Two “French Letter” boxes [Alamy image ref: AEF1JR]

I’ve seen quite a few condom dispensers in small French towns (population around 5,000) but only one, in Chatillon-sur-Indre, offering several story-line or caption suggestions.First is the obvious connection with the French post-box which, if you are unaware of it – or live somewhere other than in the United Kingdom – “French Letter” is slang for a condom.

Then there is the “No Waiting” sign and the instruction about “Limited to 1 hour 30 minutes”… which would be pretty good going for most people contemplating any amorous act!

And then there is the big arrow… not only pointing to the machine, but being the recognized symbol for a male – the shield and spear of the Roman god Mars, which is also the alchemical symbol for iron, represents the male sex.

I don’t know how this photo was used recently in a UK national newspaper with 1 million print-run as a 1/2 page inside reproduction, but if it was “The Sun” or “The Mirror” the picture editors could have had a field day with the captioning!

Although I’ve sometimes waited around a corner to see if there were any customers at these machines, I’ve never been successful in snapping anyone. I guess most people are just too embarrassed to be seen buying one (although long gone are the days when the hairdresser used to whisper in one’s ear, “Anything else sir?”) However, they are a guaranteed set-up for posing a friend or two and having some suggestive fun with their expressions and body language!

A little bit of research has provided the following… from…

Some nicknames of the condoms demonstrate international tensions. In Germany, a slang term for a condom is a “Pariser,” or a Parisian. In English, condoms are sometimes called French Letters. Why is France associated with condoms? This might be because other countries associated all that was decadent with France.

As a side note, a French Letter will protect you against the French Disease; or, to put it more plainly, a condom will help protect you against syphilis. Syphilis was called the French Disease because of the outbreak in the French Army in the sixteenth century; it was the Italians that coined that phrase (morbus gallicus).

The French, however, might have gotten their linguistic come-uppance with their terminology. The French called syphilis “la maladie anglaise,” or the English Disease. They even called it the Italian disease or the Neapolitan disease too. Other countries were equally derisive, with the Arabs calling syphilis the English disease and the Russians calling it the Polish disease.

Although most nationally-derogatory terms for syphilis are now in the past, the French still call condoms “la capote anglaise,” or the English raincoat.

And from wikipedia…

Julius Fromm (1883 – May 12, 1945) was a Jewish entrepreneur, chemist, and inventor of a process for making condoms from liquified rubber. Fromms became a synonym for condom in Germany. In 1928, the world’s  first condom vending machines were installed by Fromm’s company, but the interior ministry only allowed it to advertise the hygienic advantages of condoms, not the condom’s use as a contraceptive, because it feared a further decrease of the birth rate.

Warning sign, France [Alamy image ref: AR6NRH]

I have a growing collection of signs and logos which are now under their own “Directions” pseudonym on Alamy… directions being an overall category for information on conditions, going somewhere, advice on something, advertising this, promoting that… signs that lead you to something else.Generally I photograph them – especially road signs – in sunlight with a bright blue sky as a backdrop… “bleu, blanc et rouge” being the French, British and American national flag colours and very eye-catching when combined.

The problem with ‘straight on’ shots, however, is that the background often doesn’t show the viewer what the sign indicated. To have shown a car upended in a ditch next to this ‘slippery road’ sign would have been an excellent picture opportunity… but is one very rarely seen. – perhaps because drivers really do take caution in these places!

In bright sun there’s another problem… flare! All modern road signs are highly reflective… and any sun striking them is likely to reflect into the camera. From a reasonable distance a long lens can cancel this effect whereas with a wide-angle the problem is exaggerated. I nearly always experience this when I automatically shoot an alternative worm’s-eye view with only the sky as a plain backdrop. These unnatural views are more dynamic and graphic, especially shot with a very wide-angle lens, but they can become isolated and ‘float’ in mid-air with less connection to their related hazard.

To reduce the background (receding perspective) in this shot I used a 12~24mm Nikkor wide-angle zoom set at around at 17mm… but it wasn’t that simple. With such ‘clean’ subjects – they look very good when pristine but most unattractive when dirty and splattered with mud – I spend an unhealthy amount of time cleaning them up… both at the scene with a damp baby-bum wipe I keep in a plastic bag; and later in Photoshop. For all that extra work, it was licensed to an educational textbook publisher in the Netherlands for a 5-year period.

