2. September 2011 / Eingestellt von thw um 12:05 /
August 4, 2004
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Artist Who Used Lens, Dies at 95By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
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.
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.' "
But his first love was drawing and painting. Mr. Cartier-Bresson's uncle ("my mythical father," he called him) had been a painter; he was killed in World War I. His father also drew, as a pastime, and Mr. Cartier-Bresson to the end of his life preserved at home some of his father's drawings, along with some by a great-grandfather, which he showed proudly to anyone who asked about them.
He remembered seeing Seurat's painting of nude models in a gallery window: "That made its impact on me. I was 15. Before that I'd been a Boy Scout. The totem name they gave me was 'quivering eel' because I was always slipping off somewhere." He went, among other places, to drink mint liqueurs in a brothel on the Rue des Moulins, where Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec had gone to draw. And he also went to the Café Cyrano, in the Place Blanche, to sit at the Surrealists' table while André Breton held forth. "The trouble was, I never got close enough to the center of the table," he joked, "so I missed a lot of what Breton was saying."
In fact, Surrealism greatly affected him; among other things, it gave him a respect for free, iconoclastic expression.
In 1927 Mr. Cartier-Bresson began to study painting with André Lhote, an early exponent of Cubism and an admired pedagogue. Mr. Cartier-Bresson would always credit Lhote with teaching him "everything I know about photography." Lhote sought to link the French classical tradition of Poussin and David to Modernism. Many people have pondered the split between Mr. Cartier-Bresson's photographs, with their instantaneity, and his later drawings, with their hesitant, even painstaking lines. The link between them involved a belief in strict discipline and order, traceable to Lhote.
Next he studied English literature and art at Cambridge University, then in 1930 was inducted into the French Army. He was stationed at Le Bourget, near Paris. "And I had quite a hard time of it, too," he remembered, "because I was toting Joyce under my arm and a Lebel rifle on my shoulder."
As a young man steeped in Rimbaud and looking for adventure, he wanted to see more of the world. Once out of the Army, he headed for Africa to hunt boar and antelope. The metaphor of shooting naturally became a familiar one in writings about his photography. Mr. Cartier-Bresson used it often himself: "approach tenderly, gently on tiptoe - even if the subject is a still life," he said. "A velvet hand, a hawk's eye - these we should all have."
He also said: "I adore shooting photographs. It's like being a hunter. But some hunters are vegetarians - which is my relationship to photography." And later, explaining his dislike of the automatic camera, he said: "it's like shooting partridges with a machine gun."
With a Brownie that he had received as a gift, he began to snap photographs in Africa, but they ended up ruined. Having contracted blackwater fever, he nearly died. The way he told the story, a witch doctor got him out of a coma. While still feverish, he wrote a postcard to his grandfather, asking that he be buried in Normandy, at the edge of the Eawy forest, with Debussy's String Quartet to be played at the funeral. An uncle wrote back: "Your grandfather finds all that too expensive. It would be preferable that you return first."
Recuperating in Marseilles in 1931, he acquired his first Leica. "I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to 'trap' life - to preserve life in the act of living," he recalled. "Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was unrolling before my eyes."
The photographs that Mr. Cartier-Bresson took during the next decade, although related to ones by Atget, Lartigue, Munkacsi, Kertesz and, in their mystery, to paintings by de Chirico, were groundbreaking. He began to travel and exhibit widely in these years. He had his first show in Madrid in 1933; then another in 1934 in Mexico City, jointly with Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and yet another in 1935 at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City.
While in New York, he met the photographer Paul Strand ("maître," Mr. Cartier-Bresson always called him). Making movies at the time, Strand inspired Mr. Cartier-Bresson to think about doing the same, and soon after his return to France, Mr. Cartier-Bresson got a job with Jean Renoir, the director, as a second assistant on "A Day in the Country" and "The Rules of the Game." He also helped Renoir on a propaganda film for the French Communist Party, denouncing the 200 most prominent families in France, Mr. Cartier-Bresson's among them. Although he never joined the party, his sympathy for the poor and downtrodden, and his dislike of class pretense became essential to the choice and content of his photographs.
From the cinema, he said, he learned about narrative and the expressive moment. He directed his first film, "Return to Life," in 1937, a documentary about medical aid to the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. He made occasional films after that. In the 1970's, for instance, he directed two documentaries about California for CBS television.
In 1937 he married his first wife, Ratna Mohini, a Javanese dancer. He liked to recall the time that Max Jacob introduced him to a fortune teller: "There are certain things you can't just make up," Mr. Cartier-Bresson said. "In 1932, she told me that I would marry someone who would not be from India, or from China, but would also not be white. And in 1937 I married a Javanese woman. This fortune teller also told me that the marriage would be difficult, and that when I was old, I would marry someone much younger than I and would be very happy."
He and Ms. Mohini divorced after 30 years, and in 1970 he married Martine Franck. She survives him, along with their daughter, Mélanie.
When the Germans invaded France, Mr. Cartier-Bresson became a corporal in the Army's Film and Photo Unit, but was captured in June 1940 at St. Dié in the Vosges Mountains and spent 35 months in prisoner-of-war camps. About the camps he later said: "For a young bourgeois with Surrealist ideas, breaking stone and working in a cement factory was a very good lesson."
