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#122: HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON.

March 10, 2017

#122:  HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON.  Orson Welles once said of the great Italian film director Vittorio de Sica, “In handling a camera I feel that I have no peer.  But what de Sica can do I can’t do.  I ran his “Shoeshine” recently and the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared; it was just life….”  Think of the earlier French master photographer, Eugene Atget, and your mind fills with old Parisian storefronts and the empty lanes and vistas of Versailles:  mornings before the streets have come to life, vacant alleyways, or evenings after the park has emptied out and the trees and sculptures have taken on a ghostly quiet.  Think of Man Ray or Mapplethorpe and you think of startlement and gloss.  Viewing the work of Cartier-Bresson, you never feel you are entering an artist’s world:  you’re looking at the world itself, and you’re acutely aware of wondering about the places where the scenes were caught:  France, Spain, India, China (in the last months of the Kuomintang and through the arrival of Communist rule), Russia (the first photographer allowed in after diplomatic relations with the West resumed), Cuba.  In Cuba he eased in on a French passport and with the help of the poet Nicolas Guillen, met with Che and Fidel (“He has the neck of a minotaur, the conviction of a messiah.”) but typically played hookey to view a Yoruba voodoo ceremony.  He was presumed lost during the war but showed up in New York to assist at a “posthumous” exhibit of his photos; this after working on films with Jean Renoir in the thirties and doing a remarkable series of portraits of artists and writers.   With friends he helped create Magnum, the landmark association of photographers and photojournalists.  This momentum through years of constant change in Europe and Asia might, you think, have given the dynamism, that remarkable sense of the momentary, to his compositions, such a contrast to those of Atget; but they were there in his earliest work.  In a 1933 photo in Madrid, small windows that pepper a vast blank wall create their own sense of motion; but note the lone man behind the foreground group of children, propelled forward by a vastly rotund stomach.  In another in the same year and place, taken through a gap in a wall, a gaggle of children are frozen in a variety of motions to create a wild zig-zag composition, emphasized by the foreshortening of a boy on crutches.  In a photo taken inside a “model” American prison, a man’s arm and leg jut from between the bars, making us think of the sculpture of Ayme’s Passe-Muraille up in Montmartre (designed by, of all people, the French actor Jean Marais, who was in several of Renoir’s films).  Nothing is posed; everything is caught in what Cartier-Bresson famously called “the decisive moment.”  He was vehemently against cropping; if the photo didn’t work, he discarded it.  He worked with a single camera and a single lens, to the point it became an extension of his hand and eye.  This in turn was an expression of an enormous humanity, a wild curiosity for everything from street scenes to entangled human bodies, an artist entirely beyond formula and dictum.   There are many fine collections of his work in print and online; an inexpensive introduction is the volume in the Masters of Photography series published by Aperture.  Later in life he took to drawing:   “Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing a meditation.”  And in 1998 Aperture published The Mind’s Eye, a marvelous collection of his writings, marked throughout by soul, grace and modesty.  Of China he writes:  “I was in Nanjing in 1949 when the Liberation Army arrived.  I had the impression that those men were still holding on to the ideal of the prestige of that colossal epic, the Long March.  Today, after Tiananmen Square, it is the great ignominy of the Chinese Army to have tried to save, with the blood of students, a dying regime.”  There’s more than one way to witness.

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