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Cartier-Bresson's Decisive Moment
Copyright © 2003 Condé Nast Publications. All rights reserved.
Originally published in Vanity Fair. Reprinted by permission.
"I was never interested in photography," says the godfather of photojournalism. "It's instant drawing, that's all." He is perched in his Paris lair on the Rue de Rivoli with its heaven's-eye command of the Jardin des Tuileries, five floors below. Outside his window people seem to scurry like amoebas, tiny flecks against the green. "Every Tom, Dick, and Harry is a photographer," he says with a shrug.
Playing the provocateur--and debunking his profession--is a favorite pastime of Henri Cartier-Bresson's. Photography, he insists, is too speedy a medium. He prefers the slow, old reliables--paint or ink or pencil lead--to the mad dash of light through a lens. "Drawings go further than photography," he says, then refers fondly to the women who ascend to his studio many quiet afternoons to pose for him in the nude. "My pleasure," he recently told a friend, "is to sketch my models. I am not very good at hands or feet. What I like to sketch are curves."
At 94, Cartier-Bresson is rosy-cheeked and blustery and vigorous, if unsteady on his feet. Today he wears a bright-red sweater and a Navajo bolo tie as he waves a long hand at the view he's enjoyed for 32 years. "Monet and Cézanne and Pissarro used to come to the fourth floor below us and draw from here," he says. "When you climb the staircase you think of Cézanne because there was no lift in those days." Indeed, two color postcards on the living-room table, showing scenes by Monet and Pissarro, replicate the very vista outside, as sublime today as it apparently was a century ago.
"Matisse," he says of his long-gone colleague, with uncharacteristic wistfulness, "Matisse had a model, Madame Lydia Delectorskaya, who I thought was very beautiful. She helped Matisse with the last years of his life, when he couldn't paint anymore."
It is 11 a.m. and the late-autumn sun has just poked through the gray. "Some white wine?" he asks, summoning a bottle of Bordeaux.
He pours, then lifts his glass, smiling at last. "To anarchy!"
In April a retrospective of his work--photographs and drawings, curated by Robert Delpire and Philippe Arba ïzar--will be showcased at the esteemed Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. In conjunction with the exhibition, he will publish a grandly titled book, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, the Image, and the World. And later in April the doors will open at the new Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Montparnasse--part archive, part cultural incubator, established with his wife, photographer Martine Franck (stunning, vibrant, and 30 years his junior). The institute will honor Cartier-Bresson and promote the visions of young artists and photographers on the rise. To mark the occasion, he has reluctantly agreed to a round of verbal jousting, devoting a few hours and a hearty lunch to discussing three topics he finds positively nettlesome: his photography, his life, and his career. ("A career?!" he says with a grimace, aghast. "It's for a prime minister or an entrepreneur or a funeral director. That's a career.")
Though he was born into one of France's manufacturing dynasties--for decades hardly a spool of thread in any French home was not Cartier-Bresson--he grew up with defiant designs on being an artiste. "I didn't want to get into the family business," he says. It represented "something very unpleasant to me. Duty and obligation." (As a boy he was seditious enough to affix to his bedroom mirror a ransom-note-style sign with letters clipped from a newspaper to form an accusatory question: where does the money come from?) "My uncle, by being a painter, represented freedom to me," he says, pointing out two of his Uncle Louis's landscapes on a far wall. "He was killed in World War I. Disgusting war." During a Christmas-week visit at age five, he says, he had an "epiphany, certainly, in my uncle's studio," overtaken in a proto-Proustian swoon by the smell of the canvases. He was set, then and there, on his life's course.
As a young man in the 20s and 30s, accustomed to the rarefied spheres that wealth and roiling curiosity brought his way, he studied art with Cubist painter André Lhote, drank in brothels with Surrealists ("We never went upstairs," he has said), and nearly died of blackwater fever on a sojourn in Africa, where he hunted professionally for a year, stalking hippo and crocodile, antelope and boar. Fueled by the avant-garde spirit of the times, he pursued his painting and, one day in 1931, ran across a picture in the journal Photographies showing three African boys splashing in the surf. Upon viewing the image, "I felt a sense of rhythm and a sense of life," he recalls, "a sense of liberty. You could catch that with a camera." He was smitten with photography's urgency: aesthetic ecstasy achieved in the sliver of a second. And like many of his restless contemporaries, he picked up Leica's newly invented portable camera, took to the street, and began opening the eyes of the world.
