There was a day once, in a POW camp in Burma, when John Stewart asked the commandant for better rice, and it sent the man into a state of rage the Japanese called mu sekinin, “loss of responsibility.” He ordered the prisoners to kneel with their necks stretched out, and unsheathed his sword, swinging it low over the bared skin. Stewart, understanding that he had only seconds left to live, reached for some noble idea to carry in his head when he went into death. He could find nothing. “I found myself in a great void, conscious of being nothing but a receptacle for ready-made beliefs, mouthing words of no significance. I’d been granted two decades of life, a life of mimicry, and I was about to disappear. Despair, incommensurable despair, was all I felt.”
But he did not die. And he did not, ever, forget what he calls his “moment of lucidity.” We sleepwalk through life, Stewart writes, but “I was awake when the sword whistled over my head.”
Stewart’s seemingly random collection of essays, Flotsam: Adventures of a Footloose Photographer, is something like a double fistful of moments in his life he remembers being “awake,” grasped tight so they don’t slip away, and strung into a narrative in the vain hope that some commonality, some message or purpose to his life will appear.
John Stewart has had what people would call “an interesting life.” Born into a family of wealthy British industrialists, he knocked about a bit in various family businesses—digging ditches in manufacturing plants and answering phones in stock brokers, until he was called up in 1938. By ’41 he was on a ship with his regiment, headed for Egypt, when a last minute change of orders sent the ship to Bangkok instead. His commanding officer could have had the regiment disembark, but not without the loss of his dinner jacket, which was buried in the cargo hold, and which he refused to leave. So they went to Bangkok, and thus spent the rest of the war in a Japanese POW camp in Burma, where most of them died building what came to be known as the Burma-Thailand “Death Railway.” (Made famous by the book Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle, which was later made into a movie starring William Holden and Alec Guinness.)
After the war Stewart was adrift, unable to settle down in any of the remaining family businesses. Wandering around France with a girl he would later marry, he got himself a white Leica camera (chiefly because he thought it looked “sexy”) and happened to fall in with a crowd of artists. His first pictures with the Leica were of Picasso, sketching in a garden. He futzed about like an amateur with the Leica, taking pictures of what Stewart calls “the obvious, the picturesque, the dubiously poetic” (doves and village women) but also, following some underlying instinct, less “dubiously poetic” subjects as well as portraits and stills of the artists and writers that surrounded him. While he is photographing the inauguration of Matisse’s chapel in Vence, another photographer with a (black) Leica comes up to him, tells him he has talent, and he should use it. Apparently, it had not occurred to Stewart that taking pictures could be a career. “Mr. Black Leica” gave him the name of a developer in Paris to take his film, and told him to start calling magazines and use his name. Which was Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Stewart ended up as a photographer for a number of magazines, including Harpers, Atlantic Monthly, and Vogue. He also did advertising campaigns—which are amusing stories in themselves since this is well before Photoshop and CGI. So when a plastic wrap company wants to make the point that their product will stop a charging bull, they have to let a bull take a run at it. If Philip Morris wanted an ad campaign featuring mountain climbers sitting on a narrow ledge in the Swiss Alps taking a smoking break, then a couple of guys had to actually climb the mountain with a photographer in tow to get the shot. And when Lucky Strike decided that the best campaign for their product was a couple of cowboys, cigarettes dangling from their mouths while they stampeded horses towards the camera—well, that was Stewart with the camera, standing in front of the oncoming stampede.
His magazine work took Stewart everywhere from the rarified heights of high society to the grimiest back country dives. But interestingly enough, it isn’t the account of his week with the Rothschilds, or the time he spent with Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), or his meeting with the patriarch of the Reynolds family (who, we are left to understand, may have been an industrial magnate who wallpapered his house in aluminum foil, but also wrote poetry about money)–it isn’t any of this that catches the attention of the reader. The names are luminous, but not particularly illuminating. What does capture our attention is that “moment of lucidity,” that experience of being awake, that flashes suddenly in each piece—sometimes so quickly that if you blink, you miss it. The Rothschild wine cellar may be one of the seven wonders of the world, but its ancien regime gilt fades like a Polaroid left in the sun when Stewart discovers that his wife, in a fit of furious spite, directed the cook to use a bottle of his Chateau Lafite in the beouf bourguignon. His marriage, he realizes, is over.
