THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON
I walk from room to room through the Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan, headphones in my ears to block out the sounds of footsteps behind me, keeping out the awkward shuffling silences of many standing bodies, allowing me to remain unaware of the subtle social pressures one feels at a museum to stop, think a profound thought, and then move on.
Today I came here alone, so there’s no one to care how long I stand still, finally finding something worth pausing for: the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson. These are the kinds of pictures I go to when I am in one of those creative funks where even the cherry blossoms on the trees in Washington Square Park have become mundane; these are the kinds of images I rely on to jump-start my head, like electrically charged medical paddles I could use to shock my brain back into thought; these are the imagined moments that I cling to, documented for me by a man who lived some sixty years before I was even breathing, approximately seventy-seven years before I would know the kind of romantic boredom that makes the world look at once smaller and larger than it ever has before.
This photograph in particular now holds my attention, the black and white one of the woman, her edges blurred, her coat blowing back behind her like fairy wings, but much less flossy; they are not opaque fluttering beings, but thick, dark trench coat tails. There is an ocean in front of her, and she is walking down the sand towards it. The sky is grey and the ocean is a different color grey than the sky and the sand, which is a different color grey than her legs, and than her feet, clad in dark clogs, neither of them touching the ground. It strikes me, her shoulders slouched forwards in determination, or dejection—I am not sure which—that this is both an ending and a beginning. And I wonder if she is aware of this.
We were not aware of this when we were seventeen.Two friends and I had pulled out my father’s world atlas, its pages thick beneath our fingers like cardboard, making our throats weak with their dusty substance. We opened my windows and sat beneath them in a line, enjoying the heat that pressed on our shoulders and stuck in our lungs. Summer was ending soon. Our dirty feet made us feel real.
“Let’s make a list,” Lauren suggested, and removed a blank notebook from a stack of books on my carpeted floor, then picked up a pen that had slid under my dresser some three months before when I had gotten mad at my brother.
“Well, we’ll have to start going north, of course,” Keara began. I have grandparents upstate, so that made sense. Lauren scribbled Rochester, NY on the first college-ruled line.
“And then we should go to Maine,” continued Lauren. “We can stay with my grandpa for a few days! It will make my parents feel better to know that we’re with relatives at least for the beginning.” We made up spontaneous rules, agreed to save for the next two years so that by the time we graduated from high school, we could fund our cross-country journey with the spare change we had collected from jean pockets and seat cushions. It was the most romantic thing I could think of. It still is.
That night I fell asleep halfway through page five of Kerouac’s On the Road. I left the world atlas open on the floor, in the middle of everything; I had undressed in front of it, eyes tracing red and green highway lines as I stripped down to a sports bra and boxer shorts. I slept on top of my sheets under my open windows. The sweat had pooled in the crooks of my elbows and stuck the backs of my knees to my bed before I had closed my eyes. I lay as still as I could and went to sleep with an imagined film sequence flashing behind my eyelids, my own private movie composed of black and white photographs like Cartier-Bresson’s, the edges of my mind curling, eaten away by time and age, Lauren and Keara’s faces sepia-toned and smiling as we drove down Route 66.
In this photograph by Cartier-Bresson, taken in 1932 in Hyéres, France, it is hard to tell the difference between ocean and sky. The horizon line is blurred but I assume it is there, because I know it must be there—that horizon line always exists. I love that this woman is suspended, caught in that horizon line, that tiny, indecipherable space between land and sky. I have come to know this space well, slouching forwards with wings on my back and cement shoes on my feet. This woman is who I have wanted for so long to be, these photographs—of men playing guitars, pressed up against the hubcaps of shining Cadillacs; of five squat Europeans sitting on the bank of a river, pouring wine and picking at sausage links out of an open picnic basket—are everything we “discovered” and planned to plan on that afternoon in my bedroom.
But I have to get a job this summer, and my car might not make it there and back, and besides, I want to end up in San Jose, California, to work at my favorite summer camp, and then come home—I can’t cram all of this into two weeks just so I can have someone to come with me; plus I don’t have the money, and my parents might not say yes, but if I’m to do this right, I shouldn’t even ask them, and just leave one morning with a suitcase and a sleeping bag thrown in my trunk. And if I’m to do this right, maybe I shouldn’t ever come home at all, but become lost in the wild, disappear into the highways of the country I love and who will become my lover; yes, that’s the way to do this. I will fall asleep in a cornfield under purple swollen skies, with Montana earth rolling like a moving thing under my back.
Here, in this room of the museum, I have been staring at the woman on the beach of Hyéres, France for an hour now; I have been an invisible eddy in the stream of moving people, and I am still not sure if, once the frame snapped and the shutter closed and the light printed itself on Cartier-Bresson’s film, she kept moving towards the ocean.
fiction poetry "fact" photography