A Large Coat With An Old Man Inside
Two weeks had passed between the day she had asked him and the day they had arranged for the session at 44 rue du Bac. She spent most of those two weeks wondering whether he would turn up. He was a serious person, reliable, she was sure of that. But why would he bother to help her? She looked up to him: he has achieved what for her, at that stage, was a distant dream. She was nobody, a crazy American kid, as one of her Parisian contemporaries remembered years later. She had travelled to France to find herself. She told everyone she wanted to be a sculptor but had drifted into photography. It would be only later, much later, that she would find out that he, too, had drifted from one profession to another, searching for himself: a sailor, an actor, a painter. She had followed the advice of Djuna Barnes and changed her name. Bernice morphed into Bérénice, like the heroine of the French classical drama, but that hardly helped her find out who she was.
As soon as she had rented a studio, she thought of him but it took her a whole year of visits before she dared formulate her request. One day in July, they were standing in his salon, a small room, neatly arranged with bookshelves carrying volumes of plays by Racine and Molière, novels by Victor Hugo and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. The man was a reader; that was the first thought she had each time he led her into the room. He placed an album on the desk in front of them and was turning the pages, showing her his photographs. That is what they did during every visit. She would choose three or four, maybe five, whatever she could afford. You must ask him, she told herself. But she couldn’t. It wasn’t the right time as his work absorbed her mind. But that afternoon in July the nagging voice that fractured her concentration was louder than before: Ask him. Now. But she didn’t. She selected the prints and paid for them.
They walked out of the salon into the small dark hall and she thought that, just as in all the previous times, she had failed to choose the right moment. But perhaps that was better than speaking too early and forfeiting the opportunity. If that happened, there would be no turning back, no second chance. She could tell he was a principled man. He had strong views and, dare she say it, he was stubborn, his own man, not a person open to persuasion. She paused by the front door. She turned towards him.
‘I have started taking portraits. I have a studio now,’ she said awkwardly, searching his face for a reaction. This was the first time she has told him anything about herself. Throughout the year of her visits to his home to buy his photographs, he has never asked about her work. She had introduced herself as an assistant to Man Ray, whom he had met, but that was then. Now she was a photographer in her own right. A portrait photographer. Most of her clients were people she knew, artists and writers, patrons, Americans. She was at ease with them and that was good as she could talk to them, sometimes for hours, before they assumed a pose, before they fell into it. That was her way. She didn’t want to arrange the subject herself. Nor did she have to ask them to pose for her. They asked her. They paid her.
Each time one of them sat in front of her camera, she wondered what it would be like to have him there. Her subject. Her principal subject. He didn’t strike her as someone who would indulge in conversation, opening himself up. Monsieur Atget is a man who maintains a distance. How could she take his portrait, then? Would he, with all his experience, insist on a pose, on the background, the angle of the camera, the lighting? She would welcome his advice. She would listen and act accordingly.
His head sags into his shoulders and he coughs. He is an old man, looking considerably older than the last time she saw him, only a couple of weeks ago. He may be ill. She thinks how the fragility of his frame belies the strength of his character. But the mind can’t keep going without the body.
He says nothing in response to the information she has provided about her. Perhaps he is waiting to hear why she has said it. She reminds herself that a no is a no. She wouldn’t consider trying to change his mind.
‘I would like to take your portrait,’ she says. Voilà. A sense of relief on her part. She has said it. It is done.
She is looking at him but he is not looking at her. His eyes are on her but he doesn’t see her. He seems to be elsewhere. Has she overstepped the mark and upset him? She waits but he is still in another place.
She tries to save what may be unsavable and apologises. She knows she shouldn’t have presumed but she doesn’t say that. Nor does she say she knows he is busy, too busy to sit for her. For that would be a cliché, a meaningless excuse. He doesn’t deal in clichés. When a person like him recognises the importance of an action, they find the time. She says it is fine, she understands. She is sorry, she repeats, to have asked.
He is back. He sees her now.
‘Yes,’ he says. His tone is definitive. And he repeats the word. ‘Yes. I would like you to take my portrait.’
Now she is incredulous. Really?
But he says something she doesn’t understand. Something about not making her wait. Something about him waiting for many years. Something about a woman, a woman with many identities, making him wait. No, he will not make her wait, the young portrait photographer, he repeats. He does not want her to experience the pain he has experienced searching for the face he dreamed of sitting in front of his camera.
His words make no sense but he is speaking to himself rather than to her and she doesn’t ask for an explanation.
She opens the door and cannot quite believe her eyes. He is here, about to enter her studio. She half-expected him not to come. She feared she might have put him on the spot and he had agreed but, on reflection, he had thought better of it. Why let some young American woman take a portrait of him? And why would anyone need his portrait? He doesn’t. If he did, he could have done it himself.
