Cover A candid photo of a man at a Parisian restaurant

Alexandra Senes and Oliver Pilcher capture the most cinematic destination in the world through the eyes of city locals themselves.

How does one write about Paris … a city that eludes capture at every turn? This was the insurmountable task before Alexandra Senes who provides the text for Paris Chic, a book published by Assouline. Together with photographer Oliver Pilcher, she offers readers a glimpse into the fabled city through stories from Parisians themselves— a term Senes herself finds amusing. “[It’s] absurd really … [for] Parisians are rarely from Paris,” she says.

“Paris has inspired the entire world,” Senes writes. Filmmakers, photographers and writers have proven the city to be truly inexhaustible. Thus, their approach has become much simpler than intended. The duo explored less-travelled paths and sought to capture the quiet daily moments of Parisian life. “The approach was a generous and smiling town opposite of a cranky and rude Parisien image we can sometimes have,” she adds. “So, going inside homes of Parisien, living their lives while the photographer steals a minute of their vie Parisienne.”

Senes is a citizen of the world. Born in Senegal, she became a journalist, a path that took her to New York and then Paris. And as the founder and editor-in-chief of Jalouse Magazine, she is no stranger to capturing and exploring eclectic style and glamour on glossy pages. Likewise, Scottish photographer Oliver Pilcher has been shooting many of the world’s finest brands. Having been a contributing photographer at Condé Nast Traveller for over ten years, Pilcher has also travelled the world as well.

For Paris Chic, the pair explored the French capital with seemingly no rhyme or reason—it was all about the experience and getting to know the people. They biked around the capital to discover its character without the pressure of speed and traffic. “We roved, going with the flow, taking our time, walking across the city where the Place de l’Étoile looks out over different worlds,” notes Senes. “For this book, our geography has been primarily emotional,” she adds.

Pilcher’s photographs exude this emotionality—unscripted, effortless, in medias res—to capture Paris in a nutshell. Is it perhaps because he is seeing the city with all the wonderment of a first-time visitor? “Oliver is from Scotland and lives between Costa Rica and NY,” Senes shares. “He did not know Paris at all. He had come only once as an assistant photographer and had stayed in the studio all day without seeing the city. So, I took him around the entire city! It was amazing to see him happy and [for] me [to] be a tourist again in my town.”

Senes adds that Pilcher does not use flash, which renders documenting the city “so quick that it becomes like the ‘making of our movie on Paris’ even though we were doing a book! It is not stiff you feel the heart and the spirit of the Parisiens”.

“In Paris, you can cross the peripheral ring road, go under bridges, roam public gardens, slip into courtyards, go up to the wrong floor, spend hours on an artist’s paint-splattered flooring, get up too early on Sunday morning or lounge on a Pierre Paulin sofa,” Senes paints a picture of the beloved city. A place she goes on to call “Unclassifiable. Elusive. Snobbish. Dadaist.”

 

Yet, Senes and Pilcher imagine this book as a film with its own soundtrack; it’s all about the protagonists in their daily lives caught unbeknownst to them. For six weeks, they made it a habit to cross from the Right Bank to the Left—from Parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement to 31 rue Malar in the 7th. They took to heart the tip they received from Grégoire Marot who declared, “Paris is great if you cross the Seine at least once a day!” And that they did. In the process, they discovered colourful moments that would usually go unnoticed. “Paris is a dream, the city of your dreams,” says Senes. However, in this 280-page book, it’s all about the modest realities of the grandest destination in the world. On spotlight are stolen smiles (and none of the signature French scowl).

Splitting his time between New York and Costa Rica, travelling with his wife and kids, Pilcher is a free spirit. Each photograph in this book captures his love for authenticity. With this, combined with laid-back enthusiasm, the pair put together a montage of Paris like no other. A Paris that smiles and revels in the mundane; a Paris that so often gets brushed aside in lieu of filmic and grandiose portrayals. It debunks the myth of the moody taxi driver (“Well, it is true but if you say hello and try to make him laugh it will be much better,” Senes says). It confirms the myth of being surprised each time you come back (“I travel a lot a lot a lot and I am impressed each time I come back,” she affirms).

“The real Paris does not reveal itself easily,” says Senes. But in Assouline’s Paris Chic, it shows a little glimpse of itself, even just for a moment.


This article was originally published in Tatler Philippines October 2020 issue. Download it on your device via Zinio, Magzter, or Pressreader.

  • ImagesAssouline (www.assouline.com); Oliver Pilcher