What follows is the story of a friendship: the close-knit friendship between Henri Cartier-Bresson (HCB) and the French painter Sam Szafran.
The friendship is narrated in 226 images given by HCB to, as he put it, his “intense friend.” Now on display at the Pierre Gianadda Foundation in Martigny, Switzerland, all dedicated, the images testify to mutual affection and admiration.
Following the photographer’s death in 2004, the Szafran family decided to entrust the collection to Léonard Gianadda, creator of the eponymous foundation and friend of the two artists. He now pays homage to their friendship.
“Sam, my intense friend”
Cartier-Bresson’s iconic photographs are well known, but those displayed at the Foundation are of more intimate in nature.
Each frame print bears a dedication at the bottom, signed “HCB, “Henri Cartier etc.,” or just “Henri.” All are addressed to “Sam my friend,” “Sam, my intense friend,” or “Sam and Lilette, with affection.” There is often a kind word or a gentle tease: “Eat your banana and think about it. L’ami Henri,” reads the inscription to a photo of a banana harvest in Ivory Coast taken in “1930 or 31.”
“For many years, Sam was Henri’s drawing mentor. Henri, in turn, gave Sam photos, many photos. This is how the largest private collection of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs was assembled,” explained Léonard Gianadda, the creator of the Foundation which keeps this unique collection alive.
In 1989, Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibited some fifty photographs and as many drawings at the Pierre Gianadda Foundation. He struck a friendship with the patron, as well as forged a close relationship with the Szafrans.
When Cartier-Bresson died on August 3, 2004, Szafran decided to donate his photographic collection to the Foundation. He confided to Léonard Gianadda in 2005: “When I came back from Henri’s funeral, I was so overwhelmed! For thirty-five years he had been an extraordinary, loyal friend, and I simply did not want this collection to be scattered when we die. So I figured the Pierre Gianadda Foundation would be the safest place to keep it intact.”
The exhibition features not only HCB’s photography and genius: the viewer also comes to view the images from the artist’s travels in the 1930s, to India or Mexico, as an epistolary exchange between two friends, as the touching testimony of a shared affection.
“Picasso, I photographed him very poorly”
Cartier-Bresson met the young Szafran in 1972, during an exhibition devoted to contemporary art in Paris. Organized with the collaboration of the Cartier-Bresson Foundation, the exhibition also reminds us that HCB was the friend and portraitist of many artists.
Facing an imposing print, we find ourselves in the company of Alberto Giacometti, slightly blurred, clutching one of his works, a cigarette in his mouth. Here he is like his sculptures, one foot forward, caught in motion, fascinating.
“Giacometti is one of the most intelligent and clearheaded men I’ve ever known, totally honest about himself and severe when it came to his work, working hard when things got difficult. … He gave me many insights into photography and about the attitude one should have,” the photographer once told Szafran.
Jean Renoir, Georges Braque, Jeanne Moreau, Edith Piaf, to name a few: HCB made many portraits, but most of the sitters were friends, because the taking a picture is a complex affair for the man of the decisive moment.
“Making a portrait is for me the most difficult thing. It is very hard. It’s like putting someone in question,” confessed the photographer who liked to capture these men and women in their workshops or at home. We thus discover this magnificent snapshot of Giacometti, an eternal smoker, his jacket pulled over his head to protect him from the rain, crossing rue d’Alésia on his way to the Didot tobacco shop. Szafran’s favorite.
There is also Matisse holding his dove firmly in his left hand; his right hand drawing the bird. “Picasso, I photographed him very poorly. Matisse, yes. Picasso was a genius, but for me the great painter was Matisse. I knew him very well and I liked him very much. He made a wonderful cover for my book of photographs [The Decisive Moment],” Cartier-Bresson said in an interview in 1989.
The photographer thought of portraits in terms of respect for the other and for himself. “My approach is based on this respect, which is also respect for reality: no noise, no ostentation, being invisible, and, insofar as it is possible, not “prepare” or “arrange” anything, simply to be there, approach gingerly, on tiptoes, trying not to disturb anything…”
With Henri Cartier-Bresson, “we are all in the picture”
The photographer never abandoned the surprise effect, “looking in the streets to take a shot as if catching the subjects in flagrante delicto.” His inseparable Leica was “my notebook, fast, discreet, no bigger than my hand.”
Photography was Cartier-Bressons’s way of life, capturing fleeting moments of existence such as these two “voyeurs” in hats, caught in flagrante delicto somewhere in Brussels. The painter and sculptor Eduardo Arroyo described the photo as follows:
“The photographer caught two peeping Toms. One, in the background, is looking through a hole in the canvas stretched between poles at a spectacle hidden from the viewer. The other character, a Hercule Poirot lookalike, turns his gaze towards the lens. The man in the cap looks at reality through a hole. The other looks at the camera. And we in turn, looking at the photo, become voyeurs. Whether we like it or not, we become part of the photograph. We are all in the picture.”
This exceptional collection, enriched with quotes, offers a more sensitive and moving approach to Cartier-Bresson’s work. “Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that captures a specific moment. We play with things that disappear, and when they have disappeared, it is impossible to bring them back,” HCB used to say. The years pass, but the friendship remains. Eternal.
Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Pierre Gianadda Foundation, until February 21, Pierre Gianadda Foundation, Rue du Forum 59, 1920 Martigny, Switzerland.