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Touchstones

vendredi, 15 mai 2020   (2 Comments)
Posted by: Marton Radkai
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In October 2019, I received an email from a dear friend in Boston, Massachusetts, the last person I had seen in the USA before flying back to Munich following my mother's funeral in 2003. While cleaning out her attic, she had found a box I had once left with her. It was filled with letters, some from my time as a classical music announcer at WFCR, in Amherst, MA, recordings of my shows, program guides, and two documentaries my father made in the '60s. In short, ephemera. It took a while to arrange for shipment, but it finally reached Leila Smith (La Chât ’79) in France , and I went to pick it up on a rainy February night.

Back in Geneva, I opened the box ceremoniously and found it contained a surprise my friend in Boston had not mentioned: a wad of black-and-white contact sheets and tear sheets, visual documents from my years at La Châtaigneraie. It was unexpected and deeply moving. Each photo, some creased or showing signs of wear, led back to a moment in life when I, and we (that is the collective of the girls and boys at "La Chât,") were transitioning with some trepidation into adulthood. I carefully put them away, not quite knowing what to do with them. And then came the coronavirus, confinement, and a windfall of time, that elusive dimension in our frenetic world.  I started scanning them.


Settling in at La Chât

I arrived at the Châtaigneraie in September 1974, quite happy to do so for many personal reasons. The school had given me the smallest room in the upstairs hallway, facing the football field (it has now become a line of carrels). I refused an offer for a bigger room: having just two neighbors suited me fine. My opinionated and occasionally brash outer self hid a deep-seated shyness. I liked reading alone, I liked classical music a lot. I soon found my life-giving resources, like the window onto nature I had always craved as a city boy, the piano downstairs, and later the guitar, which I taught myself to play. I made friends, some of whom I am still in touch with today. 

I didn't have a camera at first.  It was only in my second year that my mother, a professional photographer, gave me her old Rolleiflex. She could no longer use it because of her myopia, and 35-millimeter was all the rage. The images I took at La Châtaigneraie would become my first attempts at photography in the shadow of my photographing parents.  Indeed, by the time I received it, it had already taken in the likes of Monica Vitti, Lucchino Visconti, Maria Callas, Anna Magnani, Jane Fonda– on whose lap I once sat, when I was 3 years old (alas!) – and Olivia Hussey. The square format (6x6 cm) and the 80 mm lens were ideal for portraits.

The magic of photography

Photography somehow needs to tell a bigger story than just what is. We lived and studied fairly close to each other, and with the familiarity came a certain comfort in the face of the searching lens. Looking at these pictures, I recognize my school companions' personas more than just their features. Affi is infectious, and Mylène, caught unawares, is still her generous and composed self. Diana is determined, in contrast to sanguine Leila, who was just entering adolescence. Another clash of characters: Christopher Pestalozzi in a jacket, lips slightly mocking, not taking life that seriously, and Debbie Randall beyond, a beautiful, restrained Madonna hiding a streak of melancholy…. or was it fire?

I discovered the advantage of windows as a source of light and as a metaphor: Anne Mazoyer, intense; Nina, relaxed, Heidi and Corinna staring at a world outside and beyond the limits of the lens.

The Rolleiflex produced twelve pictures per roll, so each sheet ended up being devoted to single events. One shows us "internes," the boarders, absorbing the humble early spring sun in front of the ramshackle foyer. I can almost hear their voices, Heidi and Lucy sharing confidences in Spanish while smoking (yes, many did), Pierre Jourdan holding forth, with a cigarette, while Anne tries to look interested, and Yogi bearishly holds Robin in his left arm. 

I had forgotten the outing to the Roman amphitheater in Avenches with Michel Hugon. The weather was cold and damp in the Gros de Vaud, winter had obviously consumed the leaves off the trees. Michel Hugon, who passed away not long ago, stands like something out of a nouvelle vague film. One of my favorite images is Sylvia, her expressive eyes tinged with worry, and Samy Abravanel in back of her looking down. Pierre Metz, casual, cool, a businessman in the making (we once wrote an article about pollution in the lake and sent it, boldly, to a newspaper, the Républicain Lorrain, where it died a premature death), Pierre Jourdan again in a kind of regal pose.


Sylvia Scarpa, intense... Mr MacKay, Mrs Breslin    Pierre Jourdan, l'était c'est moi... Heidi Schmiedlin


Another sheet shows some all-hands meeting on the football field. Such reunions are an ideal moment to capture people. Mr. Lee leads the  charge with a megaphone, Mr Czajkowski looks concerned, Mr McKay looks less concerned, Mrs Breslin looks sportive… And in the shadow of the trees at the roadside edge is Heidi having a cigarette, the wheels of her mind churning. On a second picture taken just after the camera beckoned, she's smiling, a mercurial change. 

