Blurred image, sharp vision

Les Choix d'Henri Cartier-Bresson - Henri Cartier-Bresson
May 16, 2003

Andrew Robinson eyes up an artist who defined the 20th century

For lovers of Cartier-Bresson, the opening at the end of last month of a massive retrospective of his work at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris - with a magnificent accompanying book entitled The Man, The Image and The World in its English version - along with the launch of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in an elegant atelier in Montparnasse, are both most welcome. Not only will the photographic archives of the master be kept at the new centre for future study, the place will also host exhibitions of photographs by others, while awards will be given by the foundation to encourage new work by photographers from any country. Cartier-Bresson himself, who is now nearly 95, has insisted that the foundation be as open as possible to the world - an attitude fully in keeping with his life and work, including his co-founding of the cooperative agency Magnum Photos in New York in 1947. "Indeed, this Foundation would never have seen the light of day had we not given Henri an absolute guarantee that it would be neither a mausoleum nor exclusively a celebration of the man and his work", writes his long-time publisher, Robert Delpire, the first director of the foundation, in a preface to the catalogue of its inaugural exhibition.

Les Choix d'Henri Cartier-Bresson - both exhibition and catalogue - consists of 93 images, none by Cartier-Bresson, captioned at the back of the catalogue in French and English, and some brief prefatory material, including a handwritten statement in French from the famously self-effacing selector. All he says is: "I have chosen some images which stimulate, delight or move me. Committed ( engagés ) photographers, poets, geometricians or simply talented observers - it's a long list and there will have to be several shows to display them all!"

Naturally, given Cartier-Bresson's lack of interest in colour photography, all the images are in black and white. Almost all were taken in the 20th century (the earliest is dated 1882), which presumably reflects his distaste for the posed photograph required by the longer exposure time of photographic emulsions in the 19th century. None is a "conceptual" photograph, again in line with Cartier-Bresson's lifelong adherence to documentary photography, to reportage - despite his formative immersion in 1920s Surrealism. Almost all show human beings, or occasionally animals, whether alone or in groups; there are no images of landscapes and hardly any of buildings without people, in contrast to the drawings and paintings done by Cartier-Bresson that have absorbed most of his creative energy since he gave up photo-journalism in the 1970s. And very few have recognisable news value - though he does include such definitive wartime images as Robert Capa's snatched shot of an Allied soldier landing on Omaha beach in Normandy on D-Day and Yevgeny Khaldei's photo of Russian soldiers raising the hammer and sickle on the roof of the Reichstag. As in Cartier-Bresson's own photographs, there is little explicit violence; but deep and often painful emotions are implicit. The geographical range of the subjects spans almost the entire globe (except, curiously, for Australia, which has been neglected too by his own camera). These commonalties apart, there is no obvious link between " les choix " and the oeuvre of Cartier-Bresson. And perhaps we should not expect one, since he is a subtle and curious human being with remarkably diverse sympathies. Like all great artists, he hates to be pigeonholed.

"Perspectives on Cartier-Bresson's vast and complex production are even more diverse than those in Kurosawa's film (Rashomon)," Claude Cookman, a US-based scholar, observes in perhaps the most insightful of the essays in The Man, The Image and The World . "Critics and commentators have argued that he was a Surrealist, a classicist, a humanist, a cruel observer who wielded his camera with 'a touch of sadism', a man with a tragic vision, an elitist who distanced himself from his subjects, an aesthete who never saw beyond visual superficialities, a lyricist, a romantic, a realist. The only point most writers agree on is that Cartier-Bresson was a photographic artist." Yet Cartier-Bresson has said, consistently, "I have never been interested in photography"! - and he keeps no photographs on the walls of his living room in Paris, only the works of artists.

But his choice of images by Capa is surely illuminating about himself. Not the famous Loyalist soldier in the split second of dying in Spain in 1936; and not the blurred backs of US military "grunts" running through the sea towards the French coast on D-Day, 1944. These two much-reproduced Capa images appear in In Our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers (1989). Cartier-Bresson instead chooses the contorted faces of Italian women grieving for their slaughtered menfolk in Naples in 1943; and a blurred image of a solitary soldier seen from the front, his gritted face clearly visible under his helmet as he struggles through the water against a hazy background of skewed landing vessels. (Ironically, the catalogue misdates it D-Day, June 6 1943.) In both these cases, Cartier-Bresson chooses an image that is more oblique, that humanises war and that shows respect for people as individuals. "The deep regard for people that is revealedI in his photographs of any people anywhere in the world invests them with a palpable humanism," wrote Satyajit Ray in his foreword to Henri Cartier-Bresson in India . This unique photographer has never shared many photographers' addiction to technology; in the final analysis, he cares more about people than about photographs.

