Cartier-Bresson: What's the story?

The photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson are now regarded as great art, but in the early part of his career, he was producing tough photojournalis m, covering everything from Gandhi's funeral to the new Kennedy administration. As an exhibition opens at the V&A to mark his 90th birthday, Colin Jacobson considers this forgotten legacy
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For anyone deeply rooted in the reportage tradition of photography, writing about Henri Cartier-Bresson is daunting. It's a bit like suggesting to a priest that he should review the Bible. How do you bring yourself to abandon a sense of awe and admiration?

Fortunately, the great man has offered timid souls a let-out clause. Asked in a recent television documentary for his reaction to claims that he was the greatest photographer of the 20th century, he first whispered to the interviewer and then guffawed with relish to the camera, "Bullshit".

This makes it easier to declare that not all of Cartier-Bresson's photographs are masterpieces. Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, some of his images seem trite and ordinary, until we remember just how innovative he was: the stylistic familiarity we detect is the result of so many people trying to copy his approach.

It is the sheer range and diversity of Cartier-Bresson's work which is extraordinary: news pictures, posed pictures, abstract pictures, caught moments, people playing to the camera, tough, edgy pictures, soft and lyrical pictures. It's as though he is trying to catch us off-guard, to unsettle our preconceptions, and at the same time to prevent himself from getting bored.

Twenty five years after Cartier-Bresson stopped taking photographs, there appears to be a move in contemporary photo-criticism to claim his photography for the world of art and deny that he was ever a photojournalist. Cartier- Bresson himself is partly to blame for this. By extracting individual images from the context of the stories they belonged to, and re-presenting them in exhibitions and books, he has allowed himself to become best known as a photographer who produces single images.

Cartier-Bresson - co-founder in 1947 of the celebrated Magnum photographic agency - has also mischievously contributed to the undermining of his own legend. In 1974, he described himself as "a very bad reporter and photojournalist". While in 1990 he denied he had ever been a photojournalist or had produced reportage stories: "They want to put clothes on me which don't fit."

All this denial sits uneasily with his most celebrated writing on photography, the English preface to his highly influential 1952 collection, The Decisive Moment. Cartier-Bresson strongly stressed the need to communicate to a mass audience: "We photo-reporters are people who supply information to a world in a hurry, a world weighed down with preoccupations, prone to cacophony, and full of beings with a hunger for information, and needing the companionship of images."

We are reminded of this Bresson, the photojournalist, in a new exhibition of his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Entitled "Elsewhere: Photographs from the Americas and Asia", it is the last of four major events in Britain to mark his 90th birthday last August. The pictures have been selected by the photographer, in collaboration with Mark Haworth- Booth, curator of photographs at the V&A. Fifty prints will be on show, taken from a collection of 390 archive prints purchased by the museum in 1978 from Cartier-Bresson himself.

What could be a more classic example of professional photojournalism than Cartier-Bresson's coverage of Gandhi's funeral in India in 1948? Cartier-Bresson worked on 50 different events in the three days of the mourning, shooting 30 rolls of film, capturing every possible angle. American academic Claude Cookman, from the University of Indiana, interviewed the photographer in the Spring 1998 edition of History of Photography. "Many of his individual pictures can function as art, but he did not approach Gandhi's funeral with aesthetics in mind. Art photographers do not wade through crowds of a million and a half people. They do not demonstrate the strength and stamina that Cartier-Bresson exhibited in fighting his way to the head of Gandhi's funeral pyre," he concluded.

Interestingly, according to Cookman, Cartier-Bresson did not even get to see his funeral pictures in the first instance, since there was a deadline crisis and the undeveloped film was rushed to London. He was not above being a jobbing photographer, albeit a highly talented one. Indeed, as a freelancer, he took part in the wheeling and dealing over the rights to his Gandhi funeral photos. He cabled the Magnum office in New York: "I promised first view to Life not expecting Bazaar interested. Plenty material for both." Looking to his own interests, he even told the office that his main photographic rival at the funeral, the formidable Margaret Bourke-White, who was working directly for Life, had had several rolls of exposed film trampled by the crowd at the cremation site.

Cookman also provides convincing evidence that Cartier-Bresson did not actually take one of the funeral pictures attributed to him. He was unable to get into an overhead position for a crucial shot and so he passed his camera up to a friend, Max Defors of the Associated Press, who took several frames for him. This is a tactic any professional press photographer would be proud of.

