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The Moment That Counts: An Interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson once briefly summed up his career in this way: “Photographing,” he said, “means recognizing, in a single instant, a split second, both a fact and the precise organization of visually perceived forms that expresses that fact. It means putting head, eye, and heart on one line of sight.”

Cartier-Bresson published his first journalistic work in Vu in 1932. Since 1972, he has virtually stopped taking photographs, and has devoted himself to drawing. On March 3, his drawings and photographs will go on exhibition at Valence.

I met with him last summer at his flat, on the top floor of an apartment house overlooking the Louvre and the Tuileries. Careful with his words, he almost always turns down interviews. He hates to be photographed. On the wall is a beautiful mandala…

You’re interested in India?

Oh, yes, enormously. I spent part of my life in the Far East.

And was that an “interesting experience” or something more?

Much more.

Spiritually?

Absolutely…. But that went back a long way. I went to the Ecole Fénelon, a Catholic school that prepared you for the Lycée Condorcet, and one day the proctor there caught me reading a volume of Rimbaud or Mallarmé, right at the start of the school year, in the lower sixth. He said to me: “Let’s have no disorder in your studies!” He used the informal tu—which usually meant you were about to get a good thrashing. But he went on: “You’re going to read in my office.” Well, that wasn’t an offer he had to repeat: I did read there, for a year. It’s why I never managed to graduate. But I read everything you could possibly read: Proust, the Russian novelists, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Nietzsche, of course. And a book on Schopenhauer that led me to Romain Rolland and to Hinduism. That had a huge effect on me. I had never been a Christian believer. My mother once said: “Poor dear, if only you had a good Dominican confessor, you wouldn’t be in such a fix!” But at the same time, she gave me Jean Barois1 to read, and the pre-Socratics. She was a left-wing Catholic. Myself, I’m a libertarian. As for my father, he drew extremely well. My great-grandfather, who was in the wool trade, did drawings in the style of Théodore Rousseau, with extra-ordinary technical skill. My uncle Louis Cartier-Bresson was a very good painter.

So you grew up in an artistic environment…

Very much so. I started taking pictures when I came back from Africa. I was extremely sick. My father was very irritated because photography wasn’t a true craft… And actually it isn’t a craft.

What is it, then?

A pastime…. And time is of the essence. I’m obsessed by the question of time. Max Jacob once introduced me to an extraordinary woman who read my fortune. There are certain things you can’t just make up. In 1932, she told me I would marry someone who would not be from India, or from China, but would also not be white. And in 1937, I married a Javanese woman. This fortune teller also told me that the marriage would be difficult, and that when I was old I would marry someone much younger than I and would be very happy…

I’m eighty-six, and very glad of the fact. It doesn’t sadden me. You can’t be nostalgic…. It’s the moment that counts. That’s why I’ve loved taking photographs: it’s the moment. For me, there’s only the moment and eternity…. I was in the army at Bourget, and had quite a hard time of it too, because I was toting Joyce under my arm and a Lebel rifle on my shoulder. Being put in a disciplinary company was no picnic. I was in a reconnaissance squadron: there were Bréguet airplanes that did ninety kilometers an hour, and beside them fighter squadrons that did two hundred…. But today, the American stealth bomber goes eight thousand per hour. A second, that (clapping his hand) is a second, and no one cares about it anymore: today, we’re at the point of a hundred millionth of a second. And everything’s falling to pieces. That’s why I think the world we live in is doomed. There are no more farmers, no cultivators in any sense. For me, that’s the true basis of the sensory world. And that basis no longer exists. There are no more craftsmen. Now everybody’s an “artist.” What rubbish! Photography—it’s an artisan’s thing. You know, something physical.

And drawing?

Ah, drawing!… I’m known as a photographer but what excites me is taking the photographic shot; the rest I couldn’t care less about. I was in the Orient for three years, and I didn’t once see a contact sheet. Every so often I’d have something published. I’d take a look. But I didn’t miss it for a second. I’ve had good friends who spend all their time poring over their contact sheets. Why not? Everybody’s different. Fortunately. It’s not the sort of thing that would interest me. What does interest me is being there, being present. Ping! and the geometry falls into place….

