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Six Pictures: Strolling Through Paris with Henri Cartier-Bresson

Six Pictures: Strolling Through Paris with Henri Cartier-Bresson

A new book (and exhibition) looks at the master photographer’s relationship to Paris—the city he loved, left, and returned to again and again.

In March of 2020, street life took a coffee break. Between quarantines and lockdowns, the world watched as shops pulled closed their gates, restaurants stacked up their chairs, and the chaotic ballet of the street was supplanted by there-and-back trips to market or pharmacy, masks on, eyes straight ahead. As restrictions ease and the world’s streets begin to dance once again, it seems fitting that a new book about Henri Cartier-Bresson, the almost indescribably influential French photographer, focuses on his life in Paris as a flâneur —a French word describing a person who strolls without a goal while carefully observing everything around him. In other words, a connoisseur of street life.

Paris Revisited, an enlightening deep dive that accompanies a long-planned exhibit at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, offers a way to think about Cartier-Bresson’s singular relationship with the city of Paris. Edited by Agnès Sire, who has been the artistic director of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation since it opened in 2003, and Anne de Mondenard, a photo historian and the head of photography at the Musée Carnavalet, the book features 235 photos (and illustrations) that Cartier-Bresson made in Paris, including some seldom seen and others never before exhibited, as well as insightful essays about, among other topics, his portrait work and the liberation of Paris from the Nazis. Amid the photos of Parisians smoking, kissing, working, and protesting, the book also quietly, implicitly asks its photographer-readers to consider the ways in which their own city might have shaped not only how they create images but also the every way in which they see.

The careful reader will notice something else, as well: in its 256 pages, the words “decisive moment”—the single phrase most closely associated with Cartier-Bresson—appear but three times; flâneur, on the other hand, appears eight times. Why is that? For generations of admirers, collectors, and casual fans, “The Decisive Moment” has come to represent a heady approach to making pictures that both stops time and seizes the heart, a photographic Holy Grail and Zen state wrapped into one. And yet, says Sire, Cartier-Bresson himself “hated this idea. That’s for sure. He was completely horrified to become the Pope of the Decisive Moment.”

Just before the book was launched and as the exhibition opened, Agnès Sire and de Mondenard spent a few moments looking carefully at six images from the book that speak to Cartier-Bresson’s sensibilities, legendary talents, and how they speak to the city in which they were made.

The Geometry of the Moment

If, as Sire writes, Cartier-Bresson “loved nothing so much as the grey poetry of the street,” he was also enamored by the river Seine—a destination for Parisians high and low—which sweeps gentlythrough Paris. The photographer made countless pictures, including one of his most well-known, of Parisians picnicking, fishing, and romancing on its wide banks. This image, from 1955, is less intimate than some of his more celebrated Seine photos, but it highlights another of the great photographer’s signature talents: a piercing recognition of the geometry of the moment. The three ramps and three sets of stairs feel like the beginning of an Escher drawing through which three couples gamely stroll. In a wide-ranging interview conducted with American journalist Sheila Turner in the early ’70s, Cartier-Bresson spoke of his love of capturing a scene’s inherent geometry: “It’s a sensuous pleasure—an intellectual pleasure at the same time—to have everything in the right place. It’s a recognition of an order that’s in front of you.” And as de Mondenard insightfully points out, Paris, with its tightly packed buildings and narrow streets, provided a perfect theater that suited Cartier-Bresson’s love of found geometry.

Rediscovering Paris

Place de la Bastille, 1953, Collection du musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Cartier-Bresson left his native Paris for long stretches, including, famously, a three-year trip through Asia, a year in Mexico, and extended stays in Spain, Italy, America, and the Soviet Union.  (“He hated to take short trips,” says Agès Sire, in something of an understatement. “He didn’t like it at all.”) And while these journeys allowed Cartier-Bresson to make some of his most celebrated images, they also bestowed another gift: He continually returned to Paris with, as Sires phrased it, “refreshed eyes.” In this picture, which he made in 1953, not long after returning from those years in Asia, he catches a street performer mid-act, a spout of flames billowing from his lips. But the photo’s magic—and evidence of Cartier-Bresson’s intelligent, intuitive eye—is that the fire-breather’s outstretched arm echoes that of the angel perched atop the column of stone.  In speaking with Turner about the difference between shooting at home versus more exotic locales, Cartier-Bresson said, “To interest people in far away places—to shock them, to delight them—is not too difficult.” Then he added this: “The most difficult thing is in your own country,” and he went on to tell her, “In places where I am all the time, I know too much and not enough.”

