Decisive Moments

“Your first 100,000 photos are your worst.”

—Henri Cartier-Bresson

New York—June 1961

       A farewell lunch in our back garden. The usual cold cuts and salad. I had been accepted as a set design assistant in the student program of the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. It was the fourth year of the festival. I was to fly to Rome that evening. Suddenly, mid-mouthful, my stepfather decided that I needed an instant introduction to the art of photography and a proper camera to record the adventure on which I was about to embark. He excused himself and raced upstairs. My aunt had had an old Leica, which was sleek and more compact than any camera I’d ever seen. I was hoping something like her Leica would be coming my way. 

       Hans returned carrying a worn leather case with a broken strap, out of which he extracted a large, black, metal box about 3.5"x3.5"x7" with two big apertures, one on top of the other on the front and a lot of cranks and dials on the sides.

       “This should do you fine.” And he passed it across the table to me. “It is the Contaflex TLR that I used to shoot in Iceland before I went to medical school.” 

       “Contaflex TLR?” 

       “Yep, it is a beautiful little machine, designed in the mid-thirties by Zeiss.”

       “That’s great, Hans,” I said, balking at its obvious age and weight and daunted by its complexity, “but I’ve never used anything other than a Brownie. I have no idea how to—”

       “This baby will do it all for you. It is the first camera ever to have a built-in light meter. And it’s a single lens reflex, meaning that when you look into the viewfinder from the top, that’s what you get. You’re seeing what the lens will see.” 

       “Single lens reflex?”

       “All you need to learn now is the relationship between shutter speed and f-stop.”

       “F-stop?”

       “The diameter of the opening of the lens. It will only take a minute.” When Hans decided something was going to happen, such as my carrying this monster box with me to Italy and learning to use it, it was going to happen. 

       In the hour-plus before we took off for the airport, I watched him work the dials and cranks: the one on the left rewound the film, the one on the right wound the shutter and set the shutter speed. I learned to open and close the viewfinder, to respond to the light meter indicator, and to focus by adjusting the lever around the viewing lens. I took careful notes on the relationship between shutter speeds and f-stops, and thereby acquired a superficial understanding of the workings of this extraordinary object. On the way out the door, Hans pressed into my hands some old rolls of black-and-white 35-mm film while my mother and I piled into the car. On the way to the airport, Hans delivered a short lecture on ASA ratings and film speeds, thus completing my crash course in photography.

       Eddie Williams and I met at the gate for our Alitalia flight to Rome. Eddie was a college friend and a super-talented pianist in musical theater. He had been accepted into the same student program but as a musician. As soon as we boarded, we turned our attention to drinking all the free booze that Alitalia would give us during our overnight flight. We landed at Fiumicino the next morning, hung over and clutching our instructions from the New York office of the festival. We camped out in the Piazza Navona, sipping wine and watching people until it was time to board the train to Spoleto. Once on board we fell into a deep sleep and awoke to the conductor announcing our arrival in Spoleto with barely enough time to disembark.

       At the train station we went to the head of the rank of matchbox-sized taxies and mumbled, “Spoleto, Officio di Festival?” to the driver who nodded, stuffed our bags in his boot, and took our lives in his hands. Off we zoomed to the foot of the mountain, where the straightaway died into a sequence of narrow streets with almost no sidewalks and hairpin turns that took us up, up, up and into the Piazza della Libertà, where the outlook opened and our taxi screeched to a halt. 

       “Eccolo! L’ufficio del Festival,” said our driver, pointing to a row of windows on the second floor of a large building occupying the entire south side of the square. We tumbled out into the cold afternoon and gathered our belongings. I was to find the festival office, and Eddie was to stay with our bags. An efficient woman, speaking perfect English and later identified as (Countess) Camilla Pecci-Blunt, head of the student program, descended from the windowed façade, checked us off on a list (very reassuring), and assigned a young man, an Italian fellow student, to walk us to our respective digs further up the hill and into the heart of the town. 