Contrapuntal to the run-ins with the rich and rambunctious are a miscellany of other stories—his attempts to get into Tibet although its borders were closed, his evolving relationship with his camera and with the way cloth drapes around a body, his fascination with elephants. His repeated returns to Thailand and Burma, to the “River Kwai” and the site of the camp where he was a prisoner—the place of his first moment of being awake draws him back again and again. At one point, reading in the newspaper that Sam Speigel would be doing a movie based on Pierre Broulle’s book, Stewart presented himself at Speigel’s office, announced that he had been assigned to cover the film for Life magazine, that he had been in the camps and was one of the survivors of the Death Railway, and that he spoke Japanese. The producer hired him on the spot as a technical advisor. Stewart then left the office, walked down the street to the offices of Life, told them he had been hired by film studio, and received an assignment from the magazine to do the story.
As it turned out, he had little to do. There is a difference, in the mind of a movie director, between what really happened and what it should look like really happened. But Stewart traveled around the country during his free time with horror and death of the camps in his ears, and shot a leopard that had stolen a baby.
So yes, Stewart’s life has been interesting. And if his spare, understated writing style serves to emphasize just how interesting, it also underscores how much is left out: “Sonkrai [work camp], where I spent the longest period, had the worst reputation and suffered the most casualties. Cholera, dysentery, beriberi, and malaria were fast depleting the original contingent of 1,800 prisoners. By the war’s end, only 182 were still alive.” Flotsam is not a memoir, but a series of snap shots, placed not quite in order on the album pages, and, one feels, with some of the captions missing: “I look a leopard in the eye and we both know the inevitability of death.” “I catch up with the Korean who tortured us in the camps and decide not to shoot him.” “I meet the Amdo beggar woman and we seem to recognize each other.” It is as though Stewart lives his life eternally in the immediate present. Which I suppose is to be expected in a photographer. The few times Stewart disregards the present in favor of future rewards he fails—a scheme to open a studio in a high end department store, a franchise agreement with Mohammed Ali—ventures that make him look ahead instead of looking around, these are all unsuccessful.
But when he is in the moment, no one sees in sharper focus, than he: When he finds himself walking on a beach with a ballerina named Tanaquil, he remembers “The morning was still young. We walked at a good pace on the hardened wet sand or else splashed through the foam. We hardly said a word. It was one of those moments when you thought, ‘There’s nowhere in the world where I’d rather be just now than here.’”
A little way down the beach they come upon a washed up wicker butterfly chair, marooned in the sand, and Tanaquil smiles and takes off running, and soars over the wreckage: “I swear she appeared to stop above it for an instant. She floated down, rather than hit the water, turned around and, once more, did le grand écart, an apparition in the scintillating sky.” Stewart is in despair because he doesn’t have his camera. But he is also awake.
The thread of purpose Stewart claims to seek in bringing all these stories together does not manifest itself, and one senses that this is a source of sadness for the photographer. Being awake should mean something. Life should become clear. Instead, he is left with just what the title implies—bits and pieces, odds and ends, wreckage floating on the indifferent sea.
But for the reader, still seeing Tanaquil leaping in the morning sun, the bits and pieces are more than enough.
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She supported her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her college career and attending scholarships and financial aid loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. She has been in the book business for over twenty years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki has been a book reviewer for several magazines, her local public radio station and local television stations. She was one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network, and as Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet. Plus, she blogs at Will Read for Food. She manages all this with the loving support of varying numbers of dogs and cats. Contact Nicki.