One Giant Leap

Place de l’Europe, behind the gare Saint Lazare, 1932, Collection du musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

One day in 1932, just behind the St.-Lazare train station in Paris, Cartier-Bresson poked his camera partway through a fence and made a picture that is often mistakenly referred to as “The Decisive Moment.” The French title of the 1952 book in which the picture appeared—with a brilliant cover by HCB’s close friend Henri Matisse—was Images à la Sauvette, which translates to “images on the run.” But, says Agnès Sire, the book’s American editor at Simon & Schuster didn’t much like that. Instead, he pulled a fragment from a quote that Cartier-Bresson had used in the book’s forward and fashioned that into the title. The great photographer was not pleased. Instead of being the pope of the decisive moment, says Sire, he would rather have been “the pope of the unconscious.” In Paris Revisited, she quotes him as saying, “It is to Surrealism that I owe allegiance, for it taught me to allow the camera lens to rummage through the rubble of the unconscious and of chance.”

Title aside, the image itself is a masterwork of both timing and visual rhyming (the man’s extended legs echoing those of the leaping dancer in the poster on the wall behind him). Agnès Sire calls it “a monster of equilibrium and harmony,” to say nothing of Cartier-Bresson’s unmatched ability to anticipate a moment before it actually unfolded before him. Sire refers to this picture as an example of what she calls an “action composition” that shows “a tension between improvisation and concentration.”  It is also the rare HCB photo that was cropped due to the bars in that pesky fence. Sire, of course, has seen the image thousands of times and yet she still gets passionate speaking about it: “It was taken as if he were a blind man, because there was a fence in front of his camera. He could not completely see what he was photographing, which means his brain integrated the geometry” in an instant.

Paris is Burning

Liberation of Paris, 25 August 1944, Collection Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

During WWII, Cartier-Bresson, then serving as a corporal in the French Army’s film and photo unit, was captured and became a prisoner of war for nearly three years. He attempted to escape the Nazi labor camp twice before finally succeeding. This picture, made during the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944, was, says de Mondenard, “not at all the type of picture he was generally taking”—that is, not intimate, not full of geometry or visual sparks between elements—“but he kept it because he had the feeling that it was very important to situate the event.” As Agnès Sire describes the chaotic scene, “It was quite complicated to shoot this famous day. The [photographers] were organized in groups” covering action in different parts of the city. “They didn’t have enough film. So one guy was bringing film from one group to the other…. They didn’t know what would happen in the next five minutes.” Cartier-Bresson would later live in a Paris apartment that overlooked the Louvre museum and the Tuileries gardens, offering this sort of sweeping view of the city he loved.

Focus on The People

Bookseller by the Seine, 1952, Collection Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

At 23, Cartier-Bresson borrowed money from his father and bought a Leica 1 (serial number 20562, if you track these sorts of things). According to Paris Revisited, HCB who, until then, had fed his creativity by painting and drawing, said that “he became a photographer by picking up the Leica.” The light, fast, handheld camera allowed him to move nimbly—to almost dance—through the streets and to make pictures quickly and without being noticed. This 1952 image of a bookseller behind a church was “quite unknown,” says de Mondenard. “We discovered it in the collection of the foundation. It had never been published before.” (The exhibit, says Sire, features documents, vintage prints, and letters “that were not accessible to the public or to researchers when he was alive.”) Even in a relatively unknown and certainly not classic work such as this, Cartier-Bresson’s signature is there: the angle of the slanted books echoes the church’s buttresses as well as the cantilevered awning of the humble book stand. But the image also speaks to how Cartier-Bresson positioned people in his frames, and why. “In Paris, as elsewhere,” the book’s editors write, “it was human beings that interested him…He used figures as his basis for composing the image, at varying distances but never in extreme close-up. He did not ignore the city, but it was always there in the background.” They go on to quote the photographer from a 1951 interview: “I make use of this setting to position my actors, to grant them their rightful importance, to treat them with the respect that is their due.’” For Cartier-Bresson, it was always about the people, about the human heart.

Portrait of the Philosopher

Known for his balletic, catlike prowling of the streets, Cartier-Bresson also made a number of extraordinarily intimate portraits. He found making these images to be difficult: “You have to put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt, which is not a very easy thing,” was the way he described the process to the journalist Sheila Turner. This 1945 portrait of the famous French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is a perfect example. With the fog behind him, Sartre speaks intently to a famous architect while smoking his pipe—the stem from which perfectly aligns with the railing—but part of the picture’s tension comes from the fact we’re not sure if Sartre is aware that Cartier-Bresson is there or not. “[Cartier-Bresson] once told me a story,” remembers Agnès Sire, who knew the photographer for 23 years. “One day he was photographing [fashion designer and icon] Yves Saint-Laurent and he was in the apartment and looking around for, I don’t know, 15 minutes, and Saint-Laurent was really, really nervous and said, ‘When are we doing the picture?’ And Cartier-Bresson said, ‘It’s done. I took it a long time ago.’

By Bill Shapiro

Bill Shapiro is the former editor-in-chief of LIFE magazine; on Instagram, he’s @billshapiro

Paris Revisited, edited by Agnès Sire and Anne de Mondenard, Thames & Hudson. 256 pages, $60.

“Paris Revisited” is currently on display at the Musee Carnavalet, in Paris, through October 31, 2021.

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