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Secret Geometry

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, the Image and the World

with essays by Philippe Arbaïzar, Jean Clair, Claude Cookman, Robert Delpire, Peter Galassi, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, Jean Leymarie, and Serge Toubiana, and with translations from the French by Jane Brenton
Thames and Hudson, 431 pp., $75.00

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 in Ireland. “I always think of your country as being not beside England but Greece.” Certainly the hauntingly evocative pictures he took in Dublin and, especially, in the Irish countryside in the 1950s have an Attic cast to them. He recalls that when he was young there was in Paris a famous Irish priest called Father Flynn. Indeed, there were two Father Flynns, one of whom was to become a bishop. Louis Aragon put about the blague that they were the illegitimate sons of Oscar Wilde. Cartier-Bresson lifts his glass. “To Oscar! And the two Father Flynns!” Was he a devout child? “Oh, no, no—I never believed.” Yet he would certainly have made a convincing priest, in appearance, at least, as can be seen in Jean Renoir’s 1936 film Une Partie de campagne, in which the young Cartier-Bresson appeared briefly in the role of a cleric, along with, improbably, Georges Bataille, that philosopher of the erotics of the brutal. Already the litany of famous names is underway. To be in the company of Cartier-Bresson is to feel oneself thronged about by the ghosts of the great ones of the twentieth century.

He was born in Chanteloup, Seine-et-Marne, on August 22, 1908, the eldest son of a well-to-do haute-bourgeois family. As a young man of the left, he did not care to follow his father into the textile industry, and set out instead, deny it now though he might, to make his living as a photojournalist. After a year spent studying painting, he traveled to the Ivory Coast, and there began to take pictures, a small selection of which is included in the retrospective volume, The Man, the Image and the World. In Africa he fell seriously ill, and was close to death. After his recovery he returned to Europe. His first work appeared in 1933 in the French magazine Vu, and in the same year he exhibited in New York and Madrid. He began a lifetime of travel with visits to New York and Mexico, then returned to Paris in 1936 and worked for the Communist newspaper Ce Soir.

He also became involved in film, making documentaries of his own and serving as second assistant to Jean Renoir on a number of movies, including La Vie est à nous, a propaganda piece for the Popular Front left coalition, and the classic La Règle du jeu. He joined the army and was taken prisoner after the fall of France, but escaped—on his third attempt—in 1943 and joined the French Resistance. The following year he was able to take some of the most striking and coolly judged photographs of the liberation of Paris.

After the war he spent a year in America, putting together what was to have been a “posthumous” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—the MOMA curators had thought he had died in the war. In 1947 he founded the cooperative photo agency Magnum, along with Rob-ert Capa, David Seymour (“Chim”), William Vandivert, and George Rodger. For three years from 1948 he traveled in India and the Far East. In China he recorded the collapse of the Kuomintang and the establishment of Mao’s People’s Republic. The Man, the Image and the World contains some extraordinary images from the China trip, particularly a photograph of an incongruously dandyish Kuomintang officer in leather gloves and spats. By now he was world famous, his photo-reportage appearing in mass-market magazines such as Life and the Saturday Evening Post. In 1952 he published his first book, Images à la sauvette—in English the book carried the telling title The Decisive Moment—with a cover designed especially by Matisse, of whom he had taken a splendidly evocative series of portraits in the artist’s studio at Vence in 1944.

As a journalist Cartier-Bresson had the knack, or the genius, to be in the right place at the right time. In 1948 in India he photographed Gandhi only hours before he was assassinated, and stayed on for the Indian leader’s funeral, at which he captured some of the most dramatic and moving images of his entire oeuvre. In 1954 he was the first photographer from the West to be invited to Russia to make a record of life after Stalin. Then there was 1968, and the student rebellion in Paris…. How does it feel, to have produced so many pictures over so many years that are known to so many people? The shoulders lift, the corners of the mouth turn down, the head tilts to the side. “I have no interest in photography….”