He escaped twice and was recaptured, then succeeded on a third try. He hid on a farm in Touraine before getting false papers that allowed him to travel in France. He photographed Matisse, Bonnard and Braque for the publisher Pierre Braun during this time. As a member of the Resistance, he established a photo division to document the German occupation and retreat. At the end of the war, the United States Office of War Information hired him to direct his second film, "The Return," about the homecoming of French prisoners and deportees. It was widely admired.
After the war he visited New York City for a retrospective of his photographs at the Museum of Modern Art that had been planned a few years earlier, when the rumor was that he been killed by the Germans. The exhibition was conceived as a posthumous tribute.
The columnist Dorothy Norman interviewed him when he arrived in the city a few months early, on assignment for Harper's Bazaar to photograph the Brooklyn Bridge. During the war, Mr. Cartier-Bresson told her, "I became increasingly less interested in what one might call an 'abstract' approach to photography.
"In whatever one does, there must be a relationship between the eye and the heart. One must come to one's subject in a pure spirit. One must be strict with oneself. There must be time for contemplation, for reflection about the world and the people about one. If one photographs people, it is their inner look that must be revealed."
Shortly after that, in 1948, Mr. Cartier-Bresson was in Delhi, India, to see Mahatma Gandhi. He photographed Gandhi and showed him the catalog of the Museum of Modern Art exhibition. Fifteen minutes after they had parted, Mr. Cartier-Bresson heard shouts that Gandhi had been killed. He sped back. The first frame of the relevant contact sheet is captioned "place where Gandhi fell half an hour before." His photo essay on the death of Gandhi for Life magazine shows vast, swirling pools of mourners at the funeral, the potential melodrama of the scene held in check, as always, by strict form.
Critics have sometimes complained about the intrusiveness of photojournalists like Mr. Cartier-Bresson. John Malcolm Brinnin, who traveled across the United States with him in 1946, later called him "a humanitarian indifferent to people."
Mr. Cartier-Bresson heard this criticism and replied: "There is something appalling about photographing people. It is certainly some sort of violation; so if sensitivity is lacking, there can be something barbaric about it."
In 1966 he quit Magnum. Efstratios Tériade, the great French publisher and art impresario, asked him if he hadn't perhaps said all he had to say as a photographer. "It was true," Mr. Cartier-Bresson said. "But that just made me itch to do more. I hung on two years too long at Magnum."
He had always carried a little sketch pad with him, consistent with his early training as a painter under Lhote. Drawing had been his first passion. So with help from artist friends like Sam Szafran and Avigdor Arikha in Paris, he committed himself to drawing with an enthusiasm that people around him found remarkable. It was a sometimes difficult transition, he said. He still took photographs, but now only occasionally and on the sly.
His drawings of figures and landscapes and his copies of other art owed a big debt to Giacometti, another old friend. He often described drawing as a meditative activity, photography as intuitive, but added that "there is no esthetic peculiar to photography or drawing." He said that few people would care about his drawings if he weren't a famous photographer. One of his remarks, that photography is "a marvelous profession while it remains a modest one," helps to explain his skepticism toward his own drawings. He took pride in them, but like photographs or people, they were admirable to the degree that they remained humble.
Into his last years, he spent days drawing at his studio near the Place des Victoires or in the Louvre or in his apartment overlooking the Tuileries, from which he could see the panoramic view that Monet and Pissarro had painted a century earlier.
Last year, a few months before his 95th birthday and coinciding with a retrospective of his work at the French National Library, he and his wife and daughter established the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, the first private foundation dedicated to photography in France. He continued to insist, as he had done for much of his later life, that he no longer wanted to talk about photography. "It's like when you're divorced, and people keep asking you about your former wife," Mr. Cartier-Bresson said. "There's something indecent about it." Still, he couldn't help talking about it. Similarly, he said that he didn't grant interviews ("they're like police interrogations," was a phrase of his), though he did grant them, coyly telling all interviewers that they were merely having a friendly conversation and requesting that any tape recorder be stashed away. Then some bon mot would pop into his head and, pleased with himself, he would look at the machine, eyebrows raised, as if to say, "So?"
A few years ago, Mr. Cartier-Bresson went to the Pompidou Center in Paris to sketch a Matisse portrait. Balanced on his favorite shooting stick, nose buried in his drawing, he paid no attention to the tourists who snapped his picture and videotaped him; they seemed unaware of who he was but charmed simply by the sight of an old man sketching.
When he got up to leave, he noticed a couple sitting side by side on a bench, a child resting on the man's shoulder. "A perfect composition if you cut out the woman," Mr. Cartier-Bresson said, and made a brisk, chopping gesture toward her. The woman looked baffled. "Why didn't I bring my camera?" he asked. Then he clicked an imaginary shutter and left.
The obituary of the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson on Thursday misstated the name shown on a poster in the photographer's famous 1932 photo of a puddle jumper near the St.-Lazare railway station. Partly obscured in a visual pun by the photographer, the name was that of the pianist Alexander Brailowsky — not Railowsky.