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Master of the moment


No artist/journalist in living memory so epitomized the camera’s extraordinary affinity to the gun in its ability to draw-and-shoot and ‘hunt reality’ as Henri Cartier-Bresson. The work of the French legend illustrates that genre of photography now famous as ‘the decisive moment’, drawing attention to the legendary instantaneity of his photographic method.

Cartier-Bresson quickly became famous as the hunter of the ‘instant’. The American edition of his book Image a la Sauvette (a quick image taken without authorization) was titled Decisive Moment – an expression originally attributed to the 17th century French writer Cardinal Retz. But it was not a catch-phrase Cartier-Bresson himself coined.

He often described his method in the imagery of a hunter or a fisher. ‘One is, alas, always an intruder,’ he used to say, even in the infancy of photo-journalism in the 1940s, referring to the camera’s invasive properties and its implication in the regimes of spying and surveillance – which have become so problematic in recent times. ‘Approach the subject on tiptoe... Let your steps be velvet but your eyes keen. A good fisherman does not stir up the water before he starts to fish.’ Explaining why he never went into the darkroom to process his films – leaving it in the masterly hands of the equally legendary Pierre Gassman – he used to say: ‘I’m only a hunter, not a cook.’

Cartier-Bresson, who died on 2 August, three weeks short of his 96th birthday, was the greatest 20th century practitioner of the art of photography. His funeral in a little village close to Avignon (venue of the famous annual festival of performing arts) was kept ‘camera-free’ and no-one took a picture, in deference to his lifelong wish for visual anonymity.

For over 45 years, from when he began to work with a camera in 1932 until he stopped taking photographs in the mid-1970s, almost nothing significant seems to have happened in the world without Cartier-Bresson’s signature presence there with his battered and taped Leica M-3 camera. He was in Spain during the Civil War; in France during the occupation and liberation of Paris; in China for the last five months of the Kuomintang and the first six months of the People’s Republic; in India and Pakistan in 1947 during and after the Partition; the first photographer to be admitted into the Soviet Union after the lifting of the ‘iron curtain’ in 1954; in Hungary during the 1956 uprising; in China again in 1958 after the lifting of the ‘bamboo curtain’; in Cuba in 1960 to photograph Castro and Guevara take over in Havana; at the Berlin wall in 1962; in Prague for the ‘Prague Spring’, and in Paris standing with the students at the barricades, in 1968.

As a regular visitor to India, where he came on photo-shoots on six different occasions, he was on the spot to take the last photographs of Gandhiji, Sri Aurobindo and Ramana Maharshi. Journalism, for him, was the ability ‘to be in the right place at the right time’.

Cartier-Bresson travelled extensively in India photographing people and places. One of his sweetest pictures is of the nozzle of the first Indian rocket being carried to the Thumba launch pad on a bicycle in 1966. Perhaps his most evocative one was taken in 1948, showing the burqa-clad women of Kashmir looking as noble, durable and epiphanic as the mountains they are framed against. He counted among his friends here the Nehrus, the Sarabhais, Harindranath Chattopadhyaya and Mahakavi Vallathol.

Among his dearest friends in India, with whom he lived and travelled, were the dancer Chandralekha and the artist/designer Dashrath Patel, with whom he had an extraordinary photograph taken in an Ahmedabad studio, both of them sitting on the plywood façade of a Vespa scooter and waving their respective Leicas.

Cartier-Bresson’s special bonding with Chandralekha dates back to that moment in 1950 when both of them were in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, during the last days of Ramana Maharshi. They were among the hundreds of thousands of people who were witness to the meteor of light that streaked across the sky as Ramana Maharshi breathed his last. Chandralekha gasped: ‘Look, look, look!’ Poet Harindranath Chattopadhyaya shouted: ‘Mark the time, mark the time!’ Henri Cartier-Bresson bellowed: ‘Thirteen (minutes) to nine!’

They continued to meet sporadically. Many years later, in 1996, when Cartier-Bresson and his photographer wife Martine Franck came to watch Chandralekha rehearse her production of Yantra at the Avignon Festival, he wrapped his arms around her and told the assembled group of dancers, musicians and festival directors: ‘We have a special friendship; we saw the “light” together.’ About Chandralekha’s work itself he was effusive: ‘Slowness is the only luxury we have left. What I have seen today is a total rejection of the Western world. Your work will cleanse the eyes of the people who see it.’

When this writer, along with Chandralekha, spent an evening with him and Martine in Paris this April, it was clear that despite the loss of almost all hearing and trouble with his eyes, his old playfulness was intact. He kept punctuating our conversation with ‘Hindi naheen maloom’ (‘I don’t know Hindi’), a phrase he used hundreds of times during his travels in India to ward off curious people. When we parted that evening, after enjoying the sight of Cartier-Bresson relishing his share of (forbidden) apple strudel, we sensed it might be our last meeting with him.