By 1932, at age 24, Cartier-Bresson had begun to devise a whole new manner of shooting pictures. He displayed an intuitive knack for choosing "the decisive moment," as it came to be called, that instant when a shutter click can suspend an event within the eye and heart of the beholder, an exhilarating confluence of observer and observed. His lyrical, loose, ingeniously composed images were a revelation. Previously, most photographers had used clunky, stationary cameras. They were like Romantic poets who looked back at time, recording the melancholy of a moment's having passed. H.C.B.'s images, many plucked from the everyday whirl of his beloved Paris, had the power and poetry of Zen and particle physics--smashing the atom of the present, bottling its spark, and generating flashes of life and light.
In short order his images of common men and women in France, Spain, Italy, and Mexico began appearing in publications and on gallery walls: a man suspended in mid-leap above a puddle--and the dark kiss of his reflection--in the Place de l'Europe; the blur of a bicyclist, in Hyères, buoyantly poised as he passes a stairwell's conch-shell swirl; a family picnic on the sloping banks of the Marne. Observed his friend Lincoln Kirstein, an erudite arbiter of culture and the arts, "He is responsible for more individual memorable images than any other photographer in his epoch."
His talents and reputation grew, along with his vagabond's appetite. And then the war came. Cartier-Bresson was imprisoned by the Germans and escaped three times. While in Nazi hands, he taunted his guards continually. "Cheap labor, bon marché!" he says, giving his head a gleeful cock. "I was a very poor laborer. I would sabotage by doing things very, very slowly ... the least work possible. We used to tell the Germans, 'We can't work without red wine.' They used to say, 'Scheisse!' That means 'Shit!' They had no sense of humor. The Germans would say, 'The only thing Frenchmen are good at is to go on walks with ladies.'"
Over the years, he befriended Sartre and Beckett and Gertrude Stein, Bonnard and Giacometti, filmmakers Jean Renoir and Luis Buñuel. In 1947 he co-founded the premier photo agency of the age, the Magnum cooperative, with fellow photographers Robert Capa, George Rodger, David Seymour, and William Vandivert. Cartier-Bresson trekked through Chiang Kai-shek's China and Khrushchev's Russia, and met with Gandhi a half-hour before his assassination. He covered George VI's coronation and Churchill's funeral. He shot for Life, Holiday, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, and Britain's Queen and The Illustrated Magazine. He photographed Coco Chanel and Che Guevara and Marilyn Monroe, who responded to his request to "bless" his camera by squatting on it, ever so gently, with her derrière. (Unfortunately, he wasn't able to capture that decisive moment.) He prowled Paris and invited some of its storied visitors to crash at his place when they came to town. "One day I was working in his lab in his garçonnière," says photographer Tom Haley, "and he said to me, sort of conspiratorially, 'This is where [Roberto] Rossellini was having the affair with Ingrid Bergman.' Henri was loaning them his hideaway. He was very proud of that."
Today his apartment--much larger than his studio several blocks away--is bright and low-ceilinged, unpretentious and quirky (with a secret panel that, when opened, reveals a view of the Basilique du Sacré Coeur). The living room is adorned with paintings, drawings, Balinese tapestries, and African masks. The TV is draped in funerary fashion, hidden under a maroon Indonesian batik. ("The proportion of a television is all wrong," he says emphatically, by way of explanation. "Phooey!") Only one photo is anywhere in evidence: a shot, tucked in an alcove, of his granddaughter, Natasha. "She's three," he says, beaming. Otherwise, he claims not to own any pictures. "I can't imagine a photograph on a wall. I prefer to draw at the moment. In drawing, you feel the hand. In photography, you feel the head--and how!
"Drawing, yes!" exults the artist whose meditative landscapes, nudes, and still lifes, often done in lively pencil, have been described by art critic John Russell as "brisk, deft, highly energized ... whisk[ed] lightly across the paper, as if carried this way and that by ferocious winter winds." Cartier-Bresson offers his own view: "That's the trouble with the present world: cerebral! We have too much up here." He points to his head. "[Not enough] down here," he says, pointing to his loins.
