Sitting in the middle of our living room is a shrine dedicated to Henri Cartier-Bresson.
When this private place, made up of a framed poster, four large books by HCB and a candelabra of five ivory candles, was set up early this year, I didn’t know that the grandmaster of photography, and probably the last surviving master of his generation, was going to die this August.
The poster, measuring about 1m by 1.3 m, was brought back from Paris by hand. It was the commemorative poster from the HCB retrospective held at the Bibliotique national de France last summer. It features his famous picture of a man jumping over a puddle, shot outside the St Lazare station in Paris.
The picture occupies less than ten percent of the space on the poster. The design, quintessentially French, accords him the respect he had earned. The poster cost only ten euros and the cost of framing came up to 25 times its price. But there was no doubt in our minds that he deserved the treatment.
Twenty years ago, the same picture was used in the promotional materials for a touring exhibition of his work. Singapore was one of the five cities which hosted the show.
For a young man who had just fallen in love with photography, the show was an eye-opener, and in retrospect, a baptism.
That exhibition in the then-National Museum at Stamford Road had such an impact on me that to this day I can remember all the details surrounding the show.
When the show opened officially to the public on September 6, 1984, I was the first person to be admitted. The night before, there had been a gala opening in which only the rich and famous were invited. I thought that if I arrived early enough, there might be gifts left over from the previous night for a young admirer.
True enough, the sympathetic guard gave me a limited edition poster and two copies of the brochure. I got the poster framed and hung it at home.
Later, in a fit of madness, I used it as a background for a montage tracing my own life, decorating it with mementos such as the black cloth I picked up while participating in my first college protest, for the students killed in the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
To be ‘closer’ to my hero, I also shamelessly pasted some of my own ‘masterpieces’ onto that montage.
For years, that montage followed me to every apartment I moved into. For reasons I no longer remember, I threw it away at the end of the last century.
The exhibition organizers also held a photographic competition to celebrate the spirit of HCB’s works. Totally inspired by his work, I went out, shot pictures and entered my first competition.
My only entry, of an old woman, bound to her chair by ropes, was shot in Chinatown. I did not win anything but that did not stop me from pursuing my dream of becoming a professional photographer.
While serving my National Service as an operations NCO, I learned that one of the reservists in my unit was a newspaper journalist. I wanted to find out more about the journalism profession and had hoped that the journalist would put me in touch with the right people. To attract his attention, I dressed up my desk with photographs, giving prominence to the HCB image.
On the day the reservist arrived for his routine reporting, the proceedings were conducted over my impressive collage. Needless to say, he took notice.
Only one of the two smaller brochures has survived. I keep it in a box within another box. I don’t need to see it to be reminded of the great man or his work.
It was also from the 1984 exhibition that I first learned about the International Center of Photography in New York, which organized the touring show.
Young and fearless, I wrote to Cornell Capa, the founder of ICP, to thank him for the good work.
Miraculously, an ICP executive replied on his behalf and sent me a glossy annual report from the center.
‘If you are ever in New York, give us a call,’ the executive wrote, ‘We will be happy to show you around.’
Years later, while visiting the ICP for the first time, I spotted Cornell Capa giving a tour and my heart nearly stopped.
Summoning all the courage I had, I introduced myself and told him to wait while I dashed off to find something meaningful for him to autograph.
Unfortunately, there was nothing in the bookstore on Cornell Capa or on his brother, Robert Capa. In the end, he happily signed a brochure for an ongoing exhibition from the Toppan company collection.
When I went to Paris last summer, it was to see the HCB retrospective as well as the new building dedicated to him.
The Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation is a three-storey building tucked away in a quiet district in Paris. Within hours of arriving in Paris, I was at the foundation, totally immersed in a show of photographs by HCB’s favorite photographers, meticulously curated by the man himself.
Of course, I had secretly hoped that he would be there. But then, there was also this fear: what would I say to him? Should I just prostrate myself in front of him and say, ‘I am not worthy’?
I have never met HCB personally. Yet, I feel that I have. He has touched my life, and the lives of many people, in more ways than one. His work, and the work of the later generations of great seers that he has influenced, have made the world richer.
In some ways, never meeting him in person is perhaps better, for he will thus live forever beautifully in my heart.