       I and several other students were to board with Signora Luna, who lived on the east side of the Piazza Mercato. Sig. Luna, a short, square woman of stern countenance and greasy hair, and her husband and children, whom we rarely saw, had been squeezed into two rooms at the back of the flat so that six of us could be accommodated in double rooms along the square. Sig. Pecci-Blunt instructed us to appear at the Teatro Nuovo, the larger of Spoleto’s two main theaters, in the evening, where Menotti would be rehearsing Vanessa—his lyrics, Samuel Barber’s music. Vanessa was to be the season’s opening production. 

       It was as cold inside Signora Luna’s as it was outside. After a light supper I put on as many layers of light summer clothes as I could and set out into the dank chill of early evening in hopes of meeting up with a familiar face on my way back down the hill to the theater. Whereas it had been warm and sunny in Rome, here on this Umbrian hilltop it was bitingly cold, damp, and gray. 

       Inside of the mid-nineteenth-century Teatro Nuovo, five tiers of boxes were piled up in a typical horseshoe shape around the gently sloped orchestra level. The tiers of boxes died elegantly into proscenium boxes at each end, which defined the stage opening. The faces of the boxes were slightly convex and encrusted with gold and white garlands and putti. The Teatro Nuovo had languished for many years before Gian Carlo Menotti, the festival’s founder and artistic director, and his benefactors had it fully restored some five years before. 

       Most of the people who showed up for this briefing were unfamiliar, other than Eddie and the Italian fellow student whom I spotted across the rows of deep-red, upholstered theater seats. Once assembled, Sig. Pecci-Blunt rose from her seat at the front of the orchestra, greeted us formally, and introduced other staff members from the festival office. She spelled out a few general rules and regulations, then some specifics relating to perks of the festival that were off-limits to us students—none of which I chose to remember. Then Menotti himself rose to welcome us. He was slim, with dark, wiry hair, a long, patrician face complete with Roman nose, and a winning smile. He spoke perfect but heavily accented English. Charisma and creativity exuded from his every pore. He was surrounded by a bevy of young, beautiful people, mainly men but some women: Tommy Schippers, his former protégé and now a well-known conductor; Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Tomas Milan, all actors; and a whole clique of gorgeous Germans whom I later learned were bound to the German photographer Herbert List, a regular at the festival who had not yet arrived on the scene. 

       Because there were only a few functioning restaurants, we all ate in the same Trattoria del Teatro at lunch and the more upscale Il Pentegramma for dinner. Once introduced, we stuck close to one another as much for bodily warmth as for company. We soon became acquainted with the beautiful Germans. As friends and disciples of the legendary Herbert List, most were aspiring photographers. One who was especially handsome, Roger Fritz, was taking pictures all over town. He had both his Nikon and his light meter around his neck day and night. I had never seen a light meter in action and was glad that my Contaflex had automated this function. The Germans had a whole apartment to themselves uphill from where I lived. The apartment had a fireplace and firewood, so after dinner several of us repaired to their apartment for more wine and warmth. In the absence of Fritz’s regular girlfriend, Crista, who would be arriving later with Herr List, I was invited to his bed, first for play and then for the first warm night of sleep since my arrival.

       On day four I was fetched by a feisty young Italian woman with wavy, strawberry-blonde hair and a profile any Greek goddess would kill for. I had seen her that first night at the Teatro Nuovo but she hadn’t been introduced. She was Giada Franchi and had come in her Fiat 600 to take me down to the scenografia, a large, mid-nineteenth-century warehouse on the side of the mountain, where the scenery for each production was made. Giada was slightly older than I, spoke flawless English, and had an axe to grind about how young Americans come to Italy but never make an effort to learn either the language or the way things are done in Italy. Instead they stick to their own smug ways and go home none the wiser. 

       That was not going to be me. 

       At the scenografia I was introduced to Fiorella, an androgynous young set designer clad in trousers and a loose shirt, sporting a beatific smile. She was the assistant to Lila di Nobili, a distinguished Italian scenic and costume designer with many productions at La Scala under her belt. Di Nobili was far off in the distance, bending over as if to study something on the floor. Her posture, her concentration, the shape of her graying hair, and the bend of her neck and shoulders brought to mind the images of Wanda Landowska that I remembered from the covers of my recordings of the “Well-Tempered Clavier.” 

