PARIS — I met Liv Gudmundson for an interview earlier this month on the Place Dauphine in the center, very center, of old Paris.
It is on the Île de la Cité, an island in the river Seine that cuts through the city, where you will also find Notre Dame and Ste. Chapelle cathedrals, and the old Police Judiciare, the Sûreté (for you Inspector Maigret fans, of which I am one).
It was a lovely Sunday afternoon, sunny and warm, men playing boules in the square. Liv had that fresh glow that emanates from a young woman about to give birth to a child (she is seven months pregnant and it is a girl, her second child after son Emile was born four years ago).
Her smile was radiant, her bearing self-assured, with that openness and easygoing nature that I attach to people who live in Fargo, not Paris. She grew up in Moorhead and has lived in Paris for 10 years.
The lure of France began early. She spent a semester abroad while in high school in 2003 and again while in college at St. Catherine’s in 2008. Add to that the two summer Concordia College French camps while in grade school and the influence of her mother Jane, who grew up in England and initially introduced her to French. All of these influences planted a rather large seed.
Her parents, Wayne and Jane, are well-known in the Fargo-Moorhead community, especially in the fields of arts and education. Wayne is a renowned photographer who taught at Minnesota State University Moorhead for many years, and Jane worked in many varied roles in education and the arts at Plains Art Museum, Rourke Art Gallery + Museum and the Clara Barton Art Center, to name just a few.
The influence of both are evident in Liv’s countenance and open smile, and in a certain demureness of manner, but at the same time she is a great conversationalist and often quite frank.
She started fooling around with a camera in high school, taking snapshots of friends. But she wasn’t trying to emulate or imitate her father. In fact, taking photos of people was maybe a little pushback against his work, which was generally landscape photography, devoid of humans for the most part. Back then, she didn’t really "get" the visual simplicity mixed with an intellectual complexity that his work possesses. Understanding would come later and a recognition of that subtle complexity.
“I pursued an artsy/photographic direction for a few years, something I undoubtedly inherited from my family. Projects like contributing interviews for a photo web magazine (which has become www.loenke.com), or organizing a photo portfolio review festival with LensCulture/FotoFest in Paris. I've had a few photographic projects along the way as well, with various collaborators, but I've never called myself a photographer.”
She may not consider herself a photographer, but the influences of Wayne and Jane are undeniable.
“It wasn't intentional to begin with, but in retrospect, most of my professional career thus far has revolved around the book in some way (working in a library during college, then marketing photo albums, marketing/making/communicating about photo books, and now editing/coordinating economic reports for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).”
It was during that junior year abroad when the photographic interests converged with a growing interest in the history of Paris. While there, she began research to understand how the city was transformed in the 19th century from a medieval one to the more modern Paris we know today (we, of course, think it is old).
And one of the best ways to understand and track this transformation was to examine the photographic record presented by photographers like Felix Nadar and Eugène Atget, among others, since the development of photography roughly paralleled the changes taking place in the city.
Liv photographed particular places and compared them to Nadar or Atget photos showing the same location, which dramatically displayed the changing landscape. Her love for Paris deepened.
“As a child, I didn’t think landscape was that interesting, but now it was, but it was urban landscape,” she said. “The photos, connecting them, helped to expose the political context in which they were made and the societal changes in Paris as well.”
Her love of Paris deepened while doing this research, and it provided a spark for real love. She met her future husband, Raphaël Devreker, who shared an interest in things photographic. Being a “passioné” of photography and a webmaster, he started a company called thephotoacademy.com offering photo courses around the world. The attraction is going strong 10 years and (nearly) two children later.
While pursuing her master’s degree in arts and visual culture at Université Denis Diderot in Paris, she was looking for additional work and ended up becoming the French representative for the San Francisco-based online book publishing company BLURB. Liv jumped at the opportunity to extend BLURB in France from its base in the U.K. and began promoting it in universities and other academic centers as well as to the photo community in general.
She arranged countless contacts and promoted the service at festivals like Arles and the Salon de la Photo. While at Arles, she met a Minneapolis-based Magnum photographer she greatly admired, Alec Soth. After a while, she discovered that the rarified world of photography as represented by things like the Arles Festival reflected an insular quality that existed in that world. It represented the politics of insiders. The "macho" nature of many of them, the "in-crowd" exclusivity that tended to pervade at festivals and fairs. So the novelty and excitement of the early visits wore thin.
“I think photography has become somewhat elitist and in some ways artificial,” she mused. “And after this experience and work in photography-related worlds, I started to look at my father’s work in a different light. I no longer thought of them as cold, those landscapes. They became much warmer to me and represented home and family, closeness.”
Having now become a grown woman with a family in Paris, and incidentally becoming French this last spring during a national citizenship ceremony, I asked her how that affects her Midwestern connection.
“On the day of the nationality ceremony, I wore red, white and blue — funnily enough these colors represent all three of my nationalities (U.S., U.K. and now France). I bought a crepe for lunch, posed in front of Notre Dame for a quick photo and then went to the ceremony.”
“When I moved here to begin with, I found it comforting to say I could leave if I wanted or needed to. Being an only child and being part of a very close family… If my parents should need me for any reason, I would go back and help. I still hold on to this idea of keeping all options open, and am lucky to have the support of my husband, but I’m clearly more rooted in Paris here now,” she added.
“I was never really an adult at home. I learned that here. I grew up in a sense, had to take on those adult responsibilities, like children… “
And there are further ramifications should she decide to move back to the Midwest in addition to the family and emotional ones, as well as professional connections. These are practical things, like how would this new family of four afford health care in America when the French system is so much more efficient and affordable? Then there is a very timely reminder that France offers four months of paid parental leave (with additional provided if needed). Perhaps not the very best of its type in the world, but a far cry from what is available in America.
But being firmly planted in Paris does not preclude spending a month each summer with Wayne and Jane at their lake home in Minnesota. The family did that this year in July, and Liv said it “was the perfect antidote to the bustling life in Paris. Maybe it is the best of both worlds.”
After the interview, we walk to the western end of the Île de la Cité, next to the Square du Vert-Galant, where Raphaël proposed to her in the wee hours of the morning on the summer solstice in 2011, to take a few photographs.
Paris is beautiful.