La Sauvette

The New Yorker article I mentioned a while ago sent me on an interesting journey. Its subject, Steidl Verlag, a German publisher of quality art and photography books, is also the focus of a documentary film, “How to Make a Book With Steidl,” that I watched on Netflix. I learned, among other things, that we own a Steidl book, Robert Frank’s The Americans, a gift to me from Trisha a few years ago, probably at Christmas.

It’s a wonderful book to hold, with paper that feels good enough to eat and a sewn binding that lets it lie flat on any page.

I also learned about a Steidl edition of a book I’d heard of often, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment, a collection of photographs, an essay on composition and technique, a slip cover by Matisse.

I suspect that because of the New Yorker piece, Steidl books were on sale on several web sites. With our 27th wedding anniversary approaching, Trisha generously offered to make me a gift of the Cartier-Bresson. It arrived in time for our June 17th celebration and included a monograph on the interesting history of the book—and the especially interesting story of its title.

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The monograph, “A Bible for Photographers,” was written by Clément Chéroux, senior curator of photography at SFMOMA. It describes the principals involved in the book’s creation: Cartier-Bresson, working at the time (1951) for Magnum Photos, founded in 1947 by Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour; New York literary agent Armitage Watkins; New York publisher Richard L. Simon (Carly Simon’s father); and Marguerite Lang. Cartier-Bresson wrote a draft of the book’s text with Lang, a colleague of Tériade, the nom de plume of Stratis Eleftheriades, an influential art critic, patron, and publisher of the quarterly journal Verve. The book’s working French title was Images à la Sauvette.

That got my attention, because “the decisive moment” is a phrase anyone who begins seriously taking photographs learns and remembers. Chéroux writes that Cartier-Bresson made a list of 45 tentative titles, with recurring notions of “instant,” “time,” “vivacity,” “moment,” and “eye.”

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The first title on the list was “Á pas de loup” (step of a wolf), which my 1962 Cassell’s New French-English Dictionary defines as “to walk stealthily, like a thief.” According to Chéroux, that title “expressed the way in which Cartier-Bresson approached those whom he photographed, as stated in a sentence from the preface: ‘The subject must be approached tiptoeing.'”

Cartier-Bresson’s second choice on the list was Images à la Sauvette.  My beloved Paris correspondent Alison answered my call for help with this from her Larousse: “Il vend des bricoles, à la sauvette,” which she translated as “He sells trinkets on the fly.” According to the web site of the French Centre National de Resources Textuelle et Lexicales, the term originated in 1867 to mean “child’s play which consists in escaping and not being caught,” and came to describe unlicensed street vendors selling goods on the fly or on the run.

Chéroux writes that Cartier-Bresson couldn’t find a suitable English translation for the French title. An alternative came from a quotation from Jean-François Paul de Gondi, a 17th century Cardinal of Retz, a region of Brittany: “There is nothing in the world that does not bear a decisive moment,” de Gondi wrote, referring to diplomatic situations opportune for decision or action.

Cartier-Bresson, according Chéroux, told an interviewer that “decisive moment” was suggested to him by Tériade, the critic and publisher. Simon, the book’s American publisher, approved the title. Chéroux writes: “It was in the United States, where Cartier-Bresson enjoyed an earlier and broader reception of his work, that the term first became popular before it was translated into French—yet not in its original form as ‘decisive moment,’ but as ‘decisive instant.’ When asked about this, Cartier-Bresson replied: ‘I had nothing to do with it!’ ‘It was not me. I was not involved.’ Inspired by his French publisher, imposed by his American publisher, this expression did not belong to Cartier-Bresson, but it nonetheless constitutes a lasting contribution to the reception of his work.”

From now on, when I get out a camera I will think of myself less as an artist on the lookout for a decisive moment and more as a wolf on tiptoe among the chickens.

 

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More Lou Carr…

I couldn’t sleep one night a while ago and went to my study and looked for something to read. I took down Jack Kerouac‘s Vanity of Duluoz, which I inherited from my father, Ted Oster. Inside I found a piece of note paper from a kind of pad Ted bought in bulk and carried in his pockets all the time, everywhere. Ted had written: “Jerry: read,” and page numbers from the book.

