By Jim Hughes
More than any other practitioner, I think, Henri Cartier-Bresson has defined the art of small-camera photography. Defying categorization (that bane of any true original), H.C.-B., neither photojournalist nor documentarian, seemingly traversed the earth in search of telling human images—decisive moments, he himself called them—that in their inevitable lyricism strike me as unspoken tone poems in black and white. It is too easy to say that he photographed people, often at their most vulnerable, or even that he captured the essence of their lives, both of which were certainly true. He somehow managed to photograph time itself, stopping that great equalizer in its tracks. It is almost as if the instrument of his art—and make no mistake, it is the music of life that he played—existed on another plane entirely.
Yet when I looked upon that instrument, it appeared to be a camera, nothing more. Indeed, the day I first met Cartier-Bresson, he was wearing not the famous black-taped classic Leica I expected to see, but an even more miniaturized version, the then-brand-new Leica CL, a superb design now long-discontinued and highly sought after, that was no bigger and almost as simple as some of today’s ubiquitous point-and-shoots. The International Center of Photography in New York (then located at 94th and Fifth on Museum Mile in what had once been a grand old mansion) was planning an exhibit, and as a photo-magazine editor I had been invited to meet the great man in person. History was everywhere. We gathered in one of the upstairs meeting rooms. Cornell Capa, ICP's founder and Robert's brother, was there. The conversation, conducted at first in a kind of Anglicized French no doubt to accommodate me (Cartier-Bresson made his reluctance to speak English quite obvious), quickly turned to Magnum, an unusual cooperative of independent-minded photographers who never seemed able to agree on much of anything, but who nonetheless managed, individually and as a group, to produce work of unparalleled excellence.
I had expected to encounter the gentle soul of a poet. Instead, the quirky man to whom I was introduced was edgier than I could ever have imagined, possessed of a sharply caustic intellect that, I realize in retrospect, might actually have been calculated to put people off—or perhaps just people like me. He was, I'd been told, an aristocrat. He talked of his growing frustration with (or maybe it was disdain for) photography, and his concomitant need to return to his roots: drawing and painting, the few examples of which I’d seen had left me cold, left me wondering how a great master in one field would fail so completely to recognize his mediocrity in another. But no matter. If Henri Cartier-Bresson chose to be full of himself, I was sure he’d earned the right. Genius is as genius does.
At one point, a young man with a Nikon F appeared at the open door. I paid him little mind; at ICP, one regularly encountered young people carrying cameras, all eagerly shooting each other's nooks and crannies as they earnestly went about learning how to make incisive pictures. But this fellow was different; he seemed barely out of his teens—if indeed he was—and he appeared to be genuinely starstruck. It is not often one gets to meet one's true-life hero in the flesh.
"Monsieur Cartier-Bresson," the young man exclaimed in what sounded like his best prep-school French as he brought his Nikon to his eye, moved in and squeezed off a series of exposures with, I think, a 105mm lens. At the last ka-thunk of the mirror, Cartier-Bresson sprung to his feet, literally sprung as if his wiry body had been coiled tight, just waiting for a reason to release itself.
"You must not photograph me!" he shrieked, his English suddenly crystal-clear. "No one is allowed to photograph me! Everyone must know that..."
Despite the widely disseminated legend of H.C.-B.'s fetish for remaining somehow unseen, one young man from America evidently did not know. That he got the message was obvious from his quick retreat; I even thought I saw him bow his head and genuflect ever so slightly as he sheepishly backed out the doorway. Such a show of respect was apparently too little, too late for Cartier-Bresson, whose face by now was beet-red. He chased the young man out the doorway into into a corridor, screaming at the top of his lungs that without his cherished cloak of anonymity he could not continue to go unnoticed among the people of the world. Encumbered by fame and celebrity, how could he photograph freely? He would be recognized at every turn.
My final mental image of the sad turn of events is of a raging Frenchman having a full-out tantrum, his arms waving, his charged body literally jumping up and down, his intense eyes suddenly turned wild, right in the face of this by-now completely humiliated and defenseless young man who, at first backed against a wall, now slid down to the floor, his body sobbing, his trembling hand reaching out, if memory serves, to offer what I took to be a partially exposed roll of film as penance.
I could not help but reflect on all those unsuspecting individuals whose identities, whose very souls, had been captured, dissected even, by Henri Cartier-Bresson's revealing eye.
Still, I realized, the result of all this hysterical posing, this artifice,
was the greater truth of art. The child-like genius of Mozart comes quickly
to mind. Without the constraints imposed by the passage of time, by
maturity, does not the child see what the adult no longer can? Out of
Mozart’s petulance and generally bad behavior came sublime music that was,
and is, pure joy.
(This is a revised version of an essay J.H. wrote in 1999. —Ed.)
P.S. If anyone can find a copy, I highly recommend the book Sextet (Delacourt/Seymour Lawrence, 1981), a memoir of encounters with six fascinating people of note, written by John Malcolm Brinnin, my old creative writing instructor, that contains a long and revealing piece on Cartier-Bresson, whom Brinnin accompanied in 1947 on a cross-country adventure to photograph America. An expanded version of this piece, along with a portfolio of the images that resulted from the trip, appeared in the January/February 1982 edition of the original Camera Arts magazine. —J.H.