Avec Monsieur Henry

Wednesday, 29 August 2018




It was brutally hot, the one that scorched eyes. Monsieur Henry thought a handful of tourists would take refuge at his place, but so many people swiftly passed by his cloudy glass windows. He must have thought to himself, Marie Antoinette still had an aura of drawing attention. Or perhaps his store seemed mousy, just a humble one partitioned by books that reeked of age. He slowly moved out of his cubicle and walked to the center of the store. It was the one special spot where light was sieved through the summer clouds and gloriously diffused through the glass- paneled ceilings. And there was this glimmer on the gold-foiled albums that were showcased among some beautiful crystals and potted ferns. Most of the days it was quiet, but there were a few exasperated tourists who walked in after their tour at the Chateau de Versailles. And one of them was she.

A stickler for stores that sheltered curiosities, she walked with an impalpable instinct. Despite her defeat with the summers cruel sun, she still broke a smile at Monsieur Henry. She liked the dimmed ambience of the store, her eyes no longer had to squint. The summer tour at the Chateau, made her groan excessively and the opulence gradually bored her. Versailles finally felt at peace, when she reached out for a wooden stool and watched the light fall just like Henry did. The view was far more beautiful than the chandeliers she was momentarily flabbergasted by. And after she sauntered through the store, she walked towards Monsieur Henry and asked in the shyest way,  Excuse moi, Monsieur ou trouvez-vous les disques vinyls d Edith Piaf?* He looked at her and asked,  Not bad for a beginner. Where did you learn French? She gathered a few words, and tried to say that she learned some basic conjugation in high school and pointed towards her pocket French dictionary. He smiled; she was someone who still carried a dictionary.
Above: The sun kissed spot at Monsieur Henry's store
Below:  Busily working away in his book-ensconced office 
Henry and her spoke for quiet a while; their conversations were fragmented in French and English. Both fascinated by tales about the cities they grew up in. And in a while he ushered her to a room, stacked with many records, and a few bulbs flickered to life. Just like a grassland that boasts of its vastness, she found herself to be in an attic of dying music. There was a murderous presence in the room, guitar strings cut off, piano keys bashed; she was in a room of forsaken music. Many of the records were encased in creased covers. He pulled out the Robert Irving’s Adam Giselle and gently placed it on a vinyl player, and let her listen to the music.


Along the hallway and between some well-curated corners, she found an exquisite collection of Dali’s photographs compiled in a book. And then she stumbled upon something stunning, an old hardbound vintage photo album. Each page, had mounted paper frames delectably lined in the classic art noveau fashion. The precise cut outs gave a certain depth to the inserted photographs. One of them was portrait of couple photographed during the 1970s. How the woman sported her coiffure fascinated her, the waxed curls swept up on the side of her forehead. The album was intact, each page was a marvel to look upon and there were little spaces to write notes, a wise show of penmanship. But its striking quality lay in its sepia colored papers that blended in with the worn out wood. She knew she wanted it, but kept it aside, 50 euros was a little out of her budget. She headed back to the vinyl records room and picked up a few, just to remember Versailles by. And when she headed to the counter, Monsieur Henry kept that album out. She smiled saying it was a little out of her budget,  Vingt- cinq euro, daccord?* She had that sheepish smile. He knew just what she liked. And then she walked out, unfazed by the sun. 




Once Upon Versailles


A year later, my fated eyes revisited the woman with her side swept curls. Her presence lingered among the few books in my library. Like her, Ive always felt theres a mysterious one –third of me, who sits at the bottom of an ocean racked by my weak currents of recollection. And only some old photographs can salvage that part of me. The one moment where my mind is invaded by a past that anonymously takes a leave. Which still baffles me, for I still cant figure how a year has passed by since I have left London. My journey to Versailles seems like another person story. Its only until Giselle plays on the turntable, and I look back at that photograph he took, I remember my encounter with Monsieur Henry.  
May 25, 2017 at Au Frontal Cheval, Versailles
There was a way Monsieur Henry shared stories, an evident fascination being caught up in the cycle of time. He was kind enough to give the vintage album for 25 euros, for I genuinely seemed to be captivated. Before I took off, he asked if I would like to be photographed to remember his store. I could not deny how he wonderfully brought life to his space. Thus I stood by a bookshelf while Monsieur Henry gingerly held on to the phone, aligning his stance. He clicked the button a little soon, I was completely caught off guard but it turned out being a favorite travel photograph of mine. He laughed it off saying antiquities were his specialty; these cameras were far too modern for him. Wearing my hat, I wished him a good day, A bientot.

The Photographic Memory

The complexity of how one photograph evoked my conversations with him still gets to me. I thought about how all of my photos were stored in a phone and soon enough felt like rejected clothes that are tossed away, once worn, barely remembered. Even photos were victims of the Kleenex culture. It sounds absurd, but when was the last time you looked through an album thats not digitally printed? I was quite gutted to find a photo album that had the charms like the ones I fell in love with at Versailles. I finally did, they rested in an old study desk in my grandmothers house.
My uncles and aunts celebrating Onam at 1965
A photo album I discovered at my grandmother's house 
The photographs were stuck on black paper, separated dearly by butter paper. Apparently when the photographs were collected from the studio, my uncle used to sit by my grandfathers Remington and neatly type out the captions for each photograph. Those days photography was expensive, thus the photo albums never had an outpour of photographs. Among the standard sized photographs, the 3-inch square photographs were my favorite. I had to squint and look at my uncles wear their funny bell-bottoms and peep into the miniscule buildings in the background. Photographs were valued then I feel, it reminded of the first roll of film I bought with my pocket money. My dad said, Take the best 36 photographs. Which lead to me looking through my massive photograph collection of my year stay in London. Three days of looking through, 669 stories were found. And thats where it all began.