Covering Gandhi's funeral seems to have consolidated some of the ideas Cartier-Bresson was forming about photography at this stage of his career. He was appalled at the brash way Bourke-White was working on the story. Cookman describes how, when Gandhi's body was surrounded by grieving relatives and supporters, she slipped into the room and used a flashbulb to get a picture because it was too dark. Gandhi's enraged followers threatened to smash her equipment. Eventually, they removed the film from her camera and exposed it. Undeterred, she tried again, but failed.

Perhaps this goes some way to explain Cartier-Bresson's insistent tone in The Decisive Moment: "It is essential ... to approach the subject on tiptoe. It's no good jostling or elbowing ... And no photographs taken with the aid of flashlight either, if only out of respect for the actual light. Unless a photographer observes such conditions as these, he may become an intolerably aggressive character."

Cartier-Bresson's instinct for journalism was not confined to this one event. He took definitive photographs of the Communist takeover of China in 1949. Later, in 1961, he went to the US and participated in a book project, Let Us Begin: the First 100 Days of the Kennedy Administration. Significantly, he chose to concentrate on the attempts by the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, to combat institutionalised racism in the South. Only one photograph from this project appears in his chosen permanent collection and yet the caption supplied for this image in the original book makes it clear that it was part of an exercise not in art, but in photojournalism, "The Negro's plight is symbolised in this picture: at Hinds County, Mississippi, outside a grocery store, a white citizen complacently lounges on a large comfortable bench while two Negroes huddle on a small rickety one. Southern whites insist facilities are `separate but equal'."

Moreover, as a good journalist, Cartier-Bresson followed the story through. He went on to hint at solutions to racism by photographing places where integration was working. He also took portraits of a number of prominent black leaders including Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

In the V&A exhibition, museum curator Haworth-Booth discerns a difference in approach between Cartier-Bresson's work in the Americas and in Asia: "When he works in India, there is a dreamlike quality to the work, an expression of the spirituality he seems to discern in Asia. In the USA, his approach seems altogether tougher, his pictures are of graveyards and automobiles, expressing the sense of materialism which seems to assail him."

It is this visual edge for which Cartier-Bresson will finally be remembered. Many of his images from Asia seem predictable and unchallenging. As with so many other photographers, he was seduced by the beauty and mystery in India, China and Japan, and forgot his sense of journalism. But who can forget his stunning photograph of panicking investors outside the Shanghai bank, his coverage of the last days of the Kuomintang as Mao's troops took over in China, images full of latent fear and anxiety, or his astonishing, timeless picture of a shoe fetishist taken in Mexico in 1934? However much he expresses a disdain for reportage, this is photojournalism of lasting brilliance which goes beyond simple, narrative description.

Cartier-Bresson delights in creating smoke-screens about himself, but he should not be allowed to get away entirely unchallenged in a year when Britain, more than any other country, is honouring his achievements as a photographer. To spend over 40 years of your life travelling the world taking an extraordinary range of images, to produce a seminal book which has encouraged and inspired photojournalists for over four decades, to have your work published in countless books and magazines, to allow your photographs to form a substantial part of the archives of the most famous post-war picture agency, to be aware that millions of people all over the world have flocked to your exhibitions, and then to dismiss it all as being really rather unimportant, that's not just perverse, it's cruel

Colin Jacobson is a senior research fellow at the School of Journalism, Media & Cultural Studies, University of Cardiff and editor of `Reportage', the magazine of international photojournalism `Elsewhere: Photographs from the America and Asia' is at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 26 November 1998 until 12 April 1999 (0171-938 8349). Panic in Shanghai, China, during the civil war between Mao Tse-tung's Communists and the nationalist Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek, 1949 artier-Bresson captured emotive moments without resorting to intrusion. From top: Nanking, China, during the civil war, 1949; Gandhi's funeral, India, 1948 There is a stark difference between the tough images of America and the dreamlike quality of the Asian photographs. From top: New York, 1947; Srinagar, Kashmir, 1947; Las Vegas, 1947 Clockwise from top left: China, 1949, during the civil war, the eunuchs of the last imperial dynasty were forced to flee throughout the country; Ubud, Bali, Indonesia, 1949; Hoboken, New Jersey, 1947