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LAST WORD

09/28/2009

For those of you who enjoyed our reading THE DECISIVE MOMENT last week, here is a nice article published in Afterimage following Bresson’s death in 2004. Both an obituary and re-examination of the importance of Bresson’s practice and philosophy, it can be read in full after the jump.

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Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Last Decisive Moment
Afterimage, Sept-Oct, 2004 by Bruno Chalifour

A lot has been written, and more will be, about the life in photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson. If Europe contributed to the medium in the twentieth century, Cartier-Bresson, a.k.a. HCB, probably stood among the best, if not the spearhead of its protagonists. For decades, this now world-famous photographer tried to seize the essence of his time, and crystallize it in the fraction of a second within the frame of his viewfinder. Once he had picked it up, back in the early 1930s, his Leica, a brand that he made famous around the world, became the true “extension of his eye.”

It all started in 1932 when Leitz Cameras (Lei-Ca) released the second model of a long series of small, “miniature” then, cameras using 35 mm movie film. That model was equipped with its ideal complement, a range-finder allowing extremely precise focusing. That same year Cartier-Bresson had to leave Africa, where he had been working as a safari guide, because of a life-threatening case of black fever. They met in Marseille, and never parted. The tool gave the photographer the versatility, discretion, speed, and control that matched his character. Cartier-Bresson gave it his eye and mind trained by the cubist painter Andre Lhote, and his experience as a hunter in Africa. For him, from a simple way of seeing, photography became a way of thinking, feeling (with the appropriate distance), and a way of life, an evolution that would be confirmed by, and would extend into his experience of Buddhism.

For years, until he “retired” in the mid-1970s, and dedicated his time to drawing, Magnum allowed him to roam the world while Pierre Gassman, in Paris, would develop his negatives and print them at “Picto.” (Pictorial Service Lab). 2004 has been a rather deadly year for photographers. Van Deren Coke, Carl Mydans recently, and, within weeks, on the other side of the ocean three men, two of whom were photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) and Jean-Philippe Charbonnier (-2004), and one darkroom sorcerer, Pierre Gassman. In Henri, a booklet edited by Brigitte Ollier and published by Filigranes in 2003, Charbonnier remembered his first meeting with Cartier-Bresson (pp. 16-17).

“The Monument […] I think I met him by chance at Pierre Gassman’s Picto, rue de la Comète, or maybe rue Delambre […] We were doing the same job, we had the same lab to get our rolls processed, but we did not have the same stripes on our sleeves. […] I can see him going for the first time over the contact sheets of a series he had just shot. Here comes Pierre who stops and stands behind him. “Get the hell out of here!” said Henri. There was an attitude that matched the character, he wanted to be the first one to look at his contact sheets. Every photographer behaves this way, one does not just get master-pieces out of 36 exposures, and one does not have to advertise one’s hesitations and errors. Later we exchanged two photographs. He is a formidable “statue.” Henri, even if I regret that he should be so stiff. For me he is THE living National Treasure at its best, […] I even allow myself to call him THE INSTITUTION.”


Cartier-Bresson generated the type of admiration he both enjoyed and ran away from. In Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Mind’s Eye (Aperture, 1999, p. 86) he mentions, while recalling the documentary video that Sarah Moon made about him: “My notoriety is a heavy load: I refuse to be a standard bearer. I have spent my whole life trying to be inconspicuous in order to observe better.”

Beyond his photographic œuvre, and as a disclaimer to his alleged desire to remain unknown, if Cartier-Bresson must be remembered, it is as a co-founder in 1947 of the photographers’ co-operative, Magnum, and as the author of The Decisive Moment (Images à la sauvette, or “images on the run” in its French version) in 1952. The introduction that he wrote for it, The Decisive Moment [a phrase only used in the American translation and that HCB himself never used]summarized his working ethics and his conception of the medium. Twelve years later, John Szarkowski would pick up the model and use it to write his own profession de foi for the Museum of Modern Art in New York in his catalog, The Photographer’s Eye.

But here stops another biographical obituary on Cartier-Bresson, just another one in the plethora of articles and essays that have been published on the subject in the past weeks, and across the world. At this point, as a photo-historian and a photographer, I would also like to give my respectful testimony on the impact that HCB’s work at large has had on photography, and on our visual culture.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s life has been a long and inspiring lesson in seeing and living. His work confirmed and prolonged an evolution of the medium that could be appreciated, before him, in the photographs of others, among whom André Kertész whose work he admired. However, something HCB brought along with his images changed the way in which we take images as well as in the way that we look at photographs.

Life is sometimes paved with strange coincidences. On August 5, three days after Cartier-Bresson’s death, 24 hours after he had been discreetly buried, but a few hours before his death was announced in the US. I received a phone-call from a local retailer confirming some news that he had shared with me a few months before: he had in his possession a collection of photography books, some of which I might be interested in. A few minutes later, to my surprise, there it was, with its dust-jacket and all, in good condition, and at a very reasonable price: The Decisive Moment. Two weeks before, I had perused a copy of Images à la sauvette, its French version, in Arles in mediocre state and at a high price. It was standing next to its sequential, The Europeans released in 1955 by the same publishing team. The cover and dust jacket had been designed by Miro.

