Henri Cartier-Bresson: the man, the image, the world by Peter Galassi, Robert Delpire et al

Now 94, the world's greatest living photographer has found beauty and grace everywhere on earth for more than half a century. Paul Ryan salutes the artist, and the man
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The Independent Culture

It's odd to realise that a 17th-century Archbishop of Paris came up with the phrase that encapsulates the most influential aesthetic in photographic history: "There is nothing in this world," wrote Cardinal de Retz, "that does not have its decisive moment." When, just over 50 years ago, Henri Cartier-Bresson quoted this line in the introduction to his first major book, Images à la sauvette, he clarified its meaning for him as "the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms." As the original title translates as "Hurried Images", we must be thankful that its American publisher, Richard Simon, chose to call the English version The Decisive Moment.

Cartier-Bresson has been well-served by publishers and editors, notably his beloved Tériade, and the indefatigable Robert Delpire. His long association with the photographer continues with this wonderful new book. The Man, the Image and the World is timed to celebrate two linked events in Paris: a major retrospective at the Bibliothèque Nationale (until 27 July 2003), for which the book serves as a catalogue, and the opening of the Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Montparnasse. Besides preserving his legacy, the foundation will encourage and exhibit emerging photographic talents.

To call the book a "catalogue" does it an injustice. Its roster of distinguished contributors – from Jean Clair of the Musée Picasso (with a beautifully written meditation on time in photography) to Serge Toubiana of Cahiers du Cinéma (who writes valuably on Cartier-Bresson's film work) – makes it the clearest introduction anyone could wish to the life and work of the man Pierre Assouline has called "the eye of the century". Then there are the images, over 600 (many never before published). Photographs from all stages of his career touch on every aspect of human experience – a distillation of all our days. That he finds compositional harmony in the bleakest of prospects reminds me of a remark he made in a letter to the screenwriter Ben Maddow: "There is no such thing as ugly, only disorganised." Here, too, are many of his paintings and drawings; and a "family album" of personal memorabilia. and snapshots.

Knowing Cartier-Bresson slightly, and having met him several times, I have a few snapshots of my own – although only in my memory. I recall the historian Eric Hobsbawm asking Cartier-Bresson if he knew the critic and novelist John Berger. "Yes," he replied, "but I'm intimidated by his intellect." Hobsbawm, amused, said he had never before heard a Frenchman admit the intellectual superiority of an Englishman, and Cartier-Bresson chuckled shyly, like a naughty schoolboy. On another occasion, Cartier-Bresson greeted Lord Snowdon by pointing towards a wall where sketches by Balthus and Giacometti were hanging. "The art is over there!" Snowdon stared straight ahead at Cartier-Bresson's own photographs. "These look pretty much like art to me," he said. Cartier-Bresson shrugged, as if mystified by the compliment.

These memories hint at the paradoxes in his nature. Theory irritates him, yet he is a man of tireless curiosity; fiercely anti-clerical, having rejected his childhood Catholicism, he puts great faith in anarchism and Buddhism. Most significantly, for a man who has influenced generations of photographers, he professes a total lack of interest in photography as an art form, preferring to discuss the painting and drawing to which he has devoted the past 30 years.

The Decisive Moment had a design by Matisse on its cover – Miro designed the cover for The Europeans – and the photograph of Cartier-Bresson on this new book shows him in the act of drawing a self-portrait. Painting and drawing are not mere diversions in his artistic journey, they are its central highway. His friend Jean Leymarie writes tellingly of this in the book.

Another paradox: Cartier-Bresson is, in many respects, a classicist who loves few things more than contemplating a masterpiece in the Louvre; but he is a sworn enemy of anything that smacks of the academic. He complained to me of having visited "the worst exhibition I've ever seen" in a London gallery. I feared he must be thinking of the Saatchi generation but he shook his head before spitting out the name: "John Singer Sargent!"

A final snapshot. The Hayward Gallery marked Cartier-Bresson's 90th year with a selection of his European photographs in its upper gallery, while Francis Bacon paintings occupied the lower. At the opening dinner, during the ritual speeches, the famously reticent Cartier-Bresson surprised guests by rising from his chair and making a slow progress to the microphone. Once there, he raised his glass and said, simply: "To Francis Bacon!"

It was a warm tribute from one great artist to another. It might equally have been a toast to the English philosopher of the same name who, in the 17th century, wrote a sentence that could stand as a vindication of Cartier-Bresson's art: "The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention."

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