Voigtlander Bessa-R & 35mm f/1.7

5 Frames with a Voigtlander Bessa-R, 35mm f/1.7 & Ilford XP2 in Paris – by Mark Harrison

Paris in the wintertime; a monochrome masterpiece which simply begs to be photographed. I explored Paris after many years’ absence in December 2019 during relatively carefree times. No coronavirus to dull the joie de vivre or curb people’s movements.

My Bessa R Voigtlander outfit proved to be reliable, lightweight and unobtrusive for city photography. I opted for Ilford XP2 monochrome film to capture the essence of the city in the winter months. The vast boulevards, imposing edifices, majestic bridges, chic Parisians and dramatic skylines captured in muted grey, ice-white and funereal black. I find the Bessa R easy to load in cold conditions and it has a large and bright viewfinder.

The meter is highly accurate and combined with the Voigtlander 35mm f/1.7 Ultron lens, makes for an enjoyable and rewarding camera to use. The lens is sharp, full of contrast and on my visit it handled the low raking winter light with ease. I’m an exponent of minimalistic composition and my photograph with the crow in the foreground subverts the more predictable shots that tourists often take of the Eiffel Tower.

I’ve aimed to create a timeless and classic image. I like the contrast of the jet black bird against the bright, yet cloud-filled sky. It could be a harbinger of doom or a symbol of freedom. Take your pick!

The Catacombes de Paris – essentially a huge grave site created from former quarries – was a particularly sobering and poignant place to photograph. The ossuary contains the remains of millions of Parisians from centuries gone by. In my photograph, the scene reminded me of a movie set with the light illuminating the skulls; like staring your own mortality in the face.

In the darkness of the Catacombs, having a rangefinder camera allowed me to hand hold at a 15th of a second and capture the image without the use of a tripod, which would have felt very intrusive in the environment that I was in. Using a monochrome film really focuses your attention on the subject without colour to distract the viewer.

The street scene featuring vendors’ wares, along with aloof Parisians, reminded me of a huge chess board on the pavement. I found this type of scene to be well suited to the 35mm lens’ field of view. The unorthodox perspective and cut off figures are typical of my style of photography. I’m not a fan of traditional landscape photography; I feel compelled to capture an alternative view of city life. I often see shapes and textures before people and landmarks. This way of seeing the world can result in an unsettling experience for the viewer but it’s how I see things.

Outside the Louvre on a bitterly cold morning with a cloudless sky, I noticed a constant stream of tourists taking turns to stand on a pillar to have their photograph taken. I crouched down and waited for someone with an interesting silhouette to take a turn on the podium.

I liked the way that the woman’s hat roughly resembled the shape of the Louvre’s architecture.  The juxtaposition of the buildings and the figure is also stark and  unsettling. To me the figure of the woman looked like part of the cityscape.

Paris is home to many incredible statues and I couldn’t resist photographing them. The image of the hands reaching out to embrace the iconic form of the Eiffel Tower, reminded me of a propaganda poster from times gone by. I tried to capture the stunning light on the life-like arms which seemed almost disembodied. I like the feeling of space in this uncluttered image. To me it feels representative of much of the Parisian statuary and open spaces.

Knowing it was going to be a bitterly cold city break, I didn’t want to be constantly changing lenses, believing that would lead me to the perfect image. In reality, that would just have led to cold hands and losing the enjoyment of the trip. I would wholeheartedly recommend this camera outfit and film for a city adventure. Visiting such a photogenic city with a lens with a fixed focal length was a rewarding challenge. Over the years Paris has attracted many legendary photographers. I hope my photographs offer a new perspective and do the magnificent city justice.

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20 thoughts on “5 Frames with a Voigtlander Bessa-R, 35mm f/1.7 & Ilford XP2 in Paris – by Mark Harrison”

  1. Funnily I was researching this lens just this morning – currently in a toss up between the Voigtländer 35mm 1.7 or 2.5 or Canon 35mm f2 to match up with the Canon P and 50mm 1.4 I currently use. I was warming to the 1.7 anyways so this is just another sign 🙂

  2. Nice pics! I cannot wait to visit.

    “It could be a harbinger of doom or a symbol of freedom. Take your pick!”

    It’s definitely a harbinger of freedom!

  3. Your pictures are a blend of well known touristic places and Your personal Paris mood. Your photographs are a pleasure to see.

  4. Not bad at all! I see you have an eye. When it comes down to it few people have it, so it is really nice to see your work from a city that has been photographed a thousand times from all angels. Thank you!

  5. Daniel Castelli

    Hi Mark,
    Just want to say how much I enjoyed your post and the images.
    I’d be hard pressed to single out one photo I liked, but I’d go with the shot of the vendors selling the souvenirs. I like visual humor, and it’s just a funny photo.
    I’m a big proponent of the ‘one camera/one lens’ style of photography. You worked the scenes and compositions in such a way that you would think you had a bagful of lenses. Well done.
    I purchased a Bessa-R for our daughter when she started art school back in 2004. It’s an amazing camera. It resides in her carryall next to her moleskin sketchbook.

    1. Thanks for your complementary feedback. My back is a big fan of the one camera/one lens style of photography also! I’m sure your daughter would agree the Bessa R is a great everyday camera.

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