The aura of The Decisive Moment does not just derive from the 126 photographs that compose it, among which such famous images as “Sunday on the Banks of the Marne” (1938), “Salermo” (1933), “Andalusia” (1933), “Valencia” (1933), “Calle Cuauhtemocztin, Mexico City” (1934), “Dessau, Germany” (1945) [a Gestapo informer is recognized], “Rice Fields in the Menangkabau Country, Sumatra” (1950), “A Eunuch of the Imperial Court. Peking” (1949), … Many of these have been reproduced in other books, other catalogs. The aura of this book does not simply derive from its sole physical qualities, the choice of the paper, its careful printing by Draeger, or even the cover designed by Matisse himself. The historical value of this milestone in Cartier-Bresson’s career comes from its timing, and from the content of its introduction establishing the guidelines (not rules, as lines can be flexible and bent, which suited more someone who defined himself as an “anarchist.”) for generations of “takers.” For these photographers, the essence of what happens in front of the camera can only be conveyed by its rendition within an esthetically mastered frame, one that cannot be modified, after the fact, in the darkroom, lest the author should lose the essence of the moment and of the decision to release the shutter at that moment. Late cropping in the darkroom creates (makes) something else, an image, a two-dimensional object with a different existence and a different meaning altogether.


How many of us, after The Decisive Moment, long after it, have discarded images on the contact sheet that did not meet these criteria? How many still do, and still print the little black margins around their images to inform the viewer of their exacting practice? I still do, most of the time. With Cartier-Bresson, photography had become a way of looking, a way of living, a philosophical approach and a metaphor for life: the frame strictly defined by the viewfinder stands as an illustration of the strict context of our lives (time, place, background). A lot of possibilities lie within this frame for who comes with an open eye, an open mind, and an open heart.

Sensitivity, knowledge, experience, and imagination are the tools that we were given to work within that frame and make most of the world within it, make sense, establish relationships, move and be moved, express ourselves. Observation and creation are guided by choices. In a post-WW II world where existentialism was being defined as humanism under Jean-Paul Sartre’s pen, could there be a better challenge and a better practice than that of the “decisive moment”. For the trained eye, the “prepared mind”, the instantaneous recognition of movement, lines, masses, human actions and expressions, light become as many clues “given” to try and make some sense out of the chaos, out of the apparent and sometimes naive freedom (advocated by existentialism and the new “orders” that followed WW II) conferred to humanity, and the awe that this realization could generate. All this generated, not an impression of fleeting power that may have seduced some, but one of participation in the world. The photographer was suddenly established as a medium, a voyant (“seer” in Arthur Rimbaud’s words), a participant in the vast enterprise of the explanation of the world.

In the U.S.A., three years after The Decisive Moment, Edward Steichen at MoMA would enroll photographers from all over the world in this didactic enterprise, The Family of Man.

In the light of Cartier-Bresson’s images, paradoxically, another dimension of photography emerges: the decisive moment as a contemplative moment, the one that the photographer also captures, most of the time, in a fraction of a second, but that summarizes and stands as the index of long stretches of time, time in its abstract manifestation (because it has become suspended, timeless), a time to which we, in our western civilization of real television and infotainment, rarely have access. “Sunday on the Bank of the Marne,” or the photograph of Matisse sitting among his white doves in Vence, or even Truman Capote’s or William Faulkner’s portraits, Sartre himself caught smoking his pipe on the Pont Neuf, all these are “decisive” images, “decisive” because they lay and were caught beyond the surface of things, the surface of events and people. These images succeed in stretching time beyond its known limits. They scratch the thin surface of things upon which most eyes make daily ricochets, missing the point (… of entry, the decisive location).

Cartier-Bresson had the intuitive and then trained knowledge of how these fleeting instants/images or prolonged observations could be transformed into icons by the craft, intelligence, experience, and intuition of their maker.

There is a distinction to be made though between Cartier-Bresson’s work before and after WWII. The early work, in most instances, the one that he created in the 1930s, clearly exemplifies the engulfing aspect, in its timelessness, of this latter aspect of HCB’s “decisive moment.” These images exhibit a certain opacity of the world reflected in the scenes and people depicted. There is a definite surreal quality in the images that respond to the viewer’s search for meaning with the stare of a Sphinx. Peter Galassi sensed it, who, a few years ago, curated a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, focusing on this aspect and period of the photographer’s production.

A new dimension was added after World War II. Some answers had emerged: at least the enemy had been identified and action could be taken. Cartier-Bresson’s style became more documentary in a humanistic way, which coincided with his involvement with Magnum as a founder and provider of images of unique events and situations happening around the world.

“A gift, without work, is just a bad habit.” [George Brassens]

Cartier-Bresson had an insatiable appetite for movement and images, an appetite that constantly reinforced the clairvoyance of his eye and mind and was fed by them. Time, the one that he stopped most of his life thanks to the prosthesis of his eye, or his hand when he returned to drawing in his later years, has had the last word, so it may seem.

It is now up to us to prove this last word wrong, to re-affirm that the essential is alive and well … in each of us, after him. “Z.”

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