How I met Henri Cartier-Bresson

jumping-man-eiffelIn 1989, I moved to Paris. I didn’t yet know the city, and in my imagination, it was the magical, mysterious black-and-white place portrayed by such great masters of photography as Brassai, Kertesz, and Cartier-Bresson.

I quickly needed a furnished apartment to rent for 6 months, but was discouraged to find only dreary flats crammed with other people’s paraphernalia. Desperately I scanned the ads in Le Figaro. “For rent, 202 Boulevard Saint-Germain…” I leaped into a taxi.

Across the courtyard and up a grand flight of stairs. Airy light-filled rooms, a new kitchen, and, hanging on freshly-painted white walls, a few Cartier-Bresson prints. Perfection.

“I’ll take it,” I said. My credentials were checked and the agent handed me the lease to sign. Pen in hand, I skimmed it, then gasped to read the owner’s name…Henri Cartier-Bresson.

My new landlord

A landlord is a landlord, even if he is arguably the world’s greatest living photographer. Cher Monsieur Cartier-Bresson, I wrote in my best school French. My children would appreciate it if you would install the television mentioned in the lease…”

images-1By return post, I received his letter, written by fountain pen in his clear script, in perfect English. Dear Madame Bluestone, he wrote, If it would please your children to have a device to catch the waves of light and sound, it shall be done. And it was.

One day, a friend, rushing to catch an early flight, locked me by mistake into the apartment. Peering 3 floors down to the courtyard, I decided it was too perilous to jump. I called CB’s wife, Martine Franck, who was an eminent Magnum photographer in her own right. She sighed deeply — ah, les americaines — and sent their housekeeper over  to liberate me.

The meeting

After six months, it was time to move. I had found a home of our own where we could live among our own possessions. A meeting was scheduled to hand over the keys . The doorbell rang. There stood the tall imposing Martine Franck. Next to her, a slight pale man, at 81 thirty years her senior. Henri Cartier-Bresson. Beneath his cap, a smiling face and warm lively eyes.

While Madame Franck checked the inventory, counting every spoon in the drawer and every hanger in the closet, I spoke for the first time in person with the man whose work had so shaped the way I saw the world. I am sorry to tell you I was so flustered that I can’t remember a word of what was said.

Paris through my own eyes

For the next 12 years, I saw Paris, in vivid color, through my own eyes: a tough, crowded nerve-jangling modern city, tense with bomb threats, wailing sirens, helmeted police, violent demonstrations. I learned to maneuver in heavy traffic, fight for my place in line at open-air markets, defend myself against pickpockets and burglars.

But now that I no longer live there, my Paris has slowly changed. In memory, it is has again become a magical, mysterious place. Like a photo by Cartier-Bresson.

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