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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