The Third Man

I returned to Brassaï’s photo of the Pont des Arts. Though the fog seemed to have grown thicker. I could still make out its four floodlights, each of which is reflected in the Seine to make a total of eight. I thought of flash photography, which had been invented just a few years prior to this photo, and realized at once that Brassaï was revealing a good deal more than it had first seemed. Was it not just possible that Brassaï was sending his co-conspirators a message through time itself? I could see no reason why not, and so I concluded that the operation had been eight photographs large. Of course, this all seems blindingly obvious now. But you must understand that at the time I had no sense of the scale of what I was dealing with. At worst, I’d thought it had been something between Hungarians – that the unseen subject would turn out to be a compatriot who’d once antagonized the pair. But now that I knew there were another five photographs to inspect, I recognized that this was likely to be an altogether more international affair.

I returned my gaze in search of further direction. Reflected in the Seine, the bridge appears blurred – like a memory, or an older photograph. I decided to plunge deeper into the tradition of street photography and was shocked by what I came up grasping. I’m afraid the time has come to summon the Elder, Mr. Eugène Atget.

Born in 1857, Atget was one of the first photographers to take his camera out into the streets and make a record of urban landscape. Our visual understanding of pre-Haussmann Paris would be significantly depleted without the 10,000 or so photographs Atget took of it. His camera called a halt to a quickly receding past. Thanks to Atget, we can inhabit – as much as a photograph may be inhabited – a Paris long since passed. I have had dreams situated in the photographs of Atget. They live inside me and, very often, I live inside them. I understand that this may seem a touch mawkish, but I mention it only to give you some sense of how reluctant I was to involve Atget in all this – all this … all this I-don’t-know-what-exactly. For months, I refused to inspect his catalog. Against my better judgment, I’d somehow convinced myself that there was no way he could be involved, until one evening last April, a somnolent mixture of memory and desire planted this image before my mind’s eye.

I suppose you’re wondering what exactly this has to do with those mysterious shots taken of the Pont des Arts. And it’s true: the bridge in the distance is not our bridge. But it is our river and, much as it pains me to say it, this is the seminal photograph of the entire project. Taken from the Pont des Arts, it appears to use its vantage to survey the field for those opportune spots where photographers might lurk with the utmost discretion. Regard the Île de la Cité in the middle distance: are we not looking at the very spot from which Brassaï took his photo? Can Brassaï’s shot not then be considered a response to it? And the linden trees off to the right – well, as chance would have it, I had come across those trees before.

Pont Blank

This is the story of how I came to be profoundly disillusioned with the modernist photographic tradition. Through careful study of their work, it came to my attention that Eugène Atget, André Kertész, Brassaï, Robert Doisneau, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, men whom I had once taken for heroes, were involved in the systematic corruption of the tradition they had helped found.