Now she realises that she was wrong to think like that. He has not changed his mind. Besides, she reminds herself, he is unlikely to be a man who changes his mind. Or a man who can be put on the spot by anyone, let alone by a naive young photographer.
And she has another surprise.
She recalls the first time she climbed up the stairs at 11bis rue Campagne-Première. The light on the landing was poor and when he opened the door, he appeared puzzled. She gave her first name and he asked her whether she was sure. She suppressed a smile. He let her into the hall and she observed him, aware that he was studying her too, his photographic eye taking in every detail of her presence. She repeated her name. She spoke slowly, fearing that he might think she was patronising him, seeing him as an old man whose mind had gone. Yes, he was aged, hunched, dressed in patched-up clothes, shuffling around in his slippers but she could tell his mind was alert. They stood facing each other and he recited a speech from Racine’s Bérénice. She couldn’t follow every word but she recognised the play, the only play she had read in French. ‘You have to,’ Djuna had said. ‘Now that you carry the name of the heroine.’
She took his little performance as a welcome. She was aware others might consider him strange but she wasn’t like others.
And those tatty clothes made an impression on her. When she thought of the pictures she would take, she visualised him in those. They were character clothes, part of who he is. A man whose mind is on other things. A man who knows what is important. She imagined the different cloth textures of the patches creating patterns of light when photographed.
But today he is wearing a large coat. It looks hardly worn. It’s a handsome coat and she tells him so. He nods.
A brief thought flashes through her mind. He has dressed up for today. He has dressed up for a special occasion and she feels flattered.
Buoyed, she has an idea. She asks if he would keep the coat on. Such a handsome coat. He doesn’t comment and she can see that he wants her to know that she is in charge. She is the photographer. It is up to her how she wants to take the picture. Today he is an object to be manipulated by her. She is the one to make the decisions. It’s her photograph, not his; he is no more than a shape to absorb or reflect the light. He is silent but she feels his thoughts.
He sits on a stool, knees apart, hands resting on the upper part of his legs. He looks out at the camera. His air is serious, confident, with a touch of concern on his face. But only a touch. She is sure that he sees what she sees as she looks through the lens. She clicks and clicks. He remains dead still and she knows it is because he is used to his old-fashioned camera that requires the subject not to move. Otherwise, the picture would be blurred.
When she finishes, she thanks him, thanks him profusely, but then wonders whether her gratitude might irritate him. For although he is unfailingly polite, he likes to keep to the matter in hand. Always to the point. A man of few words. Formal and reserved, that’s how she has known him on all the visits to his home.
And again, he surprises her. He suggests she might wish to take a profile picture and she is delighted but even before she can show how delighted, without further ado he turns sideways and waits. He is ready.
He is stooped and his slight body disappears into the coat. She sees, and she is sure he does too, a large coat with an old man inside. The light is on his face and on his hand. The rest is dark. A skull-like face. She cannot help thinking of death.
She is humbled, humbled like she has never been before. Eugène Atget, the great French photographer, has allowed her to see his intimate side. His vulnerable side. He has told her he is an old man, close to death. He has taken thousands of memorable photographs, but now his body is no more than a shell, a fragile shell.
She is young and she cannot imagine what courage and modesty it takes to show one’s physical vulnerability to a person one does not know well. If she lives to old age, she may find out for herself but, for the moment, she is in awe of this man in front of her. She was already in awe of the photographer, but this is a different emotion. He is a man with no vanity. A man with no illusions about himself. This is a man who knows who he is.
And then a realisation comes to her: she will carry on taking photographs. She will learn from him and perhaps, if she is lucky, one day she will be able to say that she knows who she is.
Two weeks later, Berenice Abbot makes her way to 11 bis rue Campagne-Première. She is carrying the prints of the portraits of Monsieur Atget. She climbs the stairs to the fifth floor. The plaque on his door, with the inscription Documents pour artistes, has gone. She knocks but there is no answer. She descends and asks the concierge about Monsieur Atget.
‘He died a few days ago,’ the woman says. “He has been taken away.”
Among Vesna Main’s book-length publications are a collection of short stories, Temptation: A User’s Guide (Salt, 2018), a novel in dialogue Good Day? (Salt, 2019) – shortlisted for the Goldsmith prize – and an autofiction Only A Lodger … And Hardly That (Seagull Books, 2020). A novella, Bruno and Adèle, was published in Shorts 3 (Platypus Press, 2021) Her short stories have been published in journals online and in print, and two have been anthologised in Best British Stories (Salt, 2017 and Salt, 2019).She lives in London and in rural France.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.