So, photography’s done in the head.

Cosa mentale.” It’s simultaneously a mental and a physical thing…

On the subject of drawing all you’ve said is. “Ah, drawing!” That’s not much to go on.

There’s too much to say, I dodged the question. For me, photos are the moment, the joy of being present.

Present in the world?

Yes, that’s why I took up photography. But, look, I was put in [a German] prison in 1940; and with a buddy from my company, before my escape, we’d ask each other what we’d do later in life. I said: “I’m going to be a painter.” Never for a second did it cross my mind to say “photographer,” although I’d already taken photographs…

I’ve always wondered why, in your youth, in 1927, after having been so intensely involved in Surrealist literature and the Surrealist movement in general, you decided to study painting in André Lhote’s atelier.

He was a marvelous teacher. For me he represented Cubism…

After that, at twenty-three, you left for Africa. Why?

It was after my army duty. I left for two years, after a romantic affair that had no chance of going anywhere. And because I was fed up with André Lhote’s theoretical side.

Were you escaping “Europe with its ancient parapets”? [an allusion to Rimbaud’s “Le bateau ivre”]

That’s right. Before I escaped from prison I’d told my army buddy, “I’m going to be a painter,” but once the Liberation came, when I realized what was happening, well, I discovered snap-shots. What a joy that was. It meant sketching even faster than with a pencil: making a photographic sketch.

It would seem to mark a point of convergence of two disciplines: you’re saying sketches can be drawings, but photos too?

Precisely. Some drawings are extremely rapid. All of Bonnard’s drawings are staggering as notation. But some drawings are more fully executed.

Do drawings need to be fully executed?

That’s the real question. Maybe yes, maybe no…. There’s immediate sensation, and then there’s more elaborate sensation. For me, drawing is a form of meditation. Photography is not a meditation. It’s something intuitive.

Zen and the Art of Archery’?

Yes. Bound up with the subconscious. I never thought about photography. There’s that wonderful letter of Cézanne’s that he ends with the words: “If I’m painting and suddenly start to think, everything goes to hell.” What a slap in the face for conceptualists!

But if art is “something mental,” intelligence or thought nonetheless has its place.

There are so many forms of intelligence.

Munkacsi’s form,2 for instance? You’ve often spoken about him.

Yes, for me he was a sort of booster rocket, someone who makes it possible for other people to take off.

Was he much more important for you than André Kertész?

Oh, infinitely more. And I’m very fond of Kertész. When I saw Munkacsi’s photos, I said to myself: “How can one do that?”—that combination of plastic beauty and vitality. When I saw those photographs, I said to myself: “Now here’s something to do.” I went out into the streets with all I’d learned from André Lhote and my knowledge of painters. And voilà. You know, in my youth, even in my student days, I’d spend my time looking at painting. In a gallery window at Saint-Philippe-du-Roule I saw Seurat’s picture of models posing. It’s true. That made its impact on me. I was fifteen. Before that I’d been a boy scout. The totem name they gave me was “quivering eel.”

Why?

Because I was always slipping off somewhere. I loved nature, all those campfires…. I adored painting. For me, it’s always been painting. Photography’s just an accessory.

Yet one that’s mattered all the same….

Oh, enormously.

And the cinema too?

Before meeting Chim3 and [Robert] Capa, with whom I created Magnum, I actually worked with Jean Renoir for three years. I’m enormously indebted to him. Renoir—what tremendous humanity that man had. I was second assistant, in other words a factotum, on Rules of the Game and A Day in the Country. When you’re the second assistant, you work a bit on everything…. I knew the dialogue of both those movies by heart. I was also put in charge of the hunting scenes, because I’d hunted in Africa. I had to explain to Dalio how to hold a gun—which wasn’t easy. And then we had to kill the rabbits. Renoir—such understanding he had, such intelligence.

Your Magnum venture began in 1947. How did such a “cooperative agency” start up?