Indifference flares at moments into hostility. I make the mistake of mentioning one of his more well-known pictures—of a little boy on the rue Mouffetard proudly carrying two bottles of wine—and he cries out as if in pain. “Terrible! Terrible! I should destroy the negative!” Then why has he included it in The Man, the Image and the World? He is suddenly very interested in the plate of fried chicken the waitress is placing before him. “Drawing is everything,” he says, “and photography is fast drawing.” Is this an answer? It is the only one that is forthcoming.

Cartier-Bresson’s first love was painting, and as a young man he studied in the studio of the Paris painter André Lhote. His father, he says, drew extremely well, and his great-grandfather did drawings in the style of the Barbizon artist Théodore Rousseau. The strongest influence, however, was his uncle Louis, a professional painter who won the Prix de Rome. He first visited his uncle’s studio at Fontenelle in Brie when he was five and was enchanted. However, oil painting was too cumbersome a medium for his quicksilver imagination, and he has confined himself mainly to black-and-white drawing, using hard lead pencils and graphite crayons, or pen and Indian ink. Some of his drawings are included in The Man, the Image and the World. Portraits, rapid studies of animals and landscapes, sketches of friends and acquaintances, they are the work of an extremely talented amateur, and no more.

Despite the family background in graphic art, surely there can be no Oedipal contest at the heart of Cartier-Bresson’s preference for pencil and paper over his famous Leica? The fact remains, however, that in 1966 he ceased to work actively with the Magnum agency, and in 1970 he abandoned, or claims that he abandoned, photography in favor of drawing. The decision appalled his photographer colleagues. “It was as if,” he has said, “I’d spat in the soup.”* Of course, he continued to take pictures—more, according to Martine Franck, than he cares to admit—but his career as a professional photographer has been over for nearly thirty-five years. Does he not miss his art, does he never regret abandoning it? “Why would I? Drawing is all that interests me.” The mystery remains. The profound mystery.

And one cannot leave it alone. One wants, one tries, to frame the precise question that will provoke the revealing answer. It is impossible. Cartier-Bresson has always been fascinated by the East—his first wife, Ratna Mohini, was Javanese—and in the face of all one’s efforts to elicit from him a solution to the riddle of his abandonment of photography he maintains an attitude of merry serenity worthy of a Zen master. Which is what he is, really. The “decisive moment” is everything, the moment at which the artist catches the world in flagrante, unaware of how much it is revealing of itself. It is an extraordinary fact that Cartier-Bresson’s photographs come to us as they were taken: no darkroom magic has been performed. He does not even crop his pictures and refuses to allow others to do so. This is a truly miraculous eye.

Beneath the dash, the flash, however, fixed rules apply. A photograph, he has written, is “the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of the significance of an event as well as a precise organisation of forms.” Geometry is the secret mechanism that impels his work, in both photography and drawing; for him, form is an active force—a driving force. In The Man, the Image and the World, one of the sections opens with an epigraph from Apollinaire—“It may be said that geometry is to the plastic arts what grammar is to the art of the writer”—which is followed immediately by one of Cartier-Bresson’s most nearly perfect pictures, taken in 1933, at the very beginning of his career, at Salerno, in Italy. The elements are simple—a boy, a leaning cart, contrasting big planes of shadow and sunlight—but the composition is exquisite, at once austere and intricate. Cartier-Bresson has always responded with passion to the people and landscapes of the South, particularly Spain and Italy. His 1951 pictures of the caped menfolk of the Abruzzo are wonderfully evocative of that little-known part of Italy.

Cartier-Bresson’s great achievement is to have produced countless images—it is estimated that in his lifetime he has used some 15,000 rolls of black-and-white film—that are rigorous and at the same time wholly human. His ability to snatch pictures of form and elegance out of moments of violent movement is breathtaking. Consider the studies of Kriss dancers swept up in self-mutilating trances in his 1954 book on Balinese dance—with a text by Antonin Artaud—or his choreographically organized snapshots of a riot at a refugee camp in the Punjab in 1947 and of a pulsating mass of Chinese queueing for gold in the last days of the Kuomintang in Shanghai in 1949. Here, as everywhere in his work, he has, one might say, humanized geometry. Asked about this, he will not comment, but his wife nods firm agreement. He ponders awhile. “I don’t believe in God,” he says, “but I do believe in pi.” Pen and paper are produced and he dictates some numbers. It takes me a moment to recognize the formula for the golden section, the mathematical rule of aesthetic balance which has been used by artists since antiquity. He smiles his Zen master’s smile. He is right, of course: everywhere in his work the field of vision—apt phrase!—is portioned out according to this formula; his eye divides the peopled world according to the rules of the golden section.