       Fiorella was to be my boss. I was to assist in the painting of a backdrop designed by Lila di Nobili and was turned over to Renato, the head of the scene shop, a skinny, gruff, grizzle-haired guy who spoke no English and had little time for anyone who broke up the routine of his work. There was a heated exchange in Italian with Renato shouting, Fiorella holding her own calmly but insistently, and a lot of large-scale hand gestures. Renato stomped off.

       “It’s going to be fine. Renato is really a pussycat,” said Fiorella.

       Renato returned with a cigarette in one hand, another behind his ear, and a long stick with a paintbrush at its end in the other hand. He gestured way across the open floor to a music stand with a colored sketch on it. Fiorella beckoned to me to walk across the huge piece of canvas that had been laid out on the floor and over toward the music stand. A grid had been laid over the sketch and numbered in both directions. 

       “The grid on the sketch,” she explained, “corresponds to the grid that you see drawn on the canvas that we are standing on.” It came to me that the canvas on the floor was the backdrop itself! Here, and maybe everywhere in Italy for all I knew, scenery was painted on the flat, not vertically from scaffolding as we did it in college.

       “Your job,” Fiorella continued, “is to paint what you see in each square of the sketch onto the corresponding square on the canvas. You try to work with one color at a time in each square. When you’ve done all you can with one color, wash your brush and start with another. You’ll have to mix colors as you go. Clean as you go. The paints are over there.”

       You gotta be kidding, I thought. Painting by numbers! I remember doing something like that as a kid. But this wasn’t quite the same. The scale was daunting.

       “Let me show you.” And she grabbed a brush and began. “You work beside me. Take the brush Renato gave you and get started.”

       Way down at the far end of the same space was Lila di Nobili, painting her own scenery with her own long-handled brush, just I was about to do. We started at 9 a.m., broke for a short lunch of bread, salami, and cheese, which we had to bring with us as there were no cafes in this part of town, and went on through the afternoon. It was hard work but I was good at detail and gave it my all.

       Evenings, everyone involved in the festival, including pre-season guests and visitors, congregated at the Teatro Nuovo to observe the progress of the rehearsals for Vanessa. My mother had taken me to Vanessa in 1958, shortly after it premiered at the old Met in New York. I didn’t much like opera, and I hadn’t liked Vanessa at all. But in Spoleto it was different. Menotti had translated his own libretto into Italian, and all of a sudden Vanessa became a quasi-lyric opera. Hearing the same passages rehearsed night after night, the displeasure of dissonant harmonies combined with a dysfunctional and unsatisfactory narrative were replaced by the comfort of familiarity. In less than a week, I had become a fan.

       One evening after rehearsal Menotti hosted a gathering for us students. My mother had told me that festivals like this were largely funded by private donors, many of whom might be local gentry. She said to look out for these people, to be super-polite and appreciative, and not to be my usual smart-ass self. When we students arrived, all the beautiful Germans were hovering around a large, once handsome but now sinister and debauched-looking older man, in a crumpled suit and loosened tie, who was wedged into the corner of a large, plush sofa. His thinning hair was slicked back, and his eyebrows seemed permanently knitted together. A lit cigarette hung from the right corner of his narrow, downturned mouth. He could definitely pass as local gentry. Those acolytes who weren’t seated next to him leaned over the back of the sofa or sat on the floor at his feet, each desiring maximum proximity to his noble personage. Roger Fritz waved me over. 

       They were playing a variation on the Marienbad game in which ten matchsticks are laid out in four rows with four, three, two, and one matchsticks per row. Each player in turn takes as many sticks off each row as he or she wants. The loser is the one left with the last stick. Play was interrupted long enough for us students to be introduced. The noble personage seemed to be a viscount. (I thought Italy had only counts and the odd prince.) When my turn came, I laid on my most obsequious smile, extended my hand, and did my stuff:

       “I am very pleased to meet you, sir. We all want to thank you for all you are doing for the festival.” 

       Without offering his hand in return, he threw me a scowl, then removed the dangling cigarette from his lips and, turning to Roger, said in accented English, “Who the hell is she? And what the fuck is she talking about?” 

       No reply. 

