Cartier-Bresson: his eye, hand, lens, art and ego: The world's most famous photographer would not be photographed. 'No, no. They only push a button.' Paula Weideger reports

Paula Weideger
Wednesday 07 July 1993 23:02

HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON, 84 years old and considered by many to be the world's greatest living photographer, hates travelling. It didn't stop him from spending years of his life in other countries: he made his first trip to India in 1947, where he took pictures of Mahatma Gandhi. Initially, he worked from a distance; then a meeting was arranged. It took place at Birla House in Delhi on 30 January 1948.

'I offered Gandhi a little book of my photographs,' Cartier-Bresson tells me, as we sit in a Paris cafe almost half a century later, 'because I thought then he would know what I was looking for.' Gandhi leafed through the book but didn't speak until he came to one particular page. He stopped and looked up.

'What is the meaning of this?' he asked.

The photograph Gandhi was staring at showed the poet Paul Claudel passing in front of a hearse. 'Death, death, death . . .' murmured Gandhi.

'After 20 minutes, I left,' says Cartier-Bresson. He cycled back into town. Gandhi saw another visitor. There were prayers. Then came the assassin. Mahatma Gandhi was dead.

The proximity to such a tragedy, like many other experiences he has had travelling the world, are seen by Cartier-Bresson as part of his education as a human being. 'It is not a job,' he says. His tone makes it clear it would be ludicrous to even think in such terms. But wasn't he working for Life magazine at the time?

'What does it mean, assignment?' he asks. 'Maybe a financial guarantee, that's all.'

About money he has something in common with the Bollinger Bolsheviks. He says he is anti-materialist, and means it, yet he has been vigilant about getting paid well for his work. The 1947 trip to India was financed with borrowed cash because he had just put all he had into founding the photojournalism agency Magnum-Photos with his friends Robert Capa, David Seymour (known as Chim) and George Rodger. Nevertheless, money has not been his primary motive. Nor, presumably, has adulation. 'You have to take a picture for your pleasure,' he says.

Cartier-Bresson has compared taking photographs to big-game hunting. He has in mind something less lethal than the bloody sport Hemingway romanticised, but just as adrenalin-charged. He stalks his prey, too, but his great joy comes as the shutter clicks and he senses that he has captured what he was seeking.

His compositions are powerful, yet many people also comment on their stillness. And those who've seen him in action talk about his uncanny ability to become invisible; his subjects forget he's there. Among the memorable photographs he made during that initial trip to India, two illustrate this particularly well: in one, Jawaharlal Nehru leans over towards Edwina Mountbatten - he, like a jester, bent towards her in laughter; she lifted off the heels of her sandals in flirtatious mirth. Lord Mountbatten, his stiff upper lip barely curling, looks the other way.

The second is a peculiarly moving photograph of Gandhi seen from the back, sitting on a porch; a Western man faces him in three-piece suit and tie. Between us and these men is a table on which sits a water bottle. It is prosaic, nearly. Yet what strikes the eye and remains in the memory is Gandhi's raised arm and, above all, his open left hand, which eloquently seems to ask: 'Why?'

For all his artistry - or maybe because of the degree to which it has been admired - Cartier-Bresson does not bristle when referred to as a photojournalist. Numerous colleagues (and many of those who write about the medium) seek to elevate photography and themselves by calling it art. But he is adamant. 'We're not artists. We're artisans]'

Since 1931, when he sailed for West Africa and there bought one of the first Leicas, he has been a man with a camera who is always looking and who, sometimes, is taking photographs. He considers it important not to shoot too much. It weakens concentration. It is said that he mastered his Leica in less than a week. Within three years he had earned an international reputation, with work exhibited in New York, Mexico and Madrid.

Henri Cartier-Bresson was born into a wealthy, high bourgeois family, and early photographs show a sensuous, good-looking young man. His self-assurance very likely pre-dates his fame. Indeed, it probably helped him to achieve it.

Today he is pink-cheeked with sparse white hair and bright blue eyes. His shirt and neckerchief are almost the exact match for his eyes. He arrives at our meeting carrying a backpack filled with heavy books. Though he's had two knee operations and heart surgery, all that stalking has kept him remarkably fit. 'I've seen him run uphill backwards faster than most people can forwards,' one friend reported.

If I say something he doesn't like, 'Excuse me' is his introduction to a low-key tirade. Occasionally he balks. 'No, no, I won't be photographed. They only push a button.' But on the whole his manner is courtly. At certain moments he has the high-handedness of a big-time somebody, but he does not assume he is the only subject fit for conversation. He would probably have preferred to spend the afternoon talking about Matisse or Picasso. But he allows himself to be drawn back to inquiries about his present and past.