He has a deep love of literature. Joyce is one of his great enthusiasms: in his army days he carried Ulysses in his kit bag. Next to Ulysses he loves Dubliners best. I recount an anecdote which provokes one of his warmest smiles: a visitor from Ireland in the late 1930s ventured to Joyce that he thought Dubliners his best book, to which Joyce replied, “Do you know, I think you’re right.” Which period of his own work does Cartier-Bresson favor? No comment. The talk turns to painters. We agree on the greatness of his friend Balthus, whose pictures, featuring so many languidly disheveled little girls, have been suffering under our current obsession with pedophilia. For Bonnard he has a boundless regard—“His drawings were so fast, so complete!” With which of the moderns does he feel the closest affinity? He turns an enquiring eye to his wife and murmurs tentatively: “Matisse…?” Certainly his portrait series on Matisse in old age in his studio in Vence attests to a deep admiration, even love, of the painter. There are marvelous studies too in The Man, the Image and the World of other artists, especially Bonnard and Giacometti.

He speaks of the necessity for humility in the artist’s approach to the world and to work. Craftsmanship is no longer valued—“Nowadays,” he observes disdainfully, “everyone is an artist”—and the cult of personality is rampant. Like his admired Joyce, Cartier-Bresson considers that the true artist is the one who stands aside from and above his work. He has written:

By economy of means and above all by forgetfulness of self you attain simplicity of expression. Shooting a picture is holding your breath as all your faculties focus on capturing fleeting reality; then taking a picture becomes a moment of great physical and intellectual delight. Shooting a picture is recognizing an event and at the same instant and within a fraction of a second rigorously organizing the forms you see to express and give meaning to the event. It is a matter of putting your brain, your eye and your heart in the same line of sight. It is a way of life.

This manifesto, a far cry from Cartier-Bresson’s latter-day weary disclaimers, is elaborated upon by one of the contributors to The Man, the Image and the World, Jean Clair, of the Musée Picasso in Paris. Clair’s quintessentially Gallic and somewhat overheated essay, “Kairos: The Idea of the Decisive Moment in the Work of Cartier-Bresson,” insists on the intentions that account for Cartier-Bresson’s art. The word kairos, which has come to mean “time” in modern Greek, was for the ancients, Clair writes, “a way of describing the opportune moment, the appropriate opportunity, the right occasion”—what, in numinous terms, might be called a state of grace:

Kairos exists in the blink of the photographer’s eye, it is the phenomenon of hitting the mark in space and of hitting it at precisely the right time. Up it pops, at the exact dazzling moment when the screen of the world seems to open up, tear apart, yawn or gape before you, only to close up again immediately afterwards. It is, to introduce a semi-religious concept, the propitious moment, the moment when the gods smile upon you.

Cartier-Bresson himself has put it more simply but no less forcefully: “For me the camera is a sketchbook, it is an intuitive and spontaneous tool; it takes charge of the moment, and in visual terms, questions and decides at the same time.”

Clair’s is one of seven essays in the book, some more illuminating than others. The first, “Seeing Is Everything,” by Jean-Noël Jeanneney, of the Bibliothèque National de France, is full of good sense and insight, acknowledging, among other things, Cartier-Bresson’s humor and essential playfulness and elfish tendency toward self-mockery. Jeanneney provides, too, a down-to-earth antidote to Clair’s breathlessly transcendent flights, stating baldly that whatever about kairos and propitiation, “Henri Cartier-Bresson’s genius was often blessed with luck, allowing him on many occasions to capture the very moment when history hung in the balance.”

