Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 28, 2011

Alphonse and Gaston Regard the Passing Scene

Some ideas can be expressed without language. Sometimes, pictures do the job at least as well as words do, if not better. For several decades, the Eastman Kodak Co. based its marketing of photographic film processing on the notion that photographs convey emotions more powerfully than anything else can do. Those of you who are younger than 40 or so were not exposed (obvious pun intended) to the incessant tear-jerking drivel of Kodak ads of mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, grandparents and an endless array of family kitsch, but those of us who suffered through it can still remember. Well, I almost never post links to YouTube, but here’s what I mean: click here for a classic Kodak commercial from that era. If you missed it, take my word for it; this sort of thing haunted the airwaves of network broadcasting for 30 years.

If you look at the imaging marketplace today, it’s obvious that we consumers bought that idea, and bought it big, because once digital imaging was invented and we were able to create infinite numbers of images without paying E-K for the processing, we pretty nearly put them out of business. There is a lot to say on that subject, but I’ll let it rest for now.

Whether you step out your door and look across the street at your neighbor’s house, or, by way of multiple airlines, trains, buses, cars and shoe leather you make your way to far-flung corners of the globe, you find people. Every single individual — every one of these people — differ greatly from one another. They speak different languages. They each — every one of the 6.8 billion of us — have unique experiences. Compared to humans, snowflakes are identical. People inhabit different climates, are citizens of different states or even of no states whatsoever. They have a dizzying array of religions, cultures, lifestyles, ways of making a living and, although they either hate CNN and Al Jezeera or watch them all the time, they all derive different conclusions from the broadcasts. All. Utterly. Different.

And, yet, the consummate truism that resounds across centuries and ages and even from the pulpits of all but the most extreme religions is that we are all the same. Supposedly — the common wisdom tells us — each human heart hungers for the same things. According to this view, the cabbie who drives you the long way to the hotel and the waiter who takes a dislike to you and sticks his thumb in your soup and the corporate executive who interrupts a call announcing a layoff of a thousand workers to look at a memo from her bookie all share some deep, fundamental humane characteristics.  Is it true?

When we travel, we are searching for what is new, different, alien, exotic. We are looking for new sights, tantalizing smells, unique food, notable cultures and landscapes that will let us escape the ordinary in favor of the extraordinary. Yet, we are always on the lookout for points of correspondence to our own lives; we hope that we’ll find experiences and behaviors that tell us that the inhabitants of an apartment block in Hong Kong or a favela in Rio or a suburb of Atlanta are, after all, like us. Sure, they’re different in innumerable, unreconcilable ways, but, surely, there must be things that we have in common with one another. If it weren’t possible to generalize to some extent about what links one human being to another, there would be no Nobel Prize for literature: people in Poland would never read Hemingway and people in South Africa would never read books by Kenzaburo Oe. But they do. They do.

It’s always a pleasure, then, when one is traveling, as The Counselor and I were recently, in another country, to record one of those moments: an image that could have been recorded anywhere, from Helsinki to Hong Kong, from Tierra del Fuego to Trieste. It doesn’t matter where it is, because it speaks to our universal sense of belonging to one another. In this case, we were on bus headed from a beautiful coastal city on the Mediterranean up into the foothills of Provence. Here’s a photograph I shot from our bus as it ground along through urban congestion that could be anywhere, with a few differences for local architecture, language on signs and the ethnic character of the people

Cote d’Azur, France

Just after I made this image, the bus stopped at a traffic signal in the center of the town. We were surrounded by a thousand sights and sounds and scents of another country. In the few moments the bus paused, I looked out the window to my left, and saw this in the second-floor window of a building along the busy thoroughfare:

Alphonse et Gaston

Two buddies. A man and his dog, taking a moment from whatever their day usually holds to look up along the busy street to see what’s coming next. Look at them. What are their names? What do they do there, in their place on the premiere etage above the Pharmacie? I’ve named them Alphonse et Gaston after the cartoon characters from the Hearst newspapers of the 1900s, but they need no names. A man and his dog. They could be anywhere. This could have been an image from the 18th Century (without the lighted sign) in St. Petersburg or San Francisco. They could be watching the troops marching into Paris after the liberation or they could be watching the scene along the Grand Boulevard in Buenos Aires. Anywhere. Whenever. Just a dog and his human. They’re all of us.

© 2012 Brad Nixon

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