1Duluoz, published in 1967 and subtitled “An Adventurous Education, 1935-46,” is a slightly fictional account of Kerouac’s life as a football player at Horace Mann prep school and at Columbia. It also, according to the flap copy, “examines…his discharge from the navy because of schizophrenia, his search for excitement in New York, imprisonment among killers, his father’s slow death…”

And it’s an account of Kerouac’s friendship with Lou Carr. On p. 200, Kerouac wrote: “There was this kid from New Orleans called Claude de Maubris…blond, eighteen, of fantastic male beauty like a blond Tyrone Power with slanted green eyes and the same look, voice, words and built, I mean by words he expressed his words with the same forcefulness, a little more like Alan Ladd actually, actually like Oscar Wilde’s male model heroes I s’pose….”

Ted amended the first sentence (he wrote only in mechanical pencils, whose leads—and erasers—he also bought in bulk), writing “St. Louis” above New Orleans and “Lucien Carr” above Claude de Maubris.

Kerouac’s conclusion about the stabbing death was this:

…Claude was a 19-year-old boy who had been subject to an attempt at degrading by an older man who was a pederast, and…had dispatched him off to an older lover called the river…

That was why he was really a “child of the rainbow,” even at fourteen he could see through that guff, and the particular was it was laid down in this case, which was amounting to pursuit almost to the point of strong-arm threat, or extortion.

A man has a right to his own sexual life.

Demeaned by exhibitionism, ragged, hagged, witched-at, not left in peace of his own soul, right in the face of mankind’s pleasaunces he just dumped the malicious child-mongerer in the bloody drink and brook me that. Brool me that. (And duel me not that.)

Ted also noted that the novel’s “Hubbard” was based on William Burroughs and “Garden” on Alan Ginsberg.

He also wrote: “Please return (I paid the full price)” Ted was fabulously frugal. I won’t say stingy because I never experienced him as ungenerous. Duluoz in 1967 cost $4.95. The copy in the photograph here was used. Some writing on the inside front cover is worn away or was erased, so there’s no way to know what “the full price” was. But if Ted paid it, as his request indicates, it was unusual.

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One more thing about my Florida trip…

In a used bookstore in St. Augustine, I found a copy of Thomas Merton’s The Sign of Jonas. As I’ve written,  it was on my first visit to Mepkin in 2014 that I first read Merton’s The Seven-Storey Mountain. Jonas is a journal of Merton’s second five years at Gethsemani, the Kentucky monastery where he lived for 19 years. I’ve been reading the book as it was written—now and then. Here are some entries from 1949 that are relevant:

  • May 5: Father Prior wondered whether to subscribe to [a Spanish Cistercian magazine] for the new monastery in South Carolina of which he will be the superior.
  • August 22: Father Macarius and three others all started out for South Carolina during the Night Office yesterday morning…and today they will say Mass…at the Mepkin Plantation which is to be the new monastery of the Immaculate Heart. The deeds were signed and the affair was made public (with many errors) in the newspapers and we expect the foundation to be made…on November 1st.
  • November 19: The colony left for South Carolina Monday morning. It was very quiet, at about half past three. During the morning meditation we could see the non-priests going to Communion at Saint Joseph’s altar. Twenty-nine left in all.

On my first visit to Mepkin, I took a guided tour. I think I remember the docent saying that Henry and Clare Boothe Luce, on whose estate the abbey stands, donated the land to the Catholic Church following the death in a car crash of Clare’s 19-year old daughter by a first marriage. According to Wikipedia, the accident was in 1944, five years before the foundation (the technical term for a new religious community) of Mepkin—not necessarily a contradiction, but worth further research. Maybe next time I’m in South Carolina.

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That said…

It’s a new day today. The earlier post, despite its 25 May date, was written on 24 May. Later on 24 May, I wrote, on my MacBook Pro, the following:

“Have you always been here?”

The doorman or guard or lobby cop or whatever we call the people who keep us from just walking into office buildings nowadays lifted his head to look at her. He smiled. The young whatever we call him, the smile a vote of confidence in his ability to turn this into something more than whatever it was at this point. “Started at seven. Well, quarter after. The Hell Train.” He was so happy she was there, warmed by the explosion of red waves around her pale face.

“I meant, the paper? Times Square. I thought….”

Another doorman or whatever leaned in. He was older. He was her age. Or close enough. They could be one of those handsome couples from the pages of AARP or Modern Maturity. Or from a Cialis ad. No, no–not Cialis. Viking River Cruises. He told her everything she wanted to know and way more: 1851, New hyphen York, Park Row, Boss Tweed, written in longhand, Times Tower, New Year’s Eve ball, Titanic scoop, 229 West 43rd, yada yada.

And then, on another page:

Some pictures need a thousand words—or several, anyway—to explain what’s going on. That the man with the smirk dismembered his wife, or won a Nobel Prize. That the luxury apartment building is the world’s tallest, or is six degrees off plumb.

