In an earlier blog article (In the eye of the beholder), I wrote about how the viewer of a photograph is often unaware of nuances within a picture which are privy only to the photographer and those with him at the time the picture was made. This photo is such a picture:
A French cowboy dozing in the saddle with a herd of white Camargue horses
I must have been just 12 years old when I first saw the Albert Lamorisse’s hauntingly beautiful film Crin Blanc (White Mane). Set in the salt marshes of the Camargue on the Bouche du Rhône, it is about a young boy who captures and tames a wild white stallion. Fifteen years later, on my way back from a pilgrimage to Barcelona to photograph the architecture of Antonio Gaudi, I convinced my travelling companions, Tony Hewett and Bruce Best, to make a detour through this intriguing region of southern Provence. I have to admit, they did not do this willingly. It took hours of argument, but eventually my incessant nagging, over a long lunch in Arles with much wine, wore them down.
Stopping only briefly to offer a lift to an Australian hitch-hiker we met by the fountain in Arles’ Place de Republique, we set off into the wild and beautiful wetlands of the Rhône delta. My winning card in the argument to divert our homeward journey through the Camargue, had been the promise that there would be picturesque French cowboys and wild white horses to photograph. I have to admit I was gambling that things had not changed much in the decade and a half since Crin Blanc captured my adolescent imagination.
I was in the front passenger seat navigating and had chosen a tiny back road through the marshes that I thought might provide some good picture opportunities. The road was rough, even by Australian standards. Although Bruce complained constantly about what this was doing to his suspension of his little Austin A40 estate wagon, he let Tony do the driving. It is probable that this may have been because Tony was the most sober of the three of us, but he too was no less strident in his complaints at the state of the road. Between the bickering, the hitch-hiker tried to earn his ride by making conversation. Despite his best efforts to be sociable he generally failed in his efforts to penetrate the acrimony being shovelled in my direction as the initiator of this expedition.
An avid photographer, Tony drove with his Nikon F in his lap. In the middle of his stream of complaint, some white horses came out from behind a sand dune. Following them was the full-on, genuine article: a gardien, a French cowboy asleep in the saddle. Très pittoresque!
“Fuck!” said Tony, grabbing his Nikon. To this day, I still don’t understand what went through his mind at the time. I know he was pretty excited by the picture possibilities. So excited that he didn’t bother to stop the car!
We weren’t travelling fast, when the car crashed into the ditch and rolled onto the driver’s side. While the passenger side wheels were still spinning, I stood up, opened my door (now the roof). Like a tank commander, I poked my head out of the door/now hatch and began shooting. Tony quickly untangled himself from under my feet and joined me.
Without exchanging a word, we both stood in the upturned vehicle and photographed the cowboy and his horses until they were out of range. Only then did I turn to him and roar, “What the fuck were you thinking? You’re supposed to stop the fucking car before you take your fucking hands off the wheel to take fucking pictures. You fucking idiot!”
Neither the car careering into the ditch or my following tirade woke the cowboy. He rode on oblivious to the mayhem his appearance had caused. Perhaps he thought it was all a dream.
The Aussie hitch-hiker tangled up with all our baggage in the back seat was still pale with fear as we helped him and Bruce climb up out of the car and onto the road. You could see him wondering what sort of maniacs he had fetched up with and whether he was going to get out of this alive. Quickly improvising some trauma therapy we soon had him at work helping lever the car upright with the limb of a dead tree we found nearby. Bruce’s car was only superficially damaged and we went on our way. We were already laughing about it even as we approached Arles again. (This was only the first of three roadside ditches Bruce’s car was to visit on this trip…but that’s another story).
I often wonder whether that hitch-hiker, now an old man, ever relates the tale of his crazy ride through the Camargue and how he tells the story…