'It was Braque who gave me Zen and the Art of Archery,' he says. That was in 1943, after he had been captured by the Germans, and managed on his third try to escape. This slim volume, which later became a sort of hippy bible, applies the principles of Zen Buddhism to the practice of archery. Such dichotomies as means and end, mind and body, are replaced by 'the way of Zen'. When the archer learns to become one with the bow, the arrow and the target, then it's bull's eyes every time.

'It's a manual of photography,' Cartier- Bresson told Braque after he had studied it. Today he asserts: 'I don't take photographs. It is the photograph which has to take me.' Much as I am in sympathy with what he is saying, I also feel like laughing. But Cartier- Bresson would not be amused if I said he sounds as if he's just left Woodstock.

He has no interest in the technical aspects of his medium. It is well known, for example, that he doesn't print his own negatives. 'I've never been interested in photography per se,' he says. 'Never. I don't care.' It is the doing of it that has engaged him so totally.

Among the elements he has cited as essential to photography are respect for the subject, patience, alertness, sensitivity and concentration. These, he felt, had to be there, practised and ready, if he and his photographs were to have their fateful meeting.

'For me, it's the glance which is important. To look,' he says. 'Scanning' is how he describes what most people do. This he demonstrates by strafing the crowd in the cafe with his eyes. 'To look . . .' he continues, 'that means to use your eye like a pencil. To analyse the shape.' His eye fixes on the man opposite us; or rather on the meeting of that man's hand and thigh. His concentration is so powerful that, as I follow his glance, the rather nondescript fellow by the window is transformed into an imaginary Cartier- Bresson photograph.

Many find his portraits the most meaningful. The characters seem not merely unposed but prepared to reveal themselves as if they were friends of the photographer. Does it take quite a verbal performance to create such an atmosphere? Not at all, I am assured.

'Portraits,' he says, 'are the most difficult thing for me. You must be satisfied with the plastic values; and at the same time you must find the silence of a person in herself.' To do this, the photographer has to be silent, also.

'It's like talking and singing,' he explains. 'You can't do both at the same time.' Cartier-Bresson has a gift for being still. But he is not aloof. Nor is he one of those men who is drawn to long sojourns in far countries in order to take a holiday from intimacy. His initial trips to India, China, New York, were all made in the company of Ratna Mohini, the Javanese dancer whom he had married before he went to war.

He makes it plain that there was love but not calm. For one thing, she was from a matriarchal culture. 'Domineering.' In 1967, after 30 years of marriage, they separated.

In 1970 he married the photographer Martine Franck. Like him, she comes from a high bourgeois background. Their daughter, Melanie, now 20, is studying fashion design. 'She's very good,' says her father, no less proud for being an octogenarian.

At about the time his first marriage broke up, Cartier-Bresson finished with photojournalism. This was instigated by his old friend Teriade, who had published his first book, and the 'key' to his work, The Decisive Moment. After this Teriade told him: 'Stop. You've said what you had to say. You're just going to repeat yourself.' 'And he was right,' the photographer acknowledges.

As a youth, Cartier-Bresson had studied painting. He gave it up, he says, because 'I could not draw a hand'. Yet, for more than two decades now, he has devoted himself to drawing. Virtually every day he is at work. In winter he draws from the model in his Paris studio; in summer he draws outdoors in the mountains above Forcalquier in the south, where he and Martine have a house. Though he still takes 'snapshots' and portraits of friends, drawing has become his life's work.

For a world-famous person to begin anew at the age of 60 in a demanding discipline - and one for which he admits a lack of natural facility - takes exceptional courage. Or self-confidence. Yet, as we look at reproductions of his drawings, he is convincing when he quietly comments: 'About this I doubt myself.' Not enough to have left the drawings at home - an uncomfortable thought. There is more discomfort to come.

From his backpack he takes out a photocopy of a postcard message. Across the bottom Saul Steinberg's name is scrawled.

'I look often at your drawings . . .' the New Yorker's celebrated surreal draftsman had written. 'It seems that photography has been calisthenic, decoy, alibi, for your real thing.'

'You can take this with you,' he says. 'Print it if you like.'

Of course this isn't simply an example of Zen and the Art of Self-Promotion. How could it be in such a complex and gifted man? Henri Cartier-Bresson may deflect all talk of money and the building of a reputation while having applied his intelligence to both. But if he was shrewd on the way to fame, it wasn't shrewdness alone that created all those formidable photographs. They are the work of a man with prodigious talent, an extraordinary eye and a very big spirit.

'Henri Cartier-Bresson in India' is published by Thames and Hudson (pounds 14.95 paperback).

(Photographs omitted)

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