Incidentally, the photograph of D-Day perfectly expresses the point of Cartier-Bresson's comment about sharpness quoted in the preface to Les Choix . "I am constantly amused by the notion that some people have about photographic technique - a notion that reveals itself in an insatiable craving for sharpness of images. Is this the passion of an obsession? Or do these people hope, by this trompe-l'oeil technique, to get closer grips with reality?" I can scarcely imagine a more "real" image of what it must have been like to fight in the second world war than this blurred snap of a lone soldier.

Although Capa is represented by two photographs, as are Walker Evans, André Kertész, Man Ray and three other photographers, most are allowed only one image. Inevitably many familiar names are missing. Surprising omissions are W. Eugene Smith and Edward Steichen and, possibly less so, Margaret Bourke-White (not to mention Martine Franck - but then she is intimately involved with the foundation as the wife of Cartier-Bresson).

For connoisseurs, there will be relatively few visual surprises in The Man, The Image and The World , except for the delightful personal scrapbook near the end that shows Cartier-Bresson from early childhood to old age, and perhaps the section of drawings and paintings that may not be familiar to those who know only Cartier-Bresson's many books of photographs published since The Decisive Moment appeared half a century ago. But the latest book more than makes up for any lack of novelty through the breadth of its choice of photographs (and graphics), the excellence of its design and its fine printing. Anyone curious about Cartier-Bresson is certain to fall for his work after spending a few minutes with this book, while those who already admire it will regard the book as indispensable. For scholars, the -page bibliography, listing his books and exhibition catalogues, magazine and newspaper reportages, photographic and art exhibitions, and writings about Cartier-Bresson, is truly invaluable.

The seven essays, following a short introduction by Delpire, who devised the book, discuss most facets of Cartier-Bresson's life and work, including his painting and drawing and his quirky contributions to documentary film-making, which began in the late 1930s with his work as an assistant to Jean Renoir (who convinced him that his future lay in observation, not in his imagination).

Jean-Noë Jeanneney, president of the Bibliothèque Nationale, notes memorably of Cartier-Bresson: "Something of the Odysseus can be seen in him, valiantly confronting stormy seas, yet racked with a profound longing to return home." Jean Clair, director of the Musée Picasso, wittily suggests that Cartier-Bresson is "a sort of subversive Scarlet Pimpernel underneath his disguise as the perfect gentleman, the sober reporter of 20th-century life." And Jean Leymarie, former director of the French Academy in Rome, comments accurately of Cartier-Bresson's later years that for him "drawing is an urgent and vital necessity, a perpetual challenge that is unappeased by the numerous exhibitions he allows to take place in private and public galleries". Cookman's essay, already mentioned, tackles Cartier-Bresson as a photo-journalist and provides a necessary counterweight. "Contrary to the impression that Cartier-Bresson wandered the streets of the world discovering his photographs through a serendipitous conjunction of intuition and luck, the evidence at Magnum Photos shows he researched, planned and positioned himself to take advantage of major events, and then worked hard to photograph them with great thoroughness. While Cartier-Bresson shows a preference for decontextualising his photographs, the historical contexts behind his work enrich personal interpretation and formal appreciation."

All the essays are worth reading, though none is truly distinguished in the manner of E. H. Gombrich's 1998 essay (in Tête à Tête ) comparing Cartier-Bresson's photo-portraits and portrait drawings, "The mysterious achievement of likeness"; but some occasionally suffer from the kind of pretentious language that reminds one why Cartier-Bresson himself has always eschewed writing at length about photography or art. Some of the epigrams, mostly from French writers, that decorate the book are also poorly chosen. Cartier-Bresson's classic image of an owlish-looking Sartre on a bridge in postwar Paris sucking a pipe and looking radically askance tells us rather more about the human condition than Sartre's quoted comment: "Every human endeavour, however singular it seems, involves the whole human race."

Cartier-Bresson once told me dismissively in an interview: "'The great photographer' - what does it mean? I'm just an ordinary human being." Yet standing recently in the exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale, between a real Giacometti "walking man" sculpture and Cartier-Bresson's most famous portrait of Giacometti walking past his sculptures, I could not help but prefer the photograph. To which a modest Cartier-Bresson, who revered "Alberto", would probably be equally dismissive. But whatever he may think, many of the images by "H C-B" are likely to define the 20th century in the centuries to come.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES . The Cartier-Bresson retrospective is at the Bibliothèque Nationale until July ; "Les Choix d'Henri Cartier-Bresson" is at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson until July 26.

Les Choix d'Henri Cartier-Bresson

Editor - Robert Delpire
Publisher - Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson
Price - €17.00 www.henricartierbresson.org
Pages - 126

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