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Martine Franck: Photographer with Magnum hailed for her documentary and portrait work


Martine Franck was an esteemed Belgian documentary and portrait photographer with a world-wide following. The second wife of the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered by many to be the father of photojournalism, Franck was determined not to bask in his reflection nor disappear in his shadow. Shooting predominantly in black and white, Franck created and developed a distinctive style, documenting daily life and the intimacies and interactions in the lives of poor, marginalised and elderly people.

She was described as gracious, humble and friendly, her work rooted in the tradition of French humanist documentary photography. She never adhered to the opinion of her fellow Magnum photographer, Eve Arnold, that all photographers are obliged to be intrusive. As the Director-General of the Royal Photographic Society Michael Pritchard observed: "Martine was able to work with her subjects and bring out their emotions and record their expressions on film, helping the viewer understand what she had seen in person. Her images were always empathetic with her subject."

A member of Magnum Photos for over 30 years, in 2002 Franck became the co-founder and president of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation (2002), established to promote the photojournalist's work and preserve his legacy and values.

Born in Antwerp in April 1928, Martine Franck was the daughter of Belgian banker, Louis Franck, and his British wife Evelyn. With the outbreak of the Second World War her father, who made his career in London, joined the British army. The rest of the family was evacuated to the US and spent the war on Long Island and in Arizona before returning to England. Post-war, Martine studied history of art at Madrid University and the Ecole du Louvre in Paris.

Modest and self-deprecating, Franck admitted she "didn't have an instant rapport with the camera"; she was a shy young woman who "never really dared to go up to people and talk to them. I started by taking wedding photographs. Then, when I went to parties, I would take my camera with me, just to give myself a sense of composure, or a necessity to be there."

Franck's photography took off in 1963 following trips to the Far East where she took hundreds of pictures with her cousin's Leica camera. On returning to France in 1964, with her own Leica, she landed a job at Time-Life's photographic laboratory working as an assistant to the American photojournalists Eliot Elisofon and Gjon Mili. She met and shot Ariane Mnouchkine, co-founder of the Paris-based troupe Théâtre du Soleil (1964), and became their official photographer, photographing every production until her death. She also began working with the International Federation of the Little Brothers of the Poor, helping the elderly and vulnerable.

In 1966, she went freelance, selling her work, portraits of women in public life, including her fellow photographer Sarah Moon, to a range of publications including Life, Fortune and Vogue magazines, before joining the Vu Photo Agency four years later.

In 1972, Franck co-founded the Viva Agency, while continuing as a photographer, taking many portraits of artists and writers, including a noteworthy series of women for Vogue. She later undertook more far-reaching work for the French Ministry of Women's Rights in 1983. That same year she became a full member of Magnum Photos, three years after joining as a nominee.

In 1965, Franck met Cartier-Bresson, co-founder of Magnum, and was immediately smitten. She also became a devotee of the company's ethos, described by Cartier-Bresson as "a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually." Franck recalled her first meeting with her future husband. "His opening line was 'Martine, I want to come and see your contact sheets.'" They married in 1970.

In an interview Franck recalled, "Henri was both critical and inspirational as well as warmly supportive of me as a photographer. He taught me to say 'no.' He taught me to be selective, never to show photographs one did not want to see published. I believe he learned this himself from Alexey Brodovitch at Harper's Bazaar."

Despite her association with Cartier-Bresson, Franck continued to work on her own photography, participating in group projects with Magnum, including "Georgian Spring." Over the years she photographed a number of foreign artists, including Miquel Barcelo, Marc Chagall, Leonor Fini, Zao Wou Ki and Fernando Botero, in their Parisian studios, adding that she enjoyed working with fellow foreigners and knew how to get their best portrait.

In 1976, Franck produced one of her most enduring photographs, arguably her single most perfect image, that of the bathers at the poolside at Le Brusc, Provence. She explained that she saw the scene from a distance and ran to photograph it while changing a roll of film, quickly closing down the lens as the sunlight was so intense. A moment later the positions of all five figures and their shadows on the white tiles would have irrevocably altered.

Franck continued to work after her diagnosis with bone cancer in 2010, with exhibitions last October; at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie she had 62 portraits of artists "coming from somewhere else" from 1965-2010; this year there was a collection of portraits at New York's Howard Greenberg Gallery and at the Claude Bernard Gallery in Paris. She produced a number of books, including Des Femmes et la Création and a small book of portraits of her husband, a similarly shy and elusive character, with a shot from behind showing the back of his head as he looks into a mirror sketching a self-portrait.

Martine Franck, photographer: born Antwerp 3 April 1928; married 1970 Henri Cartier-Bresson (died 2004; one daughter); Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur 2005; died Paris 16 August 2012.