Saturday, 28 June 2014

Two llttle known episodes about Cartier Bresson

Cartier-Bresson has probably been the most influential photographer of the 20th Century, that is how the French and I see it anyway. :)

So there was recently this huge exhbition in Paris called 'Le Siècle de Cartier-Bresson'. And a documentary of the same name was released by ArteTV, which I encourage you to get here (in French on uTube. Poor definition though). 

Thirty years earlier, int the 1970s a seminal interview in English was taken by the NYTimes: 'There are no maybes'. It is perhaps even more interesting, because HCB, who had learned his English in Cambridge, probably gave a more succint but forceful version of his life events.

 I remember how he tells his encounter with Ghandi. At some point Ghandi pointed at HCB's book, at picture of a man looking at a corbillard, and adorned coach carrying a dead man. 'Why? What is it?' Ghandi asks.
 And HCB says: it is a picture ot the famous French writer Paul Claudel. 'He was a Catholic you know, so he was meditating about death.' Henri says.
And so Ghandi shakes his head, and says: 'Ah, Death! Death, Death…' A day later he was assassinated.

 Here you will find his portrait by HCB and below the announcement to the crowds by Nehru that the Mathama has died. Not a great picture, but a v. moving one. Just a day had lapsed between the two!  Just the same, from portraitist HCB had become his reporter self again.

Nehru announces Ghandi's death

It has been argued by Roland Barthes that photography  is intrinsically, intimately connected with death. He makes the example in his 'Camera Lucida', of corpses recomposed by their families to look if they were alive. Those were the first commemorative photos, and among the first ever in the 1850s. Photography here is about embalming the dead, as if they were mummies.

In his photobook 'the Decisive Instant,' that has just been reprinted in NY with its original cover by Matisse, HCB goes on that a photog must take a shot just before the actor vanishes and the moment is lost irretrievably.

Barthes goes on making his same point: a picture might be interesting by what it shows about the surroundings, and that is the Studium.
 But without the Punctus, the meaningul intstant, a picture will be just that… Interesting. How many millions of pictures do we know in social sites that are just that?

That is because every instant of life is intimately connected with ideath. This concept of the instant nature of reality is the same of buddhism.
Therefore it is no surprise, that HCB quoted the Zen and the Art of Archery by Herrigel. One can take one shot only and it must be the perfect one. 

And yet he goes on musing, for all your considerations about the scene, the geometry of it, the symmetry, and the way its characters relate to each other, you must let your intuition play in that single instant that is a shot. Never intellectualize. A  photo lives and dies in a single heatbeat.

Fom the French interview Henri appears as an incredibly bookish character, like a true French Intellectuel. Son of a textile industrialist he went to Lycée Fénélon, the best of the best. See Wikipedia about him.  He was introduced to painting by his uncle, but then had courses by well known Lhote, an academic painter, but dropped him when he found him too stuffy.

He describes how he followed the Surrealist first meetings at cafe' La Coupole  to the point that he considered himself a Surrealist. It is a precious information because it allows to see his pictures under a different light, notably those strange compositions of people emerging from holes.

Children in Toledo, 1944, Spain

 It also explains his stance against colonization, which the Surrealists abhorred. 'In Africa I have seen the 'Heart of Darkness' he famously said, about his first trip. And hence his stance in India and in China:

A Eunuch, by the Forbidden City, China

But then came a day when his business partner at Magnum, Robert Capa,  told him: 'you know, Henri you can't go on telling people that you are a surrealist photog. You will get no assignments. People will always confine you like a plant in a hothouse. You must introduce yourself as a photoreporter only.'

That explains also many of HCB later understatements, although there is no doubt that he was a great artist. Remember also that Capa had had his scrapes with death : take his picture of the Republican soldier  hit by a bullet? Isn't it another decisive instant, if it were one? Again Barthes' Punctus.

Now the second episode. Before founding Magnum with Capa, HCB had been a prisoner in a Nazi camp, which almost killed him by exhaustion. He had evaded and then joined the Resistance as a photographer. Those were perhaps his true beginnings.