The clumsily titled The Man, the Image and the World is called in the French edition De qui s’agit-il?, after the question which, so Robert Del-pire, director of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, writes in his introduction to the volume, is always on the photographer’s lips: “De quoi s’agit-il?” “What are we dealing with?” Delpire answers the question “who” of the book’s French title with admirable directness and confidence. Cartier-Bresson, he writes, is

a man who has achieved mythical status in spite of himself, whose work has always been perfectly consistent, who has put his mark on an entire photographic genre through keen analytical rigour and such a perfect fit of form to content that it seems there could be no other way of recording a historical or everyday event, depicting a landscape, or conveying a subject’s psychological make-up.

It is probably not chance that pushed the essay by Claude Cookman, of Indiana University at Bloomington, to the back of this splendid, sumptuous book, where it appears along with the bibliography, exhibition list, and chronology. “Henri Cartier-Bresson: Master of Photographic Reportage” is written in the tone of a man determined to set the record straight and correct the more excessive claims of Cartier-Bresson’s revisionism. Employing the example of Rashomon, Kurosawa’s film masterpiece dealing with the slippery nature of truth and the ambiguous nature of the human point of view, Cookman poses questions about what Cartier-Bresson’s oeuvre means, and what he thought he was doing when he produced it, questions to which he provides his own brisk reply. Pace all the master’s disclaimers, Cookman has no doubt that from the start Cartier-Bresson “was intent on earning his living by selling his pictures for publication,” and goes on with unmistakable severity, and the self-righteousness of a man who has spent long hours toiling deep in the files, to state his case for Cartier-Bresson as photojournalist:

Contrary to the impression that Cartier-Bresson wandered the streets of the world discovering his photographs through a serendipitous conjunction of intuition [Clair] and luck [Jeanneney], the evidence at Magnum Photos shows he researched, planned, and positioned himself to take advantage of major events, and then worked extremely hard to photograph them with great thoroughness. While Cartier-Bresson shows a preference for decontextualizing his photographs, the historical contexts behind his work enrich personal interpretation and formal appreciation [italics added].

Cookman surely has spotted the essence of Cartier-Bresson’s attempt to crop the past to fit his own frame. Not content to attempt to deny any connection between his photographs and their historical settings, he wants to decontextualize his entire career. When I asked him, that day in Paris, what would have happened in 1970, when he made his decision to give up photography, if he had not been able financially to afford such a renunciation, he refused to answer—refused, indeed, as was clear from his expression, even to consider the question.

Well, why should he consider it? Why should he, at this becalmed late stage of his life, be hounded for answers as to what he intended his photographs to be, or in what way he meant us to see them? His achievement stands, decontextualized indeed, free by now of all intention or desire. The Man, the Image and the World is the record of one man’s remarkable capturing of many of the great and terrible events of the twentieth century; it is also evidence of a profound artistic sensibility, at once poetic and rigorous, and founded in an unshakable respect for the human moment. Henri Cartier-Bresson, it might be said, did not take pictures, but gave them.

The restaurant has emptied, and the shadows of the Paris afternoon are lengthening outside. Tomorrow we will go to see the premises that will house the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, a charming, five-story atelier close by the Gare Montparnasse, all windows and light and plain white walls. Two stories will be devoted to exhibition space, focusing on the work of Cartier-Bresson and of other photographers, draftsmen, sculptors, while the rest of the floors will be open to research workers, conferences, debates, lectures. There will be a Cartier-Bresson archive, and the opening exhibition, organized by Robert Delpire, will be “Les Choix d’Henri Cartier-Bresson,” the master’s choice of his favorite photographs by some eighty of his colleagues.

We rise from the table. “There is only the present,” he says, “the present—and eternity.” We shake hands—his grip is remarkably firm and friendly—and he departs, making his way slowly among the tables. In the doorway, the strong sunlight turns him for a moment into a blank outline, a negative image of himself. Martine Franck pauses on the sidewalk. “It’s true,” she says quietly, “he lives entirely in the present, and so it is difficult for him to talk of the past.” She smiles. “He did love to photograph, you know, despite what he may say. It was not work for him. It was, he always said, un dur plaisir.” The hard pleasure of getting it right: it is a formulation every artist will recognize.

  1. *

    Interview with Michel Nuridsany, The New York Review, March 2, 1995.

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