It is the photo that takes you; one must not take photos," Henri Cartier-Bresson once remarked with typically epigrammatic elan. Invited to contribute to a symposium on L'Acte photographique, he replied scathingly: "Sirs ... I am anxious to let you know just how aware I am of the devotion you dedicate to the actions of that great masturbatory finger of ours on the shutter together with that disruptive agent that is our visual organ ... With my thanks, prior to taking to my reporter's heels, please accept the respects of a penitent photographer."
Commenting on this response in his lavishly illustrated analysis of Cartier-Bresson's "artless art", Jean-Pierre Montier says shrewdly: "The action of taking photographs, as he calls it, is ... the opposite of the 'photographic act', because it is not the mechanism and its 'repository of knowledge and technique' that lie at the heart, but the fragile and fleeting, unstable but delightful relationship established between the photographer and life." For Cartier-Bresson, the fetishisation of photography, especially its technology, has always been anathema. Though he is generally regarded as among the very greatest photographers, the secret of his success is his passion for life, rather than for taking photographs.
Although he has given a few revealing interviews about his work, he has been consistently unwilling to analyse it. His most significant comments - copiously quoted by Montier - remain those in his brief introduction to The Decisive Moment, published in 1952 some 20 years after he began taking photographs seriously, a magnificent volume (cover design by Henri Matisse) that fast became a classic. Although others have written about his work, with his agreement, in introductions to his other books, he has not encouraged sustained critiques. Thus, when Montier, a young professor of literature at the University of Rennes, approached him asking for his cooperation in the writing of a thesis on his photographs, Cartier-Bresson put him off: "Thank you, sir, but there are more amusing ways of spending your time." Montier persisted anyway, wrote the thesis and persuaded its subject to take a look. This book, after some modification of the thesis, was the result.
There are almost 300 black-and-white illustrations, nearly all by Cartier-Bresson, including many of his drawings and paintings dating from the early 1970s when he ceased regular photography and began to train himself as an artist. Many of them are reproduced full page. Since they were chosen by Cartier-Bresson himself, "in complete accord" with the author, they are an extremely valuable selection based on decades of reflection by the photographer. A large proportion of the photographs are well-known, if not iconic images; there are, in this sense, few surprises.
In another and more important sense, the book is full of surprises. Familiar images continue to interest and delight the eye, and on fresh, lingering examination, yield new patterns and new details that inevitably enrich the experience of the photograph. One is also amazed, yet again, by the range of cultures with which Cartier-Bresson has been in intimate contact: not only most parts of Europe (how astonishingly diverse the continent seems then, viewed from a consumerist age of instant travel) and the US/Mexico but also the Arab world, India and the Far East. And one is thrilled, and slightly chastened, by the mystery, the ineffability of the finest images.
The film director Satyajit Ray, introducing a book of Cartier-Bresson in India, got close when he wrote that the style of a Cartier-Bresson photo is "unique in its fusion of head and heart, in its wit and poetry ... The deep regard for people that is revealed in his Indian photographs, as well as in his photographs of any people anywhere in the world, invests them with a palpable humanism. Add to this the unique skill and vision that raise the ordinary and the ephemeral to a monumental level and you have the hallmark of the greatest photographer of our time."
The reference here to humanism should not mislead us. Cartier-Bresson undoubtedly grew to maturity in the 1930s, the age of antifascism, steeped in the atmosphere of the Parisian artistically minded left (especially the Surrealists); but he did not dedicate himself to changing the world through his photographs, unlike others of the time. His photograph of an Indian mother and child, reproduced here, "contains no message", as Montier observes, about the poverty of the mother and child. It has much more than an Oxfam-style appeal through its striking lighting and composition, in particular its subtle, geometric paralleling of the spokes of the wheel, the ribs of the child and the splayed fingers of its mother. The image may arouse our pity - but it certainly invests the child with individuality.
The same cannot be said for Cartier-Bresson's close friend and fellow photographer David Seymour, a Polish Jew born David Szymin always known as Chim, who cofounded the photo-agency Magnum with Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and George Rodger in 1947. Inge Bondi's affectionate book on Chim demonstrates that he was primarily a distinguished photojournalist from the great age of photojournalism (before the arrival of television news reporting), whereas Cartier-Bresson is that and very much more. Chim's photographs - whether they be of soldiers in the Spanish civil war, children orphaned by the second world war or religious festivals in Italy - tend to have a message, a point. They are, generally speaking, more valuable as records of European life in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, than as works of art.
Despite Cartier-Bresson's respect for photojournalism - expressed in his desire to "take to my reporter's heels" - he is evidently ambivalent about it. I once asked him if he had taken a photograph of Satyajit Ray and received the reply: "I enjoyed so much speaking to him each time I met him that I completely forgot to take a snap. Please excuse me for being such a bad journalist!" He virtually abandoned photojournalism in the late 1960s and became preoccupied with painting, his first love. It is clear from his many statements quoted by Montier that Cartier-Bresson would love to have been a great painter, like his friends Matisse and Bonnard. "Drawing is a meditation, fast or slow. With photography one is always on the crest of a wave, like a surfer, always struggling against time."
Fundamentally, however, he sees no difference between photography and painting: "It is the same visual world. There is no aesthetic peculiar to photography or drawing. In both cases, there is a specific technique that is appropriate, which changes everything." As with all Cartier-Bresson's work, it is the sensibility behind the technique that is what really matters.
Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES.
Chim: The Photographs of David Seymour
Author - Inge Bondi
ISBN - 0 233 99016 X
Publisher - Andre Deutsch
Price - £30.00
Pages - l92