Although Cartier-Bresson had not been taking photographs for over 30 years – and had, in fact, made several disparaging remarks about photography – his aura and mystique as the ‘master of the moment’ continued. He had returned to his original love, painting and drawing, assiduously learned from André Lhote, his cubist and surrealist teacher. His sketches and drawings in pencil, charcoal and India ink of the huge fossils at the natural history museum, of animal skeletons and human heads, provide an insight to his graphic sensitivity for the contesting lines, planes and textures in the same frame.

The other surrealist influence on him was the privileging of the ‘objective’ magic of ‘chance’; what the psychologist Jacques Lacan defined as tuche or the ‘unexpected encounter within reality’. The leading ideologue of the Surrealist movement, André Breton – of whom Cartier-Bresson took a great portrait – wrote about Bresson’s ‘ultra-receptive posture’ to people and events, ‘as if he wants to help chance along; how should I say, to put himself in a state of grace with chance, so that something might happen’. The photographer here performs a ‘pure’ act by remaining alert to the possibility of a glimpse of ‘order’ amidst the constant confusion of the visual world.

Yet our contemporary understanding of linguistics, semiotics, theories of visual culture and technological forms makes us aware of the limitations and contradictions of such a premise. We now have to engage with ‘the real unreality’ of the photograph, making it among the most ambiguous instruments in the service of ‘realism’.

In hindsight it seems extraordinary that, right at the peak of his career in the mid-1970s, Cartier-Bresson saw these contradictions sharpening and decided to hang up his camera. When I first met him, in 1981 in his Paris apartment crammed with books and paintings, he said in his epigrammatic English: ‘I stopped photographing. I only draw now. Few years ago a friend of mine said: “You’ve said all that you had to say; now it’s time to stop.” And I thought about it and knew he was right. So I stopped... Nobody believes me now when I say I never wanted to photograph, never wanted to be a photographer. Photography is – pfft – like shooting crap... But drawing is a completely different medium; even a little amount of meditative drawing completely changes the idea of the image. But people have no fucking idea of painting... Today, of course, everyone has a camera; everybody is a photographer. The illustrated magazines are full of their works. I never look at illustrated magazines. You have to look at reality; that is what is important.’

The other significant aspect of Cartier-Bresson’s work is that while he is (justifiably) famous for those memorable ‘single shots’, which have defined specific events or personalities for several succeeding generations, his method of work was the unified reportage – a series of related images which tell the full story. This inevitably pushed the reception to his work in two opposite directions: the celebrated single pictures to the galleries and museums; the photo-stories to the mass-circulation magazines, which were the visual precursors of 24-hour television. But it was his photo-journalism that enabled his art.

He has written: ‘We photographers are people who supply information to a world in haste and are swamped willy-nilly in a morass of printed matter. This abbreviation of statement, which is the language of photography, is very potent; we express in effect a judgement of what we see and this demands intellectual honesty. We work in terms of reality, not of fiction, and must therefore “discover” and not “fabricate”.’

The legend of Cartier-Bresson cannot be complete without some of the stories of how he went about the process of this ‘discovery’. He firmly believed that a journalist’s sole possession was her/his anonymity. He went to absurd lengths to prevent himself from being photographed and, thus, recognized.

There are very few pictures of him with his face visible, most of them shot in the past 30 years by his wife, Martine – a Magnum photographer of repute in her own right. In almost all early pictures his face is covered with his camera. In group pictures of Life magazine photographers, the place where he stood would be published with a blank cut-out. He became notorious after a television interview in New York, which he gave with his back to the camera. In Japan, where his popularity was such that he had to travel incognito, he once had to take his camera to the Leica service shop for repair. The salesperson recognized it as ‘Cartier-Bresson’s camera’ just from its number, and wanted to hand him over to the cops, until Bresson revealed his true identity.

Today I can say with some pride that I belong to that minuscule international fraternity of people who were permitted to photograph the photographer. One felt very brash, asking for permission. But then, I thought, it is not just history one needs to record; sometimes one needs to record the historians too.

His work with the camera provides identity to the middle decades of the 20th century and won him worldwide acclaim. However, for many of us, bang in the middle of a new universe of digital manipulation, which is reinventing the meaning of ‘photography’, what will ring true is Henri Cartier-Bresson’s impassioned, inspirational artistic voice: ‘To take photographs is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeting reality... It means to recognize, simultaneously and within the fraction of a second, both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis. It is a way of life.’

Sadanand Menon is a writer and stage-lighting designer based in Chennai, India. This is an edited version of a tribute that first appeared in the new Indian investigative journal Tehelka, http://www.tehelka.com

New Internationalist issue 372 magazine cover This article is from the October 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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