Most artists maintain an attitude of healthy disrespect toward their own work. They know, better and with more bitterness than any critic, how far short of their ambitions their art inevitably falls. What, the artist would demand of his admirer, do you really think this is the best I am capable of? Do you really imagine I am satisfied with these botched results of my transcendent intentions? Henri Cartier-Bresson’s dismissal of his life’s work in photography is at another level of dissatisfaction, however; it seems almost contempt, almost hatred, not just for his achievement but for the medium itself. Repeatedly and with increasing vehemence during the past thirty-odd years, since he virtually gave up taking pictures in his early sixties, he has insisted that not only has he lost interest in photography, but that he never much cared for it even at the height of his career and fame.
No argument, however forceful, will budge him from his rejectionist position. With a kind of blithe mulishness he will go so far as to deny that he was ever a photojournalist, even though, as most of the world knows, he could be considered the inventor of photojournalism, or at least the one who single-handedly transformed a journeyman’s rough-and-ready craft into an art form. Over a career of forty years he captured some of the most emblematic images of the twentieth century, images so familiar, so deeply graven on our memories and imaginations, that they seem more like natural phe-nomena than the products of a human brain and eye and hand. Yet when I met him recently in Paris, he was as amusedly dismissive as ever not only of his reputation but of his art. On the eve of a huge exhibition of his work at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the opening of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Montparnasse, and the appearance of a volume of his photographs, which the publishers describe as “the ultimate look at a lifetime’s achievement,” he said: “I have no interest in photography. Drawing, yes. I like to draw. But photography…” A dismissive hand sliced the air, shutterwise.
We were at lunch in a Chinese restaurant in a little street off the rue de Rivoli, just around the corner from Cartier-Bresson’s top-floor apartment, which looks out over the Tuileries and the Louvre. It was an unseasonably hot April day—the newspaper headlines were euphorically proclaiming “C’est l’été!“—and outside on the pavement an endless line of sunstruck tourists straggled past. In the shadowed coolness at the back of the restaurant Cartier-Bresson sat nursing a glass of beer in the company of his wife, the photographer Martine Franck. His expression is one of genial world-weariness enlivened at intervals by a wonderful smile. When he shrugs he is the classic Frenchman, the shoulders lifting, the corners of the mouth turning down, the head tilting to the right. He is ninety-five, and does not look his age.
He speaks of his travels …