, and instills in us an appreciation for these bridges — ordinary structures during the day, that allow the movement of people, cars, bikes, boats.

We learn of the history of each bridge, stories, details, insider information. And then, oh then, we see. We see a strange Paris, with no people or cars. The streets are empty, and Paris starts to reveal herself. Each bridge is a work of art. We forget that, when we hurry and scurry. Each bridge is packed with history, meaning, artisanship, and is, always, something to cross the Seine. That purpose shines clear here, as do the dreams that we all carry of Paris. This book? Paris — a Paris we didn’t know existed — comes alive.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Gary Zuercher, to ask him about his many years of photographing Paris, inspiration, and more. Here’s what he had to say…

Q: Please tell us about your book, The Glow of Paris...

GZ: The Glow of Paris gives you a graphic account of the history of the 35 bridges that cross the Seine in Paris. It’s a history book that commences with Julius Caesar and proceeds up through the death of Princess Diana, and continues to the current day. But more than that, it includes 84 stunning, large format black and white photographs that show us the luminosity of the bridges at night and takes our breath away. By day the bridges, while rather utilitarian, are nevertheless attractive, but at night they take on a luminescence that can’t be seen in the daylight. They glow.

Paris: Pont de la Concorde.
Pont de la Concorde. Links the Place de la Concorde at the foot of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées with the Assemblée nationale that forms the Senat and the Parliament of France. Here seen with the majestic Grand Palais in the background. Photo © Gary Zuercher.

Q: What inspired you to create this amazing book?

GZ: The inspiration came as the result of a mistake. My wife and I live part time in Paris and part time in the U.S. One night while shooting in Paris, I took a photograph of one of the bridges. The photographs are taken on film and in black and white. As soon as I took the photo, I realized I had miscalculated and had greatly overexposed the shot. The only thing I could do was to under develop the negative in the hope of salvaging something from the shot. The negative that resulted produced a photograph that just took my breath away. Because of that negative I decided to photograph all thirty-five of the bridges that cross the Seine in Paris, using that same concept of overexposure coupled with under development to get similar results. Although the book was not then yet on the radar, it was a natural next step once the project was complete.

Q: How long did it take to take the photos and do all of the research? What were the challenges?

GZ: It took much longer than I expected. In the beginning, I expected it would take at least a year to complete. In the final analysis, it took five years for the photography and one more year for the research into the history of the bridges. The first obstacle was daylight. In the summer, it is daylight in Paris up to about 11 p.m., and the lights are turned out on the bridges at midnight, so that leaves too short a period to obtain good productivity. In the winter however, darkness comes at five o’clock and there is plenty of time to shoot. One other problem is that I was spending less than half the time in Paris, so naturally I could only shoot while I was there.

As for challenges there were plenty. Challenges posed by weather, and temperature; and challenges of carrying gear around, being alone by the river at night, and finding parking for the car; at night everything is different. But probably the biggest challenge was getting just the right shot. There were times that I thought I had taken a terrific shot only to find, when the negative was developed, that in reality it wasn’t so good. Sometimes the same shot was taken over and over, just to get it right. I went back to shoot at some bridges time after time before a perfect shot was finally obtained.

Paris: Pont du Carrousel.
Pont du Carrousel. This bridge links the left bank of the Seine to one of the most attractive entrances to the Louvre. This view seen while crossing the pont is of the entrance named the guichet du Louvre and enters into the carrousel of the Louvre. Photo © Gary Zuercher.

Q:  What is your favorite bridge — and why?

GZ: That’s not an easy question. I have many favorite bridges, but probably the two favorites are Passerelles. A Passerelle is a footbridge. The two are the Pont des Arts and Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir. The Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir was built in 2006 and remains the newest of the bridges. It is a modern design with an undulating structure that serves three levels on each side of the river. It is the only bridge that is named for a woman. You can walk or ride a bike across it. It is a beautiful, flowing design that exhibits grace and beauty, modern in design and utilitarian in use. The second and perhaps even more beautiful is the Pont des Arts. This footbridge is built ten steps above the adjacent roadways on each side. Its elevation above each side makes it stand out from the surroundings. It gives you the sense of standing on a balcony with a breathtaking view both upstream and downstream. On one side of the river you have the Louvre downstream, and the La Samaritaine department store upstream, on the other side is the Institut de France and upstream is the bridge named Pont Neuf, that crosses the Île de la Cité at the park named Vert Galant. The Pont des Arts provides a very picturesque view and is picturesque itself.

Paris bridge, Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir.
Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir. This is a footbridge and is the newest bridge crossing the Seine in Paris. It opened in 2006. It is the only Paris bridge named in honor of a woman. Photo © Gary Zuercher.

The one problem with the Pont des Arts, as well as with some of the other bridges, is the lovelocks that are now attached to it. A couple writes their name on a lock, locks it onto the guardrail fence, and then they throw the key into the river as a symbol of their undying love. The bridge has become absolutely inundated with locks; at the last counting there were more than 400,000 locks on the Pont des Arts alone, weighing more than 200,000 pounds. This poses the problem of not only the weight but the ugliness of the locks. A solution will probably be found some day, but in the meantime the locks detract from the beauty of the bridge.

Pont des Arts in Paris.
The Pont des Arts is a Passerelle (footbridge) considered by many to be the most romantic spot in Paris. It was built by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 1800s. Photo © Gary Zuercher.

Q: What do you see are the main differences in Parisian bridges from walking to all purpose bridges, in terms of design and beauty?

GZ: The 35 bridges that cross the Seine cover a span of history from 1607 when the Pont Neuf was inaugurated to the inauguration of the Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir in 2006. They cover a period of 400 years. Very few places can brag of thirty-five consecutive bridges that cover this amount of history. There are concrete bridges, masonry bridges, iron bridges, and steel bridges. The design of the bridges varies from that of the Pont Neuf , which is actually many small bridges linked together to form a single bridge, to the Passerelle Léopold Sédar-Senghor, which is a single span bridge with no support structure in the water. The bridges of Paris not only cover a long and important span of history, but also an extremely varied method of design and construction.

Paris bridge, Pont Neuf.
The Pont Neuf is the oldest bridge in Paris. It was inaugurated in 1607 by King Henri IV. The word Neuf in French means new in English thus the oldest bridge is named the new bridge. It spans the downstream tip of the Île de la Cité and connects the island to both the left and right banks of the Seine. Photo © Gary Zuercher.

Q: What’s up for you next?

GZ: A new project is unfolding now, that is the shooting of some of the most interesting bridges of Europe. There are many different eras, designs, and types of bridges in Europe; I hope to be able to capture some of them. In this respect, I have recently begun shooting in Barcelona, Spain and am scheduled to shoot in Seville, Spain. There I will shoot some of the ultra-modern bridges designed by the well-known bridge designer Santiago Calatrava. And then, on to shoot some of the well known bridges in France, Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany, as well as in other countries. It is an ambitious project that will take some time to complete.

For More Information

You can purchase Gary Zuercher's book on his website, with some photos, maps, and a video about the bridges of Paris.

Marcorp Editions — U.S.-based distributor site where the book may be purchased in English or French.

Photos furnished for publication by Diario Las Americas, courtesy and Copyright Gary Zuercher.

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