The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." "...it is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32) akakyakakyevich@gmail.com

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

PHOTOGRAPHY 101: George Silk in October. Helmut Newton in January. Francesco Scavullo in January as well. Carl Mydans in August. Richard Avedon and Eddie Adams in September. And Henri Cartier Bresson in July. As you can no doubt see for yourself, this has been a bad year for noted photographers. Famous shutterbugs spent the year dropping faster than a parson’s jaw in a peepshow. No one can say why so many photographers passed away this year, but on the whole it’s enough to make you want to hide your camera in the closet and smear lamb’s blood on your doorposts, and yes, I know I’m shamelessly mixing metaphors in this sentence. Get over it.

Be that as it may, a lot of people have made their opinions known about the deaths of these men, but it seems to me that the one set of people we’ve heard nothing from are the people most entitled to have an opinion: the people in the pictures. Let’s take a couple of examples from the work of Henri Cartier Bresson. Two of his most famous pictures are the guy jumping into a puddle behind a Parisian train station and another of a group of Spanish kids in front of a big white wall with small windows punched into it. There’s a jowly middle-aged man with a large paunch walking behind the kids. He’s wearing a suit and a fedora, his pants held up by a belt that goes over the top of his gut. He looks like a minor civil servant content with life and the three square meals the taxpayers are providing him with. Now this guy obviously didn’t know that he was about to appear in a famous photograph or he would do something about the way he looks. From the way he’s walking I think it’s safe to say either one of two things about him: first, he’s walking downhill, or second, one of these kids’ friends, a kid who doesn’t appear in the photograph, has just hit him in the backside with a rock propelled from a slingshot and the pain hasn’t registered yet. But still, you’d think the guy would’ve done something if he’d known he was about to become semi-famous, sort of. Maybe he’d have gone on a diet or taken up jogging or otherwise done something about the way he looks. Or maybe gone down another street to avoid being in the picture in the first place. The best way to avoid photographic immortality is to avoid famous photographers in the first place.

The fat guy in Madrid at least had that opportunity; the poor schnook in Paris wasn’t so lucky. Just how this knucklehead wound up in the middle of a big puddle is lost to history, but in the middle of a puddle is where Cartier Bresson found him and his feeble attempts to extricate himself from the stupid situation he finds himself in are now considered Cartier Bresson’s masterpiece. Think about that for a second. You find yourself, for reasons even you don’t really understand: maybe you saw something in the water, a fifty franc coin, perhaps, or maybe you were just curious about how deep the puddle was, but in any case you are now out in the middle of a huge puddle with no way to get back to shore without getting yourself soaking wet. And you don’t know what’s in that water. The puddle is behind a train station; every bum in Paris could’ve spent the day pissing into that puddle; there’s no way to tell. Maybe you went out into the middle of the puddle to relieve yourself, too. Why not? Everyone else is doing it so why shouldn’t you take a leak while you’re out there, it’s a free country.

Having finished your business, whatever your business may have been, you know find yourself in the middle of a giant sized predicament. You’ve gone out into the middle of the puddle and now you can’t get back. You try a variety of strategies, none of which works, and now there’s a grim choice: if you want to get out of this predicament you will have to wade through the puddle. There’s no other way out. So you steel yourself and push off, throwing yourself as far into the puddle as you can go. It isn’t very far, but it would not have been far enough, in any case; the puddle is too big. So you race through the puddle, hoping that there isn’t anything under the surface of the water that might trip you up, and finally get to the other side, having ruined a perfectly good pair of shoes in the process. But you’ve made it, your feet soaking wet with water and urine, but you’ve made it.

And then you notice that there’s a guy with a camera taking your picture. You yell at him to go buzz off, maybe you try to run after him and get the film, but by the time you get to where he was, the photographer has disappeared. You call him a bunch of names not repeatable here, even in French, and then go home with your squishy shoes, annoyed at yourself for having gotten into the situation and even more annoyed that someone actually saw you in the situation and then took pictures of you. But as with all things human, you forget about it. The irritations of one day disappear, covered up by the fresh disasters of the next day and the day after that. And then, one sunny day after the war, coming home from your favorite cafe and smoking your twentieth Gauloise of the day, you walk down a street in Paris and see an advertisement for a gallery show of the greatest photos of a man named Henri Cartier Bresson. Well, the name means nothing to you, but there on the wall poster is his most famous photograph…and for a moment you can’t remember why this looks so familiar. After all, it’s been years, more than a decade, in fact, and after the war and the Occupation and the war again and then the Liberation who can remember something that happened all those years ago? But then, in a flash, it comes to you—the photographer behind the train station, on that day when you peed into the puddle and then had to walk through the piss and the mucky water to get home. This is the man’s most famous photograph, and it is of you making an ass of yourself. All the good things you’ve done in your life amount to nothing; your name, the good reputation of your family, the care with which you raised your children and provided for them, all come to naught. You are the foil of a cosmic joke, a joke in which you are the comic and the straight man, the setup and the punch line combined. Your entire life has come down to this: you are the man in the picture, the man about to land in the puddle, trapped in mid-stupidity by one of the great photographers of the twentieth century. And photographers wonder why no one likes them.
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