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 Barois 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 …

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Letters

Correction March 23, 1995