Some years later HCB had to take portraits of a famous poet, Ezra Pound. I have an immense respect for him as one of the few who was ever able to decode Guido Cavalcanti's 'Donna me prega' canzone, a 1350s poem with all the rituals of Courteous Love. 

 'Donna me prega' is one of the most complicated pieces in the Italian language. (Here's an essay about it from Cambridge). A ray of Light carries the image of the beloved through the pupils of the eyes, and from there hits the intellect and the heart. It's a photo theory, from the 1200s.

Pound translated Cavalcanti in Old English in his 'Essays', but first he had to explain his choices and unlock all the secrets of  the Medieval canzone, he an American, and a self taught at that! His own Italian Cantos are a thing of beauty.

Now HCB goes to the appointment with the poet and discovers a wreck of a man. Pound had been a prisoner of war too, but of a different kind. American soldiers, his fellow citizens, had put him in a cage for months as a wild animal, for his dealings with Mussolini, which he admired. Hence he had become a countryless man.

Now about their meeting, opinions diverge. Martine CB mentions that the interview lasted half an hour and HCB took only a few pictures, HCB recalls he spent two hours with Ezra, and he took only 6 pictures.

Both concur that nobody spoke a word. So you must imagine the scene: two prisoners of war meet, but their different sides prevent any comradesship, so they don't speak a word.

Imagine also Pound, a great poet, a very cultivated man, who according to HCB, seemed to have come to a point where by his silence he showed he despised everybody and everything.

Ezra Pound, one year before his death

HCB must have registered this, and so made use ot the silence to jot  the crevices of a destroyed man. One year later EP was dead. So instead we have those precious pictures of a great man.
 Note that in portraits too there are decisive instants. Note that HCB  concern for geometry and symmetry is completely absent. A human face is death delayed.

And now to lighten up. The booklet 'The Decisive Moment' was never called that! In the French original edition, it was called: 'Images a' la Sauvette' (stolen images), and that puts HCB in a long tradition of Paris strollers, flaneurs, including Lartigue, Doisneau and Brassai. 
Certainly HCB had a typical Surrealist concern for sexuality. Imagine HCB's tall self looking with aloofness at the goodies:

Martine CB's legs

That particular school of ironic, unassuming but cosmopolitan  street shooters, could never have existed without the streets of Paris,  and their 'joie de vivre'.  Ah, to simply take a walk along the boulevards and the winding cobbled streets of bawdy Monmartre! Their very strange topology and dead ends evokes psychogeography

 Then the Nazi came and destroyed the very spirit of it, but HCB never forgot his light footed approach in the new kingdom he had been appointed by Magnum, Asia. 'You must understand the Chinese, he said, they are very traditionalist, but not unfriendly'. He took some *very* different aspects of Asia.

Sing-Song girl, China

Women in Srinagar, 1949, India.
 In 1956, with Krutschev putting an end to Stalinism, HCB was also the first Westerner to be allowed to freely photograph in Moscow, showing that Russians where not bloodthirsty monsters, 'but people like you and me'. 

That reportage landed Magnum a LOT of money' he gloated. The first years of Magnum had been financed basically by betting on horses, under the advice of their concierge. Ghandi of course was another scoop.

Please enjoy the two video recollections here and fetch yourself  'The Decisive Instant' with Matisse cover drawings, the first re-print in 60 years! (thank you TOP for pointing this up). If you buy it  you won't regret it, it won't break the bank.

Now you can download the French interview 'Le Siècle de Cartier-Bresson' from ArteTV, full quicktime version, here (warning, some 250 MB). Worth having if you speak French.

Or see  'The Decisive Moment' in English, uTube version, here.

Mind you, they are different recollections, and they are both original versions. HCB was bilingual, another interesting trait. Research now shows that bilinguals have twice the language centers, and that the brain therefore ages less. His recollections are indeed very clear headed, and funny  in both languages.

Sometimes it would be nice to do a deconstruction of HCB's more surrealist pictures. If you know about one, send the links in the comments or by mailbox. However I think we are breaking new ground here :)

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