Girl with a Kitten, London 1960


Susan Sontag once wrote in On Photography, “Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken  the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.”

Years ago, I accepted a writing assignment, which was: look at the picture Girl With a Kitten, London taken in 1960 by Bruce Davidson, and create a story in 60 minutes or less ( you can google the photo title to see the actual picture). Without knowing the backstory (that Davidson was a photographer and the picture he took haunted him regarding her fate), I created this story.

I took just one photo of her that spring evening she resumed the ramble, as she called it. She wouldn’t accept money or the food I offered. She did reluctantly accept a change of clothes, left behind last autumn by a former tenant. She layered two long sleeve jerseys and a brown wool shirt over her thin frame, and donned a light weight jacket, a pair of work pants, and worn, sturdy boots I’d purchased at a second hand store. I included another top and mismatched socks inside the sleeping bag, and added a small bag of toiletries, comb, pen, notepad, and stamps. I helped her tightly wrap it all inside a 6 foot length of oilcloth and secured it with a makeshift strap.

In more than 50 years as a photojournalist I had never done anything so impulsive as I did the night I found her. I have photographed tragedy, hunger, hopelessness, and despair in its human forms. She bore all its hallmarks. I was taking a shortcut to the parking garage through an alley one might call unloved if being generous. There was a battered shopping cart lying on its side 20 yards away, rusty but serviceable. I lined the carriage with my coat and laid her gently in it. Her bare, bruised and blood streaked legs and dirty feet dangled over the side. I wheeled her to the car I’d bought recently, a Hillman Lynx convertible.

I’ve never understood why I brought her to the house loaned to me by the magazine for three months, while I shot and assembled a show about the Mean Streets of East End London, former hunting grounds of Jack the Ripper, and home to the Ratcliffe Highway and Pinchin Street torso murders, and the Burker’s and Kray Twins. My motives could easily have been misconstrued; I should have taken her to a hospital. Instead, I laid her on the sofa and fetched clean towels and hot water. Without invading her privacy, I sponged the dirt and blood off the girl, and checked for broken bones and track marks. I disinfected the cuts and bruises, stitched up the deeper gashes, and covered the wounds with plasters. She didn’t stir as I tucked a pillow beneath her head and piled on comforters. I made a pot of coffee and settled in the chair facing the bay window.

In the morning she awoke terrified, thrashing, fighting off invisible layers of confining coils. I told her she was safe here, and free to leave. The girl groaned, and drew the bedding around her. She asked for water, which I brought. I pointed out where the bathroom was, adding there were fresh towels, clean clothes—and soap. She surveyed her surroundings, grabbed a pair of kitchen shears from the desk, and hobbled to the bathroom.

I assumed she would avail herself of bath amenities, grab some food, and flee. Instead she stayed two weeks, saying little but conveying her gratitude and grace in small ways. She helped prepare a simple breakfast and did the dishes. She created a wonderful stew, using the hen I’d planned to roast. Though it was early spring, it snowed the next day; several inches blanketed the area. She spent hours huddled in the club chair by the window, amid comforters and pillows. An ice storm followed. I worked on my next exhibition, explaining my passion for capturing the realness of a moment. She looked on quietly and glanced at a few of the stark photos I’d taken. The girl made us a hearty dinner pie, using the last of the eggs, ham, onion, and most of the cream. Whenever I complimented her, she would blush, and withdraw to the chair.

I talked more about myself in those two weeks than I did in the years to come. She listened and nodded, sipped tea and dabbed ointment on her cuts, elusive and enigmatic. Each time I left, I expected to return to an empty flat. She never revealed her name, why she chopped off her long hair that first night, or who had hurt her. I returned one afternoon to find her toweling dry a brown striped kitten. She said it had been scratching the tin milk box outside. The clever girl had also cleaned, pressed, and folded my laundry, and fashioned a litter box from a packing crate lid. She lined it with old newspapers and sprinkled baking soda and cedar shavings on top. Her eyes sparkled with pride and accomplishment. In just a week, this vulnerable, frightened girl was exhibiting confidence and projecting a sublime composure. I didn’t tell her I loathed mewing, hissing cats, though this one never did. We named it Latte.

When the girl told me she was leaving, she tried to explain the purpose of her rambles, but seemed as baffled as I was of her need to resume her journey. What she didn’t say was similar to the effect Brassai achieved in his shadowy photos of Parisian streetwalkers—it left me with a profound curiosity to know what remained obscured.

She allowed me to drive her to an intersection near where I’d found her. We sat for a time in the open convertible. It felt like we were communicating without the need for words, capturing the photo light bulb essence of a moment. Then she got out, adjusted the strap I’d fashioned so she could easily carry the bedroll, reached in, and picked up the kitten. She looked towards and beyond me—into the chthonic night. I brought the camera to eye level, fiddled with the lens, and snapped her picture. She gruffly handed the kitten to me, and raced across the road—into the darkness.

My photography puts me in the fray; it’s up close and personal, an unflinching snapshot of the reality of an action, emotion, or situation. That’s not always enough—I must also explain the who, where, when, and why a photo doesn’t always convey. I thought in that instant I’d caught a glimpse of what she kept hidden. But when I developed the photo, I saw only her utter disillusionment. In a single click, I went from rescuer to flagrant opportunist. I had done something sinister in fixing her image forever in print. Not so long ago, people claimed taking a photo, a graven image of them, causes the loss of their soul. Imagine that, a photograph as a modern day magic mirror of the soul.

Anonymously, I sent the photo to the Metropolitan Police with a hastily scrawled note, Please find this girl and help her. For more than 50 years I claimed I didn’t know who she was—I did—and I didn’t. She wasn’t just a runaway. She was freedom’s child, a sentient being with a purity of purpose. Did she transcend her trauma? Or is she still out there wandering, wondering? London lass, did you succeed in your quest? Forgive my intrusion on your privacy—please set an old man’s mind at ease; reply c/o Magnum Photo Agency, London.

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