5th August 2004, 12:34 PM
Cartier-Bresson, Artist Who Used Lens, Dies at 95
Sad...One of photography greats....
Cartier-Bresson, Artist Who Used Lens, Dies at 95
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
Published: August 4, 2004
Henri Cartier-Bresson, who used his tiny, hand-held 35-millimeter Leica camera to bear humane witness to many of the 20th century's biggest events, from the Spanish Civil War to the German occupation of France to the partition of India to the Chinese revolution to the French student uprisings of 1968, died on Tuesday at his home in Southwest France. He was 95.
A private funeral was held yesterday, according to a statement from his family and Magnum, the photo agency he helped establish.
Mr. Cartier-Bresson seemed to know everyone and to see everything of importance throughout the middle decades of the last century. Even in his later years, when he more or less abandoned photography to draw, he remained an astonishing live wire who liked to say that his approach to life had been shaped by Buddhism. His wife, the photographer Martine Franck, described him to the Dalai Lama as "a Buddhist in turbulence."
He photographed dozens of luminaries: his pictures of a convalescent Matisse during World War II, of Sartre as a boulevardier and of Mahatma Gandhi minutes before he was killed have become icons of photographic portraiture. But he was also the archetype of the itinerant photojournalist during the heyday of photojournalism immediately after the war, before television became widespread, when millions of people still learned what was happening in the world through the pictures that ran in magazines like Life and Paris-Match.
His photographs, later collected in numerous books, were always considered remarkable for their empathy; Lincoln Kirstein called Mr. Cartier-Bresson "a responsible artist, responsible to his craft and to his society."
It was Mr. Cartier-Bresson's prestige, along with that of Robert Capa, George Rodger and David Seymour, known as Chim, that established Magnum Photos, which they founded in 1947, as the world's premier photo agency. Under its aegis, Mr. Cartier-Bresson went to China, India, Indonesia, Egypt, Cuba, the Soviet Union.
But he was far more than a gifted photojournalist. He combined a Rabelaisian appetite for the world with a clarity of vision and intellectual rigor that linked him to French masters like Poussin. His wit, lyricism and ability to see the geometry of a fleeting image and capture it in the blink of an eye reshaped and created a new standard for the art of photography. If in later years a certain sentimentality crept into some of his pictures, his best photographs, many of them from the 1930's, when he most strongly bore the imprint of Surrealism, are simply among the best works of 20th-century art.
In 1932, he stuck his camera between the slats of a fence near the St.-Lazare railway station in Paris at precisely the right instant and captured a picture of the watery lot behind the station, strewn with debris. A man has propelled himself from a ladder that lies in the water. Photographs of puddle jumpers were clichés then, but Mr. Cartier-Bresson brings to his image layer on layer of fresh and uncanny detail: the figure of a leaping dancer on a pair of posters on a wall behind the man mirrors him and his reflection in the water; the rippling circles made by the ladder echo circular bands of discarded metal debris; another poster, advertising a performer named Railowsky, puns with the railway station and the ladder, which, flat, resembles a railroad track.
Last edited by tush; 5th August 2004 at 12:37 PM.
5th August 2004, 12:35 PM
No wonder other photographers couldn't believe Mr. Cartier-Bresson's luck, much less his skill. The term that has come to be associated with him is "the decisive moment," the English title of "Images à la Sauvette" ("Images on the Run" might be a closer translation), a book of his photographs published in 1952. Mr. Cartier-Bresson described "the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of the significance of an event, as well as the precise organization of forms that give that event its proper expression." Content plus geometry.
Walker Evans reviewed "The Decisive Moment" when it was published. "What Cartier-Bresson has is a more or less dependable ability to snap a picture," he wrote, "just when a child takes off into an ecstatic state of being as he skips beside a wall that is covered with an unearthly design of some lunarlike patina." The photograph to which Evans referred shows a boy in Valencia, Spain, in 1933, his upturned face giving him the surreal look of someone in a trance, a look akin to divine rapture. In reality the boy was waiting to catch a ball he had tossed in the air. It was Mr. Cartier-Bresson's genius to see instantaneously how the child's expression would take on new meaning if the ball were not visible in the picture.