"If you want to know why I'm a provocateur, you should ask Rimbaud." He glares, scowls inscrutably, then coaxes out a smile. He relishes being peevish, deflecting any semblance of conventional conversation. He enjoys being a very naughty boy of 94.
After a recent meeting with a magazine editor, for instance, Cartier-Bresson emerged from the Hôtel Ritz in Paris to confront a limousine curbside. Regarding the vehicle as a bourgeois eyesore to be reckoned with, he asked, "Shall I pee on the tire?" Last year, while inscribing a book for collector and curator Michael Gallagher, Cartier-Bresson stopped to jot a comment under a photo of Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill: "What a bunch of bananas!" Then, as they sipped whiskeys, Gallagher showed him a rare copy of an unauthorized H.C.B. biography, one Cartier-Bresson particularly hated. The photographer insisted that they destroy the book immediately. "So we stood there," recalls Gallagher, "and we just ripped it up together and threw it in the garbage. Ripped it to shreds."
Cartier-Bresson is nothing if not frank. According to a correspondent who has known him half a century, a young photographer once went to present him his portfolio. "Huge prints," the correspondent remembers, "showing a broken leg of a horse, a Madonna in tears, the tragedy of Catholicism in South America. Henri said, 'If I were you, I would stop doing that. The merde! This is shit!' The poor guy was demolished. Henri said, 'Read the writings of Matisse and you will understand what is art!'"
"He is the quintessential free man," says fellow Magnum photographer Gilles Peress, "the free-est man I know." He is "as comfortable with peasants," says his U.S. representative and agent, Helen Wright, "as he is in the salon." In fact, Cartier-Bresson's personality embodies grand dichotomies. He has Chevalier's charm and Ralph Kramden's temper. He's an evangelist, but he proselytizes for, of all things, noncomformity. He's photography's Don Quixote--railing all his life against institutions--but he's now establishing his very own. He's a man born of privilege ("Equal parts aristocrat and rebel," says picture editor John Morris, a close colleague since 1941) who made friends with photographers who were often scrappy exiles, and whose work and causes he would champion: Capa, who fled Hungary and Germany, Gjon Mili, an Albanian immigrant, and Josef Koudelka, who fled Czechoslovakia. "Koudelka I used to see in the early 70s," says photo-agency chief Robert Pledge, "sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor of Cartier-Bresson's apartment."
"He's completely allergic to flash photography," says Peress, who remembers a scene from the opening of a 1987 retrospective of Cartier-Bresson's work at the Museum of Modern Art. "A woman was photographing him with a flash. He reached into his pocket and brought out a leather sheath and drew a knife. And he initiated a movement to chase her. We had to stop him." H.C.B.'s camera-shy nature is so well accepted and generally respected within photographic circles that when two paparazzi had the temerity to tail him for a week or two, 15 years ago, their French editor repressed the resulting images, which have never been published.
The man who defends the pad and easel to the death is rumored to have destroyed most of his paintings in his youth as an impulsive purge before taking up the camera in earnest. The story may be apocryphal; Cartier-Bresson, in any case, refuses to address the topic. But in the late 1930s, by then a prolific photographer, he did dispose of a goodly share of his photographic work. "Just before the war," he recalls, "I wanted to put my archive of photographs in one shoebox." So he cut up his negatives, leaving "one negative of each that I liked. And threw the rest away. And threw away all the contact sheets. So that it would all fit in one Huntley & Palmers biscuit box. I thought, These were the good ones. If something had to be preserved, I thought, That's that. The stupidity was that I didn't keep the [frame] on the right or the left, so for the printer now it's very difficult."
Along with Martine, who is spearheading his new foundation, Cartier-Bresson embraces Buddhism. She admits, however, with a loving glance (and what seems like mild exasperation), "He's not a completely serene person." Says Robert Pledge, "There's a touch of Jean-Paul Sartre in him--he's a serious thinker. A touch of Jacques Tati--a dancing Hulot when photographing in the street. A touch of Dada. A bit of the Buddhist, but a bit too much of a hedonist to be a [proper] Buddhist."