One of those could be the opening of “Rope,” my working title. A “rope,” spelled ROP, is newspaper lingo for “run  of paper.” A ROP photograph isn’t linked to a particular story; it’s placed wherever the news editor needs something—as an editor I worked with at the New York Daily News used to say—”to keep the ads from falling out.”

The redheaded woman has come to the paper because of a ROP photograph published that morning of a Manhattan street scene: a food cart with customers alongside, a bicycle messenger, the blur of taxi, two men with interestingly similar combed-back hair, dressed interestingly alike in suits and ties and long coats that in another era were called top coats, standing interestingly alike against an office building, each with his left leg straight and braced, right leg bent at the knee, right foot propped against the building wall, each holding a mobile phone in both hands, reading or texting.

The redheaded woman wants to talk to the photographer who made the picture. When she eventually manages to get past security, the photographer, a woman, says her assignment was to take a picture that made a point about the first clement day after a string of cold, rainy days. Other than where she made the picture, she can’t say anything about anyone in it, certainly not about the individual the redhead is interested it—a tall thin young man among the customers at the food cart: backpack, puffy down coat, knit wool beanie failing to contain a mop of curls. Red curls.

“What’s he to you?” the photographer says.

“Oh nothing. He’s just my son.”

“Your son?”

“Look at his hair. Look at mine.”


The point of all this is that while I’m relying on my existing notebook, I guess my mistake has begun.

 

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Joseph Beuys

A New Yorker article about the German photography book publisher Gerhard Steidl quoted the artist Joseph Beuys: “The mistake has already begun when someone seeks to buy a stretcher and canvas.”

I know almost nothing about Beuys, who according to an online biography, “is especially famous for works incorporating animal fat and felt, two common materials—one organic, the other fabricated, or industrial—that had profound personal meaning to the artist. They were also recurring motifs in works suggesting that art, common materials, and one’s ‘everyday life’ were ultimately inseparable.”

I’m tempted to say “Whatever.” But I like the stretcher-canvas comment. For some time now, I’ve had an idea for a novel. I’ve made a few notes in my current all-purpose notebook, under the section called on the handy contents page “Draw/Write /Make (photos).” (See, in the left margin, the notes beginning “write.”)

moleskine

The Beuysian mistake would/will be to get a new notebook dedicated to the project.

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Na Mionna

The months of the year in Irish:

  • Eanáir (an er) – January, is a borrowing from Latin, as are janvier (French), enero (Spanish), januar (German).
  • Feabhra (fow ruh) – February, is analogous with fevrierfebrero, februar (I know German isn’t a romance language; it’s a language I know a little).
  • Márta (more tuh) – March, from Mars, the god not only of war but of agriculture, hence its association with spring. Marsmarzomärz.
  • Aibreáin (eye bron) – April, perhaps from the Greek Aphrodite (Venus), goddess (among other things) of cultivated fields and gardens. Avrilabrilapril.

(Here’s where things get Gaelic)

  • Bealtaine (bell tuh nuh) – May,  from Beltane, the Celtic midyear festival, from the god Bel or Belenus + tene, fire, meaning Bright One.
  • Meitheamh (meh hev) – June, from Old Irish for mid-summer.
  • Iúil (ool) – July, back to Latin: juilletjuliojuli.
  • Lúnasa (loon uh suh) – August, from Lugh, the god of skill, crafts and the arts, oaths, truth and the law.
  • Meán Fómhair (mion–said quickly, like a cat’s meow–fohver) – September. Fómhair means autumn, so this means mid-autumn.
  • Deireadh Fómhair (dare uh fohver) – October. Deireadh means end or conclusion, so this means end of autumn.
  • Samhain (sown) – November, from Samhain, the Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. Oiche Shamhna (eek uh how nuh), Samhain Night, is Halloween.
  • Nollag (null ig) – December, from nollaig, Christmas. From the Latin natus, birth.
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News from Ireland

If you read that Ireland’s prime minister plans to resign, you’ll want to know:

Fine Gael (feen uh gayle) = Irish Family
Fianna Fáil (fee ahn uh foyle) = the Fianna were mythological bands of warriors, led by Fionn Mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool), a cross between Paul Bunyan, Achilles, and Robin Hood.
Fáil means field or hedge and by metonomy or synecdoche, I can never remember which is which, is a synonym for the land of Ireland.
Taoiseach, tay shuck, means “leader.”
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