Staircases—A Subject of Intrigue and Connection


There is nothing that hasn’t been photographed. As discouraging as it sounds, it has never deterred individuals from seeking photography. What makes this possible is the fact that the world we live in is transitory. Like a river that gradually carves its way through the land, bringing about changes in the landscape around it, the world, too, is in a constant state of flux. This impermanence is what continues to fuel the proliferation of the medium or, for that matter, any other art form. It is also for the same reason why photography is replete with recurring motifs because we all perceive the world differently. What we bring to an image is a cumulative of our lived experiences set against the ephemeral backdrop of the moment we choose to document. This is something that has always interested me—how photographers, at different points in time, document the same subjects over and over again.

The idea first struck me when I came across Eugène Atget’s photographs of staircases and consequently discovered André Kertész, Brassaï and Henri Cartier- Bresson’s renditions of the same motif. As a subject, staircases have always intrigued me, not just for its aesthetic beauty but also for the mystery, dualities and contradictions that it represents. Although the staircase, as we have come to know it, is a manmade invention, they have, in fact, always existed in nature. Taking cue from this, our ancestors saw the benefits of naturally occurring steps in their surroundings and how it made climbing, to get from one point to the other, possible. It became a staple in the construction of homes and cities, where steps were carved from rocks or the foundation for it was laid through stones and later bricks.

However, connectivity was not its only objective. Staircases were (even today) symbolic of divinity. Stairs in temples, churches, even castles, were constructed in a way to convey regality and sacredness; to invoke a sense of smallness in the eyes of the observer and make them feel as if they’re embarking on a journey to something greater. In my research, I discovered a wonderful write up by a History teacher from Hamilton, Ontario, that said, “Even the language surrounding stairs and how we talk about stairs is exceedingly symbolic—ascent, descent, climb, step, levels—these are all words associated with journey, progress, and growth, and not just in terms of the physical act, but also in terms of the emotional and spiritual connotations of journeying.”

With the exception of Staircase, Montmartre (1921), almost all of Atget’s photographs of stairs were made from the bottom landing. It’s difficult to gauge whether he did this to loan the image a certain divinity. Commenting on this, Geoff Dyer, in his book, The Ongoing Moment, wrote, “Atget rarely photographed stairs from the top, looking down; invariably he was at the bottom, looking up. In this way, the stairs serve as hills, metaphors, that is, for the further exhaustive endeavours that lie ahead: climb them and there will be other— possibly better—views, other photographs.” Like Atget, Brassaï too, took an interest in documenting staircases. A particularly arresting photograph that he made was Staircase in Montmartre (1932) on an early winter morning, with wisps of fog floating in between the barren trees that lined the staircase. Unlike Atget, Brassai’s camera was pointed downwards, shooting it in a way where the stairs seem to extend endlessly.

Kertész, on the other hand, was more fixated on geometry and symmetry. There is no mystery or intrigue to his photographs of stairs. Instead, the viewer gets to experience the dance of light and shadow as the sun’s light falls on the stair’s railing. To get a better idea of this, look for two of his images titled Stairs, Railing and Woman (photographed in the 1950s) and The Stairs of Montmartre, Paris (1926). In comparison, Bresson’s photographs of stairs are more “street” oriented, which is to say that they cater to the term he coined—the decisive moment. He always chose spots that promised some sort of physical interaction between the place and the people who passed it while ensuring the geometric sanctity of the moment. Camondo Steps, Galata, Istanbul, Turkey (1964) and Aquila degli Abruzzi, Italy (1951) are two examples of this.

Staircases hold within it a world of possibilities—they are places of rest, of play, of congregation, of connection, of aesthetic wonder and everyday surrealism. Having said this, stairs are not just a subject to be photographed but also a vantage point to explore what’s beyond its realm.