The Man Of The Moment

When Henri Cartier-Bresson saw me pull out my notebook, he asked in mock horror, "Are you from the police?" I said no, I would make a very poor policeman, and he smiled. Mindful of his distaste for interviews, I went on, "I know you don't like questions--" but he cut me off. "Why not? There are no answers." I started to see why journalists who have wangled interviews with the 94-year-old grandmaster of photography have come to regret it.

We were sitting in the Paris apartment he shares with his wife, the photographer Martine Franck. It was a rainy Easter Sunday, the day he'd picked for the interview because he is "an anarchist"--a word he uses to suggest his impudent disregard for propriety. We sat by the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the Tuileries, the Louvre and the Seine. Monet and Cezanne used to sketch this view from the apartment below. Cartier-Bresson sketches it now. But he does not photograph it. For the last 30 years, he has only rarely touched a camera, preferring instead to capture the world with a pencil and a sketch pad.

Yes, it's as if Michael Jordan had decided to stay in baseball. This is the man who virtually invented street photography in the early '30s and then went on to set the standard in photojournalism. He shot the communist takeover of China and the fall of British India. He took Gandhi's portrait hardly an hour before he was assassinated. Once Cartier-Bresson photographed something or someone, you might as well have retired them as subjects: best picture of a man jumping over a puddle, best portrait of Sartre, best image of a picnic. Just don't expect Cartier-Bresson to agree. "I'm not a photographer," he insists. "I'm not interested in photography. With photography, you don't grasp anything. It's just intuition. To be a draftsman is very different." Sure enough, he has no photographs on his walls, only drawings and paintings, by other artists.

Clearly Cartier-Bresson wants to put his past behind him and, just as clearly, the rest of the world isn't cooperating. A huge retrospective of his work--more than 600 photographs, as well as selections from his documentary films and his drawings--just opened at Paris's Bibliotheque Nationale. A definitive catalog, published in English as "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, the Image and the World," accompanies the show. Concurrently, the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson has also opened in Paris. Besides housing his archives, it will serve as exhibition space for other photographers and offer financial support to visual artists. When I mentioned all this, Cartier-Bresson first feigned deafness, then indifference. Finally, his wife reminded him that the Fondation opening was only a week away, and he looked up in unfeigned alarm. "Do I have to wear a tie?"

These days the globe-trotting photojournalist, who nearly died of blackwater fever in Africa and escaped from Nazi POW camps three times, usually sticks close to home. "We travel," said Franck, "but mostly to attend exhibitions of Henri's work." Still, considering his age, Cartier-Bresson's physical infirmities are negligible. He wears reading glasses, hearing aids in both ears, and he gets around with a cane, or rather what's called a shooting stick: the curved metal handle splits in two to form a seat. These were invented for gentlemen hunters, like those in "The Rules of the Game," the 1939 Jean Renoir film on which Cartier-Bresson worked as assistant director. "I can sit on this," he says, "and draw for half an hour before I get tired."

He may have lost the lithe grace so obvious in photographs of him at work as a younger man. But there is nothing slow about his mind. He answers questions quickly and succinctly--when he chooses to answer at all. He grows visibly bored and ill-tempered when the subject of his career as a photographer comes up. Only once, when he caught me leafing through the catalog to the current retrospective, did he voluntarily discuss a picture. Of the 1951 photograph of women on the stairs in an Italian town, a piece of fiendishly complicated geometry, he said, "I saw it and I only had a second. So I gambled." This could be the story behind any of a hundred Cartier-Bresson shots, with their utterly unique balance of compositional genius, bottomless curiosity --about people and a jack rabbit's reflexes when it comes to pulling the trigger.

In 1952, Cartier-Bresson wrote a now famous essay, "The Decisive Moment," in which he specified the time for the click of the shutter not as the climax of the action but as the instant when, pictorially speaking, everything comes together. As an after-the-fact description of his own work, it makes perfect sense. As advice for anyone else, it's pretty much useless. So when Cartier-Bresson insisted to me that "anyone with a camera is a photographer," his wife broke out in exasperation: "Henri, you know that's not true!" He grinned, happy to have her call his bluff. "I know, but I can say what I want." Perhaps, I suggested, he was someone who thinks that because he can do something, that anybody can. He shrugged. "Maybe," he said. "I don't think about those things anymore."

Near the end of my visit, he asked his wife to bring over an ebony carving, about a foot tall, of a female figure. "When I was dying of blackwater fever, a woman gave me this," he said. "She had the power." Feeling increasingly like the American rube in a Henry James novel, I press him. Is it magic? Do you think this saved your life? "We don't talk about this," he said gently. "There are things you don't mention." He took the statue back and stroked it. "The white man is killed by culture," he said, as if to himself. "We segregate art from life. But life is art." He thrust the statue at me again. "Look at the beauty, the way it takes the light."

For him there is no discontinuity between life and art, between the young art student who in the 1920s abandoned painting for photography and the aging photographer who set aside his camera and picked up a pencil and a sketch pad. And what would he do, I asked, if he were unable any longer to draw? "You draw mentally then," he said, without missing a beat. "You can't kill in somebody what is essential."

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