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.

Zoe Leonard

Zoe Leonard, Analogue (Ludlow St., New York City, 1999)

Zoe Leonard, Analogue (Ludlow St., New York City, 1999)

Sometime in the late 1990s, Zoe Leonard began taking photographs of the neighborhood around her studio in New York City’s Lower East Side. Her first impulse, as she recalls, was purely personal — just making notes for herself, an aide-mémoire, so that she could more easily remember, to hold on just a bit to what she was accustomed to seeing around her every day. But the scene was rapidly changing — socially, politically, economically, and in relation to her own perspective, emotionally.  [Video interview, Documenta 12.]

So she began shooting what she saw, maybe not thinking so much about the quality, composition, how the images might look to others. I imagine these early photographs (which she’s mentioned but have not, as far as I know, been shown) capture the feel of the busy downtown street life. Pedestrians outside My Lucky Coffee Shop on Delancey Street. The cars and taxis honking at the intersection of Broadway and Grand, jockeying for position as they hustle their fares down to Wall Street, City Hall, over the Brooklyn Bridge, or through the Holland Tunnel.

Did she see the tailor setting up a display in the window of his shop at 94 Rivington?

Were sales picking up on the “drastically reduced” jackets and suits in the store on the corner at Ludlow, across from the sportswear shop?

Had the Joy Boutique, wholesale and retail company at 152 Orchard Street, with its metal rolling door down, already gone out of business, while the next occupants cut a deal over the terms of the lease for their new nightclub?

And was it a particularly cold morning the day she came across a used Rolleiflex camera in the second hand store?

How soon after she bought the camera did it occur to Zoe Leonard that her casual note-taking was becoming a much larger project? That her fortuitous acquisition would be the means for systematically collecting images of a time and place where local and global commerce are intertwined, for better or worse? Where improvised makeshift store fronts and window displays, unfashionable clothing, and outdated appliances were becoming the remnants of a displaced way of life?


Analogue, the archive of photographs that Zoe Leonard created between 1998 and 2007, contains approximately 400 images culled from the 15,000 or so photographs that she took in various locations in the U.S. and abroad. The archive provided the raw material for Leonard’s installations at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University (2007), Documenta 12 in Kassel  (2007), and at the Hispanic Society of America in Washington Heights and Dia-Beacon (2008-09). A smaller group of photos were selected by the artist for a book, Analogue, produced in conjunction with the Wexner exhibition, which also includes “Continuous Signal” — quotations and excerpts from other artists and writers, compiled by Leonard, evoking the multiple interests at play in the Analogue project.

The images in Analogue trace a line from neighborhood storefronts in the city—the Lower East Side, Harlem, Crown Heights, Williamsburg, Greenpoint—to unspecified local warehouses where used clothing is sorted and bundled for export, much of it destined for Africa.

Some inference is required to tease out the implied narrative. We don’t see inside the bound bundles on the sidewalk or the workers in the warehouses where the sorting and bundling are done. What we do see, I suspect, is “what was there”, what Zoe Leonard saw as she wandered the streets of New York with her trusty Rolleiflex in hand. There is no indication that she took photographs inside those warehouses, or talked with the workers, managers, and owners involved in the used clothing trade. But the message is clear enough: “This is what I saw” becomes “This is what I found.” The evidence, the trail, is there, seen through the lens of the street photographer, laid out for us, the spectators.



Two articles on Analogue and Zoe Leonard’s work, one by Tom McDonough and another by Sophie Berrebi, are in the Autumn 2010 issue of Afterall.