Headed towards a Guillotine

I started this project 7 months ago. And when I went to a local printer, the person who I was assigned to absolutely had no idea what he was in for. Most of the times, graphic designers are disgruntled by certain customer requests. I must have been very misleading, I just said, Chetta* I have to print some photographs. He had a face that calmed down, assuming it was very easy, all until he opened the folder, an alarming thousand photographs. And on a paper I wrote down the 12 different sizes they had to be resized to and the color tones they should be set in. His face changed after that.

And after a grueling three hours of categorizing, sizing, and his frazzled expression, the photos were ready for print. Each time a sheet was being handed over, the chechi at the payment counter kept on smiling because the printing went on for two hours non-stop. Yet what turned out being truly humorous was my so-called relationship with the guillotine. As the sheets started piling up, I got into my stance and ferociously let that blade cut through the paper. And I started powering through, yanking the lever, and hearing the blades swoosh. My body started moving rhythmically and I never stopped for the next two hours. The graphic designer simply said, Shes crazy. Its like shes powered by electricity. I carried on for the next 2 hours, and soon it became a joke where people started making bets when I would stop. It only happened when the trash box became a mountain of shredded paper. At one point, the graphic designer got up and laughed, we should just gift her the guillotine. And by 8 PM I walked out of the printers with a huge pile of photos in a box and drove home.


At first this all seemed silly, my idea just sounded like an over-glorified scrapbook. It took some weeks of hunting to find an old fashioned album, but that idea was an utter waste. Who buys photo albums these days? Thus I went to art stores and found some classic butter colored paper and got them bound in a leather cover. My library desk soon enough was covered with glue, scalpel knives and many pens. Unlike in the olden days where the dates were printed on the photos, I was clueless when I took my photographs. I tied strings across my library, looked back into my phone and hung all the photos chronologically. My room immediately transformed into an old- fashioned photography studio.


Clockwise: The original negative prints of the most iconic Pink Floyd's album cover of the Burning Man,  inspired by the negative prints I printed our first London family photograph as a stop motion series, finally the one box that held in all of the photos for the month of July. 

Summer of 2018

This all happened during the summer vacation where my two young cousins came over to stay. By evening they would walk around and look at each photograph and ask whats the story behind everything. Leeza would pick up some of the clipped photographs and asked me to share some of my Paris and Scotland travelogues. Which soon inspired me to design more than just an album, but to write all of my travelogues and excerpts of my letters. What started out, as a normal album became such a calming collective of a long breakaway I enjoyed.  On each page, I set the alignments of the differently shaped photographs. Teaching Leeza and Tessa the old fashioned concept of doing layouts, and designing pages just the way some photographs were exhibited at some museums. Some of my favorite pages were designed in the format of negative prints, and I loved how Leeza would bring her face so close to the album to look for my face in such a miniscule photograph. I joked, there wasnt a zoom button for this.

As the photos were being stuck, Leeza remarked there wasn't a single selfie. Its something I have not taken yet. Over years I feel what we photograph and how we are photographed has changed immensely. Some love fleeting photographs, whilst other love excessively sharing, Ive felt photos have lost its demeanor. Its become something ambiguous and lost its charm to tell a thousand words.When the two albums were winding up, I realized I only kept them safe because I never wanted my narratives to be buried. And like how I valued my 36 photographs in a roll, I hoped to make more albums with sincere photos.
 This four portrait series was taken by my dearest friend who tried to recereate the Ms.Woolfe portrait 
In time, my habits also changed to photographing what mattered most and not to be the one who was so carried away by her camera. My closest friends also captured me in the most natural way as well. My  friend once said, Just like a silent whisper.  Leeza did ask me, what page I loved the most out my two albums, I turned to a page with a two panel portrait series that was captured by my hallmate. She spotted me at the entrance of our residence block, and amicably smiled, Atheena you look radiant today, do you mind if I could take a picture of you. I guessed the last night of salsa dancing, some whisky by the sea and a dance off in pub lingered on to the next morning. I laughed at her odd request, and by the window pane I sat, her camera directed towards me and she played some music, she had a strange smile spread against her face. I wish you could see yourself. It was raw, stripped of pretence.



Half of the stories in the album were written by a fountain pen that I purchased at Shakespeare's Birthplace 
Perhaps the most gratifying part of making the album was revisiting the travel photographs. I landed in places that inexplicably felt like settings in my fictional world. They became something beyond a postcard I yearned for. Of which the solo journeys were the ones that reminded me of how I explored with just a camera. From balcony talks at Paris, to pleasant conversations at Edinburgh, I had so many encounters, and a few times I surrendered my camera to someone new. Though many like to take photos with a reverse camera, I always love that surprise when someone photographs you. And majority of them also happened after spending some time and getting acquainted. It's an eternal imprint of how they saw me for the first time.  And though they are rare, that made the photographs a lot more special, partially inhibited and honest.


By the seven month, the albums were finally complete. Writing all the narratives that tied along with the photographs, I recollected that feeling when Monsieur Henry showed me the room of abandoned room of music. Once created but preserved by ones who care. The making of the album was quite long but Henry was right about sentimental attachments; it leads to truly exploring of what you love. Otherwise, the ocean I dwell in would only stay calm and the currents would be pacified by nothingness.

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