I Know Doisneau
"Perhaps my life is nothing but an image of this kind; perhaps I am doomed to retrace my steps under the illusion that I am exploring, doomed to try and learn what I simply should recognize, learning a mere fraction of what I have forgotten."
• André Breton
Sorting through forgotten journals and papers, I discovered an old agenda with the theme: Robert Doisneau photos. I was familiar with many of the photos; had probably internalized and smuggled them as mental images across into France. Although they certainly intrigued, I never consciously used the photos of Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Lartique or Kertész as a guiding force, template, or road map. Nonetheless, they did help me sort out some essential, febrile, magical elements of Paris.
Something I barely addressed in my wander memoirs: Paris Scratch and NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor is the issue of influence. In brief, the 2 companion books feature 365 [written] snapshots noted while wandering through NYC and Paris. The idea: pen replaces camera, reality confronts preconception. In that time, the pen was probably as much an aesthetic choice as one of economics – writing was cheaper but also required a different optical orientation – less about composition, more about narrative. I would see a woman on the street and instantly invent her story. [The photo is, after all, NOT a static, frozen instant captured. It is instead a portal, the poster for the intimate movie projected on the screen inside one’s skull.] The written snapshots are corollaries to the photo snapshots; a necessary collaboration between story, image and memory.
A spooky realization occurred during this office cleaning-purge. As I flipped through the agenda, I noticed 3 Doisneau photos in particular – they seemed familiar as if he’d first read my snapshots and then went out to illustrate them with his photos. That’s probably just silly, distorted narcissism because, of course, it was more likely the reverse; he had taken them years, 40 or so, prior to my snapshots.
The photos seemed so familiar that I went through Paris Scratch and found, indeed, 3 snapshots that seemed to match the photos suspiciously well. Immediately familiar as if I had somehow failed to leave my Paris apartment une journée and simply, lazily described the photos as if I had experienced them on the streets. I assure you this is not what happened; they are not evidence of fake memories.
But how to explain it? Had the photos drawn me magnetically, like cursor on a computer screen or the plastic heart-shaped Ouija Board planchette engraved with the words “Mystic Hand” to locations where the citoyens of Paris reenacted the photos for me? Indeed, maybe the photos had served as the impetuous, adventurous soul who grabs me by the hand, draws me from my abode, to deliver me ideomotorically to not-quite chance encounters – the heart as GPS – in the under-traversed Paris backstreets of Breton’s Nadja, creating an instant of enchanting mystery to undermine everyday routines, persuading us beyond the limits of waking logic. As Breton noted in Nadja: “Le coeur humain, beau comme un sismographe.” The human heart is a built-in seismograph, measuring the movement of the earth under our feet – round midnight. Here I write down what reads much like descriptions of the 3 Doisneau photos.
The mystery is not unlike that of the Ouija Board: It’s not about connecting to a spirit world, but how we move, negotiate the mental map without realizing we’re moving in any discernible direction. The ideomotor response is a mental representation, a thought that brings about a seemingly reflexive reaction, beyond awareness.
I live deeply ensconced in art always. So when I photograph an artwork, for instance, that piece becomes mine; I am sometimes reflected in the image projected off the framed glass, allowing me to enter the work. But I have yet to learn how to back out graciously.
bart plantenga is the author of the novel Beer Mystic, the short story collection Wiggling Wishbone, the novella Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man & the wander memoirs: Paris Scratch and NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor. His books Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World & Yodel in HiFi plus the CD Rough Guide to Yodel have created the misunderstanding that he is one of the world’s foremost yodel experts. He recently finished the Amsterdam-Brooklyn novel Radio Activity Kills. He is also a DJ & has produced Wreck This Mess, in NYC, Paris & now Amsterdam since 1986. He lives in Amsterdam.
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