I am in Paris right now with a bunch of students. When they first arrived a few weeks ago, we took a boat ride on the Seine. As we passed under the Pont des Arts (its real name), the tour guide called it the “love lock bridge” and preceded to explain that lovers come here, put a padlock on the bridge, and throw the key in the river as a sign of their undying love—as if this tradition had been around as long as Héloïse an Abélard. Well, what the friends, it hasn’t. In fact, it hasn’t even been around for 10 years. So let’s just demystify this lovelock thing with a little self-plagiarizing. Here’s part of a post I did (on my neglected photoblog) way back in 2010 when the lovelocks were, if not brand new, well, like, toddler new. In 2009, you would have seen some scattered locks, but nothing like completely parasitic infestation that now sprawls across this and other bridges. And now, some of that post:
When I was photographing a bridge on day 1 of a trip to Paris, I noticed this lock with the words “I love you” attached to the bridge. How romantic, I thought. But also, What an eyesore! Still, you could imagine the scene: two lovers visit Paris, put the lock on the bridge as a symbol of their undying love, and throw the key in the river Seine to show that the bond will never be broken.
Then, I walked to the pont des arts—the artsy, bohemian bridge where artsy bohemian Parisians and groups of young tourists gather nightly for picnics until 1 or 2 a.m.
The pont des arts has a chainlink fence—all the better to hold padlocks. Hundreds and hundreds of them (which you’ll have to imagine, because my photos must have been blurry and hence, deleted). Here, the locks fit the mood of the bridge and felt like the sort of art installation that asks for audience participation. But as expressions of love, I have to say that the aesthetics left something to be desired:
Let’s take Olivier, who heart heart hearts Laura. Assuming he didn’t just happen to carry a padlock around with him in case of a sudden bout of eternal love, he must have taken the trouble to go somewhere and buy a padlock and a sharpie. Is this the best he could do? Why choose a lock with a huge XINLEI brand marking right where the hearts go? Or is this a love triangle between a man, a woman, and a padlock company? Get on that, XINLEI marketers.
Olivier could at least take a cue from the Sid and Nancy aesthetic of Vick and Julien:
Or is it a serial killer aesthetic? A ransom note? Maybe not the best choice after all.
Then there’s more ephemeral choice that I’ve only seen once so far:
A photo that, in all likelihood, will outlast their summer romance.
I overheard a couple of Italian women walking by (this one was near Notre Dame) and wondering if this was some sort of Paris tradition. It’s not! I wanted to call out in Italian. But unfortunately, my spoken Italian doesn’t extend beyond ordering gelato these days. I was in Paris for three months this past fall and there were no locks to be found. So where did it come from?
Google to the rescue. According to an article in The Telegraph, the lock phenomenon is a worldwide one. Locks can be found “on fences and bridges in Moscow, Verona, Brussels, and Mount Huang, China.”
It is unclear who started the fashion. Italians claim it was sparked by a romantic novel called I Want You, by Federico Moccia, in which the hero and heroine attach a padlock with their name onto a lamppost on Ponte Milvio, near Rome, kiss and throw the key in the river Tiber.
Who are these Italians claiming it was sparked by a novel I’ve never heard of? Certainly not the women on the bridge.
For me, what started as an isolated case of quaint bemusement has become an irritation. When I went to photograph the pont Alexandre III, easily the most beautiful bridge in Paris, I saw this:
That’s a whole lot of Photoshop work for me and a whole bunch of ugly for Paris.
If I could talk to these lock loving readers of Italian fiction, I would tell them to use my own personal rule of graffiti: If it is well done and adds interest to an otherwise drab and dull space, then go for it.
But if it defaces something that is already beautiful or has historical significance, then you’re just an irresponsible vandal.
Want to do something romantic on the bridges in Paris? Throw some rose petals in the Seine. It could use a little freshening up.
End of incredibly long self-plagiarizing. To conclude, let’s look at one last photo: Matt’s lovelock proposal to Sarah.
How romantic, right? Maybe on their first anniversary they can return and see it. Or maybe not. It all depends on how fast the bridge fills up. Because every so often, some poor city employee has the Sisyphean task of playing the love grinch, bolt cutters in hand, ready to weed out the signs of last year’s dreams. Now that’s a photo I’d like to take.