The Reflective Moment

Reading with great pleasure Teju Cole’s Open City, I’ve naturally found myself wanting more context, background information, insight into the writer and his process. I recall hearing an interview in which he mentioned the influence of Henri Cartier-Bresson on his writing, but can’t remember the interviewer.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris. 1953. 8th arrondissement. Courtyard on the rue la Boétie

Today, while trying to track down the source, I discovered Cole’s “Eight Letters to a Young Writer” and the following passage:

It’s worth learning how to move the ‘camera’ of your mind’s eye over a written scene, taking note of what a camera would see: the lighting, the small movements, the seemingly insignificant things. Then the decisive action happens and, gbosa, you cut out of it, and let it resonate in the reader’s mind. Don’t try to explain everything. Street photography, of the kind practised by Henri Cartier-Bresson, brought this idea of the decisive moment to a very high state of polish. From Cartier-Bresson, one can learn that elements such as background or setting, in combination with a key movement or instantaneous action, can be heartbreaking, can be breathtaking. All the elements click into place, and the finger clicks the shutter: you’ve captured something.

This, in turn, reminded me of a passage from John Berger’s essay “Past Seen from a Possible Future”:

From the walls of the long gallery, those who never had any reason to doubt their own significance look down in perpetual self-esteem, surrounded by gilded frames. I look down at the courtyard around which the galleries were built. In the centre, a fountain plays sluggishly: the water slowly but continuously overbrimming its bowl. There are weeping willows, benches and a few gesticulating statues. The courtyard is open to the public. In summer it is cooler than the city streets outside: in winter it is protected from the wind.

I have sat on a bench listening to the talk of those who come into the courtyard for a few minutes’ break — mostly old people or women with children. I have watched the children playing. I have paced around the courtyard, when nobody was there, thinking about my own life. I have sat there, blind to everything around me, reading a newspaper. As I look down on the courtyard before turning back to the portraits of the nineteenth-century local dignitaries, I notice that the gallery attendant is standing at the next tall window and that he too is gazing down on the animated figures below.

And then suddenly I have a vision of him and me, each alone and stiff in his window, being seen from below. I am seen quite clearly but not in detail for it is forty feet up to the window and the sun is in such a position that it half dazzles the eyes of the seer. I see myself as seen. I experience a moment of familiar panic. Then I turn back to the framed images.*

Sometimes what you capture is reflective — a play of images startlingly and disconcertingly bouncing back at you.

* From Selected Essays: John Berger, “Past Seen from a Possible Future”, edited by Geoff Dyer, New York: Vintage, 2001, 238-39.