       “Come here,” the viscount called to me. “You think you’re so smart? Come play this game and see if you can win. Crista,” he said to Roger’s newly arrived girlfriend, seated at the other end of the sofa, “get up so she can sit here and play,” beckoning to me. And so, fortified by crude Spoletino wine, I played Marienbad with this strange group well into the night, never figuring out the combination of moves that would result in my not being left with the last matchstick. 

       Once outside and on the way back down to my room at Sig. Luna’s, I said to Eddie, “Who was that guy?”

       “Luchino Visconti.”

       “Who is Luchino Visconti?” I asked.

       “Haven’t you heard of Rocco and his Brothers?”

       “Yeah, but…” I had seen Rocco and his Brothers in New York and had been terrified by its violence. 

       “Stupida, he was the director! He’s a genius and he’s here now to direct Salome, the next opera after Vanessa!”

       Luchino Visconti, Count of Lonato Pozzolo, rich as Croesus and a registered Communist, I later discovered. 

       What did I know from Italian nobility?

       A few nights after the Visconti gaffe, I decided the time had come to bring out the Contaflex and try to take some pictures of the Teatro Nuovo’s spectacular interior and the proceedings. I was beginning to enjoy looking into the single lens reflex viewfinder, setting the dials and knobs, running up and down the center aisle of the orchestra snapping this and that when my foot caught on the hem of a coat that was hanging off one of the aisle seats. I tripped and, in catching myself on the back of the chair ahead, I dropped the Contaflex onto the wooden floor.  

       The built-in light meter… 

       When I picked the camera up, pointed it toward the illuminated stage, and looked into the single reflex lens, the light meter indicator was stationary. I collapsed into the nearest aisle seat, put the camera between my legs and my head between my hands, and all but wept. How could I ever explain what I had done to my stepfather? 

       I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder and turned around. Seated directly behind me was a slight, middle-aged man with short, white hair, a high forehead defined by a receding hairline, a finely chiseled face, large, not quite circular wire-rimmed glasses set on a narrow nose, and a gentle smile. 

       “I saw you taking pictures and wondered if you might have been using a Contaflex?” he asked in lightly accented English.

       “Yes, it was my stepfather’s. He used it when he was a photographer for Look magazine before the war and now I’ve broken it. It’s finished.” 

       “I am not sure it is broken,” he said. “Would you let me see it?”

       “Of course.” I handed it to him, still enclosed in its beat-up leather case. He took it out of the case, turned it over, and fiddled with its various parts.

       “This is a lovely camera. It is in excellent condition,” he said.

       “Yes, but I’ve broken it,” I insisted.

       “Yes, the light meter is broken and is probably irreparable. But the rest of the camera is fine. You can learn to take photographs without a light meter.”  

       How can that be when Roger Fritz does nothing without consulting his light meter? He practically wears to bed, I thought.

       “I take a lot of pictures, and I never use a light meter. You will soon get the feel of it, and you will do it by instinct.”

       “Really?” I said.

       He went on to tell me that some things must be absolutely precise to be valid. Others do not. He said that his wife was Javanese and pointed to a gorgeous Asian woman deep in conversation a few rows behind us. She had been a dancer. But she broke a finger on her right hand, and when it healed it had remained out of alignment. Because Javanese dance is narrative and told through the very specific gestures and positions of the body, its limbs and their extremities, she had to give up her art because of her one crooked finger. 

       “Taking pictures isn’t like that. It is not so precise,” he went on to say. “The smallest thing can be a great subject. You should give yourself some time with that lovely camera. It will come to you.”

       “Thank you so much, sir,” I said. “You have made me feel so much better.” 

       “I am glad,” he said, this time smiling broadly. “I hope we’ll meet again.”

       “Oh yes, I hope so,” I said and added, as if as an afterthought, “I am a student here in set design. My name is Leslie Armstrong,” and once again I held out my hand.

       He shook it warmly and said, “And I am Henri Cartier-Bresson.” 

       I’ve never used a light meter since.


About the Author, Leslie Armstrong: I have audited the biannual Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, PA, for the past eight years. I graduated with Honors in Art History from Brown University and obtained a master’s degree in architecture from the Columbia School of Architecture. I enjoy classical music and theater, and continue to work as an architect and as a writer.