The images tap into emotions and sensations, all those feeling we generated to color our world and that were our constant companions. They open doors to other images that were not captured in silver nitrate, the moments of joy and fun, the disappointments, the painful humiliations, the secret crushes we may have harbored and were too shy to ever express, or the sheer elation at the certainty of having met a kindred spirit, a friend for life, no matter what the connection may have become. Do not confuse this with nostalgia. There is an authentic part of us all that never changes and being in touch with it is a way to survive the crises life will inevitably throw at us. Sometimes, miraculously, the camera can capture that part. 

Take Joanne Nathan, slightly aloof, as opposed to her brother Bob, who is caught reading a magazine in the van on the way to England. She and I would improvise rock 'n' roll acrobatics at parties. She was small and light next to my long and boney self.

The image of Robert Monnin and Susanne Preisser, slightly out of focus, from behind, as if there were no ground under their feet, exactly like their relationship. It is filled with the tension my eyes did not see back then, but the lens, the scalpel lens, picked it up. She wanting him in her mysterious world, and him holding her to the ground, like a human anchor, sometimes desperately. Steadfast, rational, Robert, whom I met a few years later in New York, a meeting that shifted my life a bit.  

The other couple caught on camera is Samy and Anne. There was some passion there, it would seem. Samy, the romantic, is possessive, and Anne, always perfectly presentable, yet keeping some secrets behind the façade, biding her time, accepts the embrace, but not entirely. In her long one-piece dress and clogs, she looks like an actress playing a farm girl.

 

 

Memorable Teachers

Our lives at the Châtaigneraie would have been different, less rich, without the outstanding adults who accompanied us. None of us boarders can forget the gentle, tolerant and non-judgmental hands of Michel Hugon and Sabine Schofield. We did silly things, but because they gave us leeway, we respected the rules, generally. Today, as I slip into teaching, I find I can emulate those teachers and supervisors and my kids react just as well as we did. 

The Rolleiflex's trigger is very quiet, so I occasionally brought it to class and snapped pictures, clearing my throat to cover the tiny clicking sound. It's how I caught Patrick "Pàdraig" Czajkowski in action. He, who embodied the notion of WYSIWYG. He wore hiking boots, jeans, an anorak, almost always sat on his desk. He, whose favorite expression was "in a nutshell" and who naturally taught us to write as concisely as possible. One page and not more on the Dreyfus Affair.  One page on the Panama scandal.  He gave lectures on "The city as an industrial tool." We heard about Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes and Marshall McLuhan's messages and mediums. I became an avid Mencken reader thanks to him. He spoke about teleworking. He listened to our inchoate thinking and steered us to greater mental gymnastics. I was in touch with CZ as he was affectionately known, until his death in 1999 (I believe).

 


Mr. Peiris, maths and physics, was not always the easiest person to deal with. He could be cutting. I was not his best student, nor were many, but in the meantime I have recognized that people in the science field are sometimes intolerant of those of us for whom understanding the world is a fuzzy process, unresolvable at best, completely confusing at worst. The camera caught him teaching. Just before he noticed me shooting. 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Farrow was a genuine ecologist, a man who reminded us in word and deed that the "biology" means the study of living organisms. He organized a meeting of biologists at the school, a Saturday lunch, with all the tables in the refectory arranged as an "E." Another time he recruited a handful of us to save the lives of mice that were about to be gassed at the CERN. We dropped them off in nature, let them fend for themselves. This did shift the local mouse ecosystem a bit…

 

 

 

 

 

I left La Châtaigneraie in early July 1976 after my IB, cycling to Paris with Chris Pestalozzi, carrying my heavy Rolleiflex and a cargo of film to be developed. No one asked me for images for the yearbook. I had hidden a bit behind the camera well enough to avoid too much exposure. I wanted to blow up some of the images, because people are, after all, our most trusty companions and teachers. But the road to forgetfulness is paved with good intentions. Like so many youths, all youths perhaps, I was swallowed up by a whole different life than I had imagined. 

But the truth will out, as they say. More pictures from that era will emerge. I just have to find them in my boxes. And it seems as if others have started sorting through their archives. The past is the present, let's see what it holds in store. 


(One of my favorite pictures for its rather obvious metaphor: Asteens, we are really looking at the world around us as in a mirror, and occasionally creating a mask for protection. This is Diana, making up as Che Guevara in John Ford's Cuban Missile Crisis)

 

 

Comments...

Antoine Tissot says...
Posted samedi, 13 juin 2020
Hi Marton, Magnifique article sur une partie de vie que nous avons partagé!! Même si je passe assez souvent devant la Chât, tes photos m'ont fait revivre des souvenirs de ces années joyeuses et inoubliables... J'espère pouvoir te relire bientôt, avec d'autres superbes photos!! Amicales salutations Antoine Tissot
Antoine Tissot says...
Posted samedi, 13 juin 2020
Hi Marton, Magnifique article sur une partie de vie que nous avons partagé!! Même si je passe assez souvent devant la Chât, tes photos m'ont fait revivre des souvenirs de ces années joyeuses et inoubliables... J'espère pouvoir te relire bientôt, avec d'autres superbes photos!! Amicales salutations Antoine Tissot

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