Nicolas Nabokov, the composer and writer, once described Mr. Cartier-Bresson as having a "blond and pink head" and "gently mocking smile." (In Mexico, where Mr. Cartier-Bresson lived in 1934, he was called the man with cheeks "the color of shrimp.") His eyes, Nabokov said, were "like darts, sharp and clever, limpidly blue and infinitely agile." Later in life those eyes were behind thick lenses when he drew. His hair thinned. Tall, wiry, studiously unostentatious, with patrician bearing, he retained a boyish, Gallic charm and a kind of loping gait. He was a proud and mischievous man, thoroughly French, though Dan Hofstadter, writing in The New Yorker some years ago, compared Mr. Cartier-Bresson's appearance to that of "a Scandinavian socialist schoolmaster en route to a May Day parade."
Degas once said, "It's wonderful to be famous as long as you remain unknown." Mr. Cartier-Bresson loved that remark and carried the photojournalistic penchant for invisibility to such attention-getting lengths as to shield his face while receiving an honorary degree at Oxford. In the United States he sometimes traveled under an alias, Hank Carter.
"I'm not an actor," he insisted. "What does it mean, 'celebrity'? I call myself an artisan. Anyone with sensitivity is potentially an artist. But then you must have concentration besides sensitivity."
He tried to immerse himself in places before photographing them, to blend into and learn about their cultures. "I'm not interested in my photographs, nor other people's," he once said.
Photographers and others who saw him work talked about his swift and nimble ability to snap a picture undetected. (Sometimes he even masked the shiny metal parts of his camera with black tape.) They also admired his coolness under pressure. The director Louis Malle remembered that despite all the turmoil at the peak of the student protests in Paris in May 1968, Mr. Cartier-Bresson took photographs at the rate of only about four an hour.
He insisted that his works not be cropped but otherwise disdained the technical side of photography; the Leica was all he ever wanted to use; he wasn't interested in developing his own pictures.
"My contact sheets may be compared to the way you drive a nail in a plank," he said. "First you give several light taps to build up a rhythm and align the nail with the wood. Then, much more quickly, and with as few strokes as possible, you hit the nail forcefully on the head and drive it in."
Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in Chanteloup, not far from Paris, on August 22, 1908, the oldest of five children in a wealthy family so puritanically frugal, he once said, that as a small boy he thought he was poor. He was a descendant of Charlotte Corday, Marat's assassin, a fact he liked to point out. His father was a textile manufacturer; at one time almost every French sewing kit was stocked with Cartier-Bresson thread. On his mother's side were cotton merchants and landowners in Normandy, where he spent part of his childhood.
He was educated in Paris. "I went to the École Fénelon, a Catholic school that prepared you for the Lycée Condorcet, and one day the proctor there caught me reading a volume of Rimbaud or Mallarmé, right at the start of the school year, in the lower sixth. He said to me: 'Let's have no disorder in your studies!' He used the informal 'tu' - which usually meant you were about to get a good thrashing. But he went on: 'You're going to read in my office.' Well, that wasn't an offer he had to repeat."
He read, among other things, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and a book on Schopenhauer that he said led him to Romain Rolland and to Eastern philosophy. "That had a huge effect on me,'' he said. "I had never been a Christian believer. My mother once said: 'Poor dear, if only you had a good Dominican confessor, you wouldn't be in such a fix!"'
He recalled being struck, while still a teenager, by several of Martin Munkacsi's photographs. "I said to myself: 'How can one do that?' - that combination of plastic beauty and vitality. When I saw those photographs, I said to myself: 'Now here's something to do.' " ...
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5th August 2004, 03:49 PM