After the war, when Chim, Capa, and I met up again, someone pointed out that we should form an association. Things were happening in India. I had a strong desire to go there, to be on the scene, be in the thick of it, shall we say. Chim and I would say to each other: “That Capa’s such a go-getter; he lives in fancy hotels, throws parties. We’ll never be able to keep up.” It was very worrying. And then we realized that, while playing gin rummy with magazine owners, he would find us jobs. From that point on we shared all our money equally.

I returned after three years from the Far East, where I’d eked out a very, very meager living. Thanks to Images à la sauvette4 I’d earned I don’t know how many thousands of dollars—and that was back then—and I asked Capa for my money. He said to me: “We’re practically bankrupt. There’s nothing left,” and he went on: “If you had the dough, what would you do? You don’t like cars, your wife’s already got a fur coat, she doesn’t need another one.” So I didn’t take any money.

But as it happened, the Soviet film director Yutkevich had really liked Images à la sauvette and said to himself: “I’m going to see that that fellow gets a visa.” And that’s just what I got: a visa to be the first to photograph the USSR after the iron curtain lifted; and Magnum made a huge fortune off it. Which shows you Capa’s genius. He was more than a photographer.

I recently saw some drawings of yours at Arles. What interested me very much was the work with the eraser. That’s also part of your “maybe; maybe not,” simultaneous affirmation and negation, and then reaffirmation. As though it’s never finished.

No, it never does get finished. But what you’re saying is encouraging because, you know, I’ve had it up to my neck with photography. I have had it, I can’t go on with it… Luckily, I’ve some good painter friends, and they talk about other things.

You’ve mentioned your painter friends. Who are they? You’ve worked with Sam Szafran—

It was very hard to give up photography. It was as if I’d spat in the soup. Sam helped me. I went with him to do charcoal drawing at Malakoff.5 “A brick wall doesn’t look like that. C’mon! Try again.” So I rubbed it out and redid the brick wall. Like doing scales. I owe a lot to him. “Henri, you have temperament, but you’ve got to learn some discipline,” he would say…

Painting—that’s my world. Yesterday what did I do all afternoon in London? I was seated in my cane hunting chair, making sketches of Uccello’s Battle. Goethe said that the only way to understand a painting is to copy it. The day before, I did a sketch of Cézanne’s Bathers. After that, I drew in the street and then went back to see the Bonnards. He’s fantastic. For me he’s the great painter. Picasso was a genius, but it’s not the same…

I no longer take photographs. Well, just portraits. That I enjoy quite a bit. Or landscapes. But on the street, no. And I don’t miss it, either. I tell myself simply, in passing, well, well, look at that, that would have made a photo. That’s all.

When did you give up photography?

Twenty years ago. Tériade,6 whom I knew since Le Minotaure, said to me in 1972: “Give it up, you’ve said all you have to say. You can only go downhill from here.” It was true. But that just made me itch to do more. I hung on two years too long at Magnum.

Your interest in photography was in being present in the world. That’s an important notion for you.

Absolutely.

Drawing, you’ve said, is the more spiritual side, more a matter of reflection and feeling. Both are important. So, it’s not about forsaking one for the other.

How right you are! I’m sick, sick, sick of it all! I do both with great joy. I don’t know if my drawings are better than my photos, and I couldn’t care less. What does it mean? It’s tied up with fame, all that…. Today, everybody’s a photographer. When I see my Leica and the huge equipment people use with those monstrous telephoto lenses…What matters is looking. Feeling. It’s like Alberto [Giacometti] said: there are very few visual people, very, very few. People identify something, and it’s: “Ping! Ping! Got it.” I’ll show you the little text I wrote about Chim. I like writing short things, fast, three words.

Snapshots again.

Haiku. It’s why I like photos and drawings.

Letters

Correction March 23, 1995

  1. 1

    A novel by Roger Martin du Gard. Notes and information in brackets have been supplied by the translator.

  2. 2

    The late Hungarian photographer Martin Munkacsi, who emigrated to the US in 1934.

  3. 3

    The photographer David Seymour.

  4. 4

    His collection of photographs, published in English as The Decisive Moment.

  5. 5

    A working-class district on the outskirts of Paris.

  6. 6

    Efstratios Tériade, the publisher of the art journal Le Minotaure.

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