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Robert Delpire, The Incomparable Maestro

January 25, 2015


The last week in November of last year, Cecile Delpire Kambouchner, took me to see her father, Robert Delpire, at his home.  I hadn’t seen Bob (as he is affectionately called by his friends) since late April or early May at his office in St. Germain-des-Près when he had made some changes to the cover of the book that we had been working together on for over a year.

When Cecile told me that Bob was up for my visit, I was both excited and nervous about seeing him.  I’ve known Bob for almost ten years but he always made me a little nervous.  He is, after all, a legend in his own time, a man who has been doing so many incredible things for photography over the last 60 years.  Maestro, as Robert Frank once called him.  When I asked Cecile what I should bring for Bob — flowers, a Bach CD, perhaps North African dates that he likes — she said that what would give him the most pleasure would be some leaves that he can use for his ‘herbier‘ collages that he has been doing over the last few years.  Where would one find some interesting looking leaves at this time of the year, I wondered.  Cecile suggested that I go to Jardin des Plantes and steal a few.  I am not for any type of thievery, but this would not really be theft, now would it?  What harm would there be in taking a few leaves that our good God has sprinkled in a public garden in the middle of Paris?  So that’s what I did…I went to Jardin des Plantes a few minutes before it closed, and as light quickly faded, I pinched five items — two leaves and three fairly exotic looking flowers — and discreetly stashed them in my bag.

Jehsong Baak, black and white photography, fine art photography, Korean-American, artist, photographer, autobiographical photography, photographe, photographie d'auteur, argentique, noir et blanc, Robert Delpire

Bob with a leaf, Paris 2015

I had been to Bob’s home numerous times over the years when I had the pleasure of dining with him and his wife, Sarah Moon.  I found Bob in a much better shape than I had imagined.  He offered me chocolate, a big madeleine, and a glass of very strange tasting alcohol from Mexico, dark as molasses whose name I can no longer recall.  We then went down to his basement atelier where he works on his herbiers.  He took the five items that I had pinched from Jardin des Plantes and placed them between two sheets of paper to flatten them and said that he would use them later.  He showed me some of the pieces that he had been working on of late.  When I spotted a gorgeous framed piece with a large, extraordinary leaf as the centerpiece, he said that it was his “self-portrait”.

Bob with his “self-portrait”, Paris 2015

As I snapped a picture of Bob with his self-portrait resting on his lap, his generous, all-knowing eyes beaming affection and tenderness into my lens, I couldn’t help but feel moved by this great man in front of me grasping his appropriately named collage.  I felt privileged and honored to be in his presence.  Publisher of countless seminal photography books by great masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, and many others, director of the first photography museum in Paris (Centre Nationale de la Photographie), producer of films (notably those of William Klein — Qui Etes Vous Polly Magoo, Muhammed Ali, The Greatest), founder and director of a large advertising agency (he once told me that it was his advertising agency which allowed him to finance the photography books that he published, most of which did not fare well commercially at first, including Frank’s “Les Américains“), there were never enough hours in the day for Bob.  The handsome giant leaf is perhaps the perfect metaphor for the immense and venerable imprint that Bob has been leaving in the world of photography.  As opposed to resting on his laurels (no pun intended), this rigorous and disciplined man with an American sense of work ethic continues to produce the Photo Poche Collection with indefatigable vigor and enthusiasm.   

As I look now at his “self-portrait”, it occurs to me that Bob cannot help but do with these dried up leaves as he has been doing with photographs for over six decades, which is to transform them into arrangements of undeniable beauty and poignancy.