The Jardin des Tuileries in Paris, rather than André Le Nôtre, brings to mind Henri Cartier-Bresson. I think of him while taking a stroll through the park after a visit to the Jeu de Paume. I look up at the window of his apartment, rue de Rivoli, and I remember…
His voice. His blue eyes. His cheerful laughter cut short by outbursts of anger. His cowboy neckerchief. His Leica, an M3 model, blessed by Marilyn Monroe. His 1946 portrait of Robert Flaherty. His friends who sparked my imagination: Robert Capa, Alberto Giacometti, Saul Steinberg. His cat Ulysses. The events he had witnessed, his intuitive presence, as if he were a soothsayer, for instance landing in Beijing, in December 1948, twelve days before Mao Tse-Tung.
He called me by first name; I used the polite form of address. I had learned to write about him. It was hard-going at first: I was so star-struck that my friends, starting with Mathieu Riboulet, decided, as a birthday present, to film a fake interview with Cartier-Bresson in which he stubbornly refused to answer any questions. This was both true and untrue. “Who’s coming see me,” he would greet me laughing, “the friend or the journalist?”
The first time I had phoned him, he had pretended to be someone else. “What do you want from Cartier-Bresson, I need to know, I’m his lawyer.” Obviously, I bought it. I was a rookie at that time; I knew nothing about photography or photographers. Cinema was my thing: Méliès, Renoir, Pialat. He made an appointment for me to meet him at his studio, not far from his home; then he walked me around the neighborhood so I couldn’t get out my notebook. Unexpected meeting places were one of his pranks. Once, we met at Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, he was reading Ba Jin’s In the Memory of a Friend, published in French in the series “Mille et une nuits.” “Have you ever heard of the duty of disobedience?”
Later, we would always see each other at his place; he would ask me about the newspaper where I worked. Marie-Thérèse Dumas, his welcoming assistant, was never far away, and nor was Martine Franck, whose sight would transform him into a young man in love. This loving gaze, in love with life, in love with beauty, in love with light, in love with freedom, in love with painting, is, for me, the key to Henri Cartier-Bresson.
What does it mean?
In photography, you can see and write without knowing everything. It’s not an easy thing to do, because you might end up spouting nonsense, especially when lacking technical knowledge, but you might just get it right. Getting it right, in his case, meant the decisive moment, that condensed, fated moment, so rich that it contains everything, or almost everything, like a truth serum. When he talked about it, he would evoke a snapshot by Martin Munkácsi showing three teenagers running towards Lake Tanganyika in the 1930s, which had “set his mind ablaze”: “I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment.” The Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi (1896–1963) was one of Cartier-Bresson’s few acknowledged influences, in addition to painting and drawing, and alongside the poetic André Kertész (1894–1985), who imagined having made “pictures with a Leica before Leica was invented.”
One can read Cartier-Bresson’s photographs like the palm of his hand: they spell his passion for countries and landscapes traveled across “at a slow pace” (Bali, China, India, Mexico, Russia) and for those he met there, whether ordinary people or celebrities… They also speak to sensuality that swells the frame, as in the image of a couple asleep on an eastbound train (1975), lovers embracing in Mexico City (1934), or a long-unnamed nymph, at last identified by Cartier-Bresson, suddenly moved to freely speak of the company he kept in his youth (it was Leonor Fini, then companion of André Pieyre de Mandiargues, in 1932, in Trieste).
Love, of course, does not explain everything. HCB was a great reporter more than a flaneur in love, eager to enclose the world in a rectangle, or even, according to some critics, to lock it in a vice of aesthetics: straight-edged composition, black & white image, black border, no cropping, etc. He was, in some way, an authoritarian in spirit who did not hesitate to speak his mind, about his own work as about others’, even if it meant ruffling some feathers. In the age of Instagram and a perpetual flow of billions of images, this might seem laughable: who would dare today impose anything? But make no mistake, time has a good memory.
Henri Cartier-Bresson belonged to the Magnum cooperative agency founded in the spring of 1947 in New York, alongside Robert Capa, David “Chim” Seymour, George Rodger, and William Vandivert. The agency’s strong point: the photographers own their negatives. “Magnum is a kind of formidable anachronism,” said Ferdinando Scianna, the first Italian photographer to join this independent agency in 1987, author of the moving images of Kami, Bolivia.
Henri Cartier-Bresson died on August 3, 2004, aged 95, but his magnetism hasn’t lost its force of attraction. That’s not only because he has been continuously exhibited, among others at the Paris-based Foundation that bears his name, but because of the breadth of his work and his unforgettable life lived to the fullest. Looking at a Cartier-Bresson photograph is your life insurance.
He was fortunate to have been well-born. He claimed to be a libertarian, “fundamentally libertarian, that is to say, against all power.” He was very demanding, which is why he knew how to pick out publishable photographs in a contact sheet.
By Brigitte Ollier
Brigitte Ollier is a journalist based in Paris. She has worked for over thirty years for the newspaper Libération, where she created the column “Photographie.” She is the author of several books about a few memorable photographers.
Selected books by and about Henri Cartier-Bresson:
Henri Cartier-Bresson: America in Passing, texts by Gilles Mora. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996.
Discoveries: Henri Cartier-Bresson by Clément Chéroux. London: Henry H. Abrams, 2008.
Henri by Brigitte Ollier. Paris: Filigranes, 2003, which brings together forty-seven voices recollecting the twentieth century’s most flamboyant picture snatcher. (In French)