BTW: I always admire the accuracy of French road distances (I measured it on my fixie-cycle and it is 2,1 kilometers exactly) but wonder how the car’s skid marks could possibly have touched as shown in the illustration. Perhaps the artist had been drinking rather too much for lunch!

French Scrabble [Alamy image ref: AYP30R]

I’ve enjoyed the board game Scrabble for at least half my lifetime, despite being beaten more often than not, and bought a French version on arriving in this country a decade ago. There are several subtle changes though… the numbers of individual letters are different. In the UK version there are a total of 98 letter tiles plus two blanks. In French Scrabble there are 100 letter tiles plus 2 blanks, and the numbers of letters are different to reflect the language with fifteen rather than twelve “E” letters, six “O” tiles rather than eight, six “U” and “S” rather than four, and other variations… which surprisingly do change the flow of the game if playing in the English vocabulary.

So I had a choice of adding visual interest to this stock shot between adopting English words – for the wider world – or adopt a French theme with the intention of specialising in an already fairly saturated niche. The layout had to be simple because the letters take up only a small area of the image and have to be readable… so I chose part of French philosopher Réné Descartes’ memorable quote, “Je pense, donc je suis” (I think, therefore I am) and added the English translation on the other tile holder, placing the “Je pense” and “I think” letters strongly in the foreground.

My three carefully composed Scrabble board images hover at around 350th place out of almost 1,300 examples – of which close to 550, more than a third, are Royalty Free (including fifty rather repetitive examples from the same contributor – another good reason for Alamy employing editors?) which is strictly against registered name copyright rules as clearly stated on Alamy’s own contributors information pages!Shot in the garden under diffused sunlight with a 12~24mm wide-angle Nikkor set at around 20mm and stopped down to f/16, the difficulty was in keeping as much as possible within a sharp plane of focus… but the closer I got with the zoom lens at the widest setting, the more distorted the image became, to the point of being ugly.

But as a result of this fairly simple, but thought out exercise, this image, and another very similar example but taken straight on rather than at an angle, were sold twice to Canadian educational textbook publishers on 5-year licenses as well as to a South Korean book publisher on a 1-year license. I’m hoping for more sales in time as they are occasionally ‘zoomed’ by registered buyers more so on average than any of my other image searches.

Customers in French bar [Alamy image ref: AGXENN]

Usually, the one image which stays in any photographer’s mind is the one first sold… no matter where. My first ever photo sale was in the late ‘60s of a man and his pet goat on a collar and leash going for a walk down to the local pub – which made a few square inches of grainy black-and-white in that long-gone British weekend rag “The Reveille” look even worse than my amateur darkroom processing efforts, but I was paid a fiver… which is actually about the same nominal amount several British national newspapers are paying for images from photographers currently signed up (not me, thank you very much!) to Alamy’s “newspaper scheme” half a century later… and a fiver was worth at least ten times as much in buying power back in those days!

In a repeat of my largely inconsequential history, however, the image above of three casual friends in my local French bar was another first – my first image sold through the Alamy agency which I’d joined a few months previously in 2007. Those were the days when the initial submission had to be ten immaculate images for the dreaded “QC” (Quality Control) team, and the wait to hear if you were accepted by the agency could be around six to eight weeks if you didn’t live and work in the UK and had to rely on your submission being sent on a CD through the international mails. So when I read, almost daily, of new Alamy photographers complaining that their latest submission has been held up in QC for 24-hours and “WTF is going on – can’t they get their finger out?” with responses such as, “Yeh, I daren’t submit any more files in case QC fail one and all the rest waiting in the queue!” I think how lucky we photographers have been for the past decade with instant digital capture and only slightly slower processing and uploading to an image agency, picture editor or a hundred-and-one other categories of image buyer. Rant over!  ;~)

The EXIF data in Lightroom indicates I used a 12~24mm Nikkor zoom at the 12mm wide end on a Nikon D200 set at 1/60th and f/5.6. Apparently I took just three shots at 6 ‘o-clock that September evening… my main concern being the strong light pouring in through the bar window and the inability of the camera to control the contrast well enough for an image to be usable. Looking at the original again I’m very tempted to rework the image (experience, hindsight and the latest version of Adobe Lightroom are wonderful things)… but it can’t have been as bad as my old man and goat photo because it made a half-page in an American daily newspaper.

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