"When I met him for the first time, in 1965," says Hélène Véret, a journalist friend from their days together in Life magazine's boisterous Paris bureau, "he looked very smart, dressed in tweed and cashmere with a silk scarf around his neck. He carried himself with a real touch of British elegance. But he had that look that leaves ladies weak. Piercing, clear-blue eyes with a glint of mischievousness."
Through it all, there has been the prevailing H.C.B. ethic: Instinct always triumphs over Mind. "You mustn't know too much," he says, describing how he captures "the decisive moment" on film. "There's nothing to know. Cats know more than human beings on the subject. Cats sniffle: sniff-sniff. Intuition. People use brains too much. Brains are not used for making love."
In fact, his shooting style has sometimes been described in sexual terms. Lincoln Kirstein called it "a complex chemistry of moral and muscular explosions, like an orgasm." Cartier-Bresson himself has written, with a deliberate nod to Joyce's Molly Bloom, "I am a pack of nerves while waiting for the moment, and this feeling grows and grows and grows and then it explodes, it is a physical joy, a dance, space and time reunited. Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!"
Sexual or not, the photographic act, to Cartier-Bresson, clearly invigorates. In an old film clip included in a 1994 documentary by director Sarah Moon, Cartier-Bresson can be seen, camera in hand, at a parade, bobbing and dipping, darting and weaving, focusing and refocusing, balancing on one reed-thin leg like some stork with a beret and a Leica, hurriedly trying to view all perspectives before the perfect one passes. "His style is a combination of a rumba dancer and a toreador," says photographer Tom Haley. "He was like a papillon, a little butterfly," says Véret, who joined him on his last magazine shoot--a portrait of photographer Helmut Newton for Vanity Fair in 2000, part of Cartier-Bresson's first major assignment in 29 years. "He was shooting away at Helmut Newton [who had just turned 80], who was like a little grain for his meal, sitting on a statue, smiling and posing. Newton called him Master. 'Well, Master, tell me what you want me to do.'"
Many of his compatriots are dead now. The previous week, in fact, his younger brother, Claude, passed on. "In recent years," says his friend John Morris, "I've been seeing him mostly at funerals, I'm sorry to say."
Cartier-Bresson, though, seems content as he sits in his Parisian perch, with winter coming on. He claims to know how and when he will die--though he prefers not to share that one secret among many revealed by Madame Colle, a sometime fortune-teller who read his tarot cards in the 1930s. "It's uncanny what she told me," he says. "She told me I would travel a lot. That I would marry someone who was not white, not black. In fact, [my first wife] was Javanese. That I would have a certain authority in what I did. That I would live a long life. And that I would marry someone younger than I was." It has all come to pass.
What gives him the courage to face the end of life, or the afterlife? "The spirit of a person remains, even though they are no longer here," he says of death--and, perhaps, of photography. "Because I think of them." For Cartier-Bresson, Buddhism helps to warm the chill. (He and his wife consider the Dalai Lama a friend.) As he's grown older, "Buddhism has become important. It helps you look at death straight on. To be less fearful. It's not the idea that you can be reborn that is comforting, but the fact of facing death directly--an open way of looking at things with no heaven or hell or guilt. No culpabilities. Unabashed. You're responsible for what you've done, and that's comforting and what helps me going on living."
What gives him the greatest pleasure now, this man who, in summer, likes to fly his kites in the brisk mistral above the melon and lavender fields of the Lubéron? "La révolte!" he says. "When you're facing someone head-on, when you don't agree."
He hesitates, then adds, "And to live!"
As a hedge against the future, Cartier-Bresson is now erecting his new institute in a five-story landmark building, its vast bank of skylights as open and vaulting as the great man's eyes. Every other year he will award $30,000 to an up-and-comer shooting with vision and passion. And month after month, on the museum's walls, the work of young photographers will blossom and grow.
What advice, then, can he offer to those whose photos might hang there?
He makes a fist, slams the other hand on his biceps, then thrusts the fist upward toward his chin: an obscene and universally understood gesture of insult and, of course, provocation. Then he bursts into smile. A salutation straight from the eye and heart and spleen of Paris.
© David Friend
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