Fellow "25 Under 25: Up-And-Coming American Photographers", Will Steacy, has put together a series of stories about the "The Photographs Not Taken", of which I am honored to have contributed. The full roster reads as follows: Paul D'Amato, Shane Lavalette, Dave Jordano, Brian Ulrich, Laura McPhee, Christian Patterson, Simon Roberts, Benjamin Donaldson, Michael Harlan Turkell, Matt Salacuse, Timothy Archibald, Amy Stein, Simon Roberts, Nina Berman, Grant Willing, Lisa Kereszi, Rachael Dunville, Todd Deutsch, Rian Dundon, John Movius, Alec Soth, Debbie Fleming Caffery, Elinor Carucci, Amy Elkins, Andrew Moore, Eirik Johnson, Peter Riesett, Misty Keasler, Chris Jordan.
Here's my entry:
Poilane bakery is fabled to produce the best bread in the world. It’s most recognized for its “miche”, a two-kilogram sourdough round, made simply of flour, water, and salt. In planning a food-centric trip to Paris, I inquired if I could spend some time at Poilane, photographing its daily operations, and specifically, its subterranean wood-fired oven.
The storefront is antiquated yet authentic, a stark contrast to much of the 6th arrondisment, the shopping district highlighted by high fashion and where the bakery is located. When I opened the door, I breathed in a poignant waft of history. The all-female staff, clad in the same grey linen that lines most Parisian breadbaskets, noticed the camera around my neck and, as they do with all tourists, offered me a sample of their sables (golden, crisp cookies). Rather than explaining that I was there to photograph, I politely placed a sample on my tongue and felt its sweet, buttery grit melt into an epiphany. The apparition of Poilane’s tradition was embedded in its every morsel.
Genevieve Briere, the executive assistant to the shop’s owners, soon came out to meet me. By then I must have had half a dozen sables. She led me through the front office, which was decorated with royal, baroque-style still life paintings of bread, and then down a short hallway to spiraling stone stairs. I descended, every step revealing the natural stone walls of a space no larger than the petit cafe where I had sipped my café crème earlier that morning. It smelled alive, literally, with fermenting bread starters scenting the air.
I was introduced to the baker, a young Parisian in his mid-twenties, sculpted like an Olympian, with a bohemian casualness. He did not speak English, and I knew no French. Even his name eluded me as Genevieve said goodbye and made her climb back up the stairs. He began to work and I pointed my lens towards him, hiding behind my camera to avoid our language barrier. His face, dusted with flour, made his skin look porcelain soft. He strafed over to a wooden table and lifted a damp towel, to unveil six round boules rising in baskets.
Beads of sweat trickled from my neck to my ankles, soaking into my socks. It was easily over 100 degree Fahrenheit. The baker began loading arm-length pieces of split wood into a lower compartment of the oven to kindle the fire.
A fog had formed on my lens, blurring my vision. This didn’t matter much in retrospect, because sometime between the first spark and the last finished miche, I had unwittingly only taken a handful of photographs. I was awestruck by bread.
There were large metal tools being used to maneuver the chimney, which spit roaring flames, in order to bring the stonewalls of the oven to temperature (somewhere between 500F – 900F). This process took half and hour.
When the oven was ready, the baker cut a script “P” fancifully into each loaf with an X-acto knife, a few seconds before plunging the loaves into the heat.
Hot plate of sables came sizzling out of the oven, and with a tempered hand, the baker handed one to me. It seared my fingertips, but like all food that’s too hot to touch I threw it in my mouth. I let out a wordless whisper, a cathartic exhale.