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Friday, 29 January 2010


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Well, that was certainly, uhhh... revealing. Back in the day I was quite the fan of the Sex Pistols, not that I ever wanted to hang with 'em. Learned that from the Tom Snyder/Johnny Rotten interview- always separate the artist from the art...

I'm sorry, I can't agree; boorish behavior is boorish behavior, whether it be by saint or sinner.

The young man only made two errors - he offered the film back and he failed to keep shooting. (It might be argued that he should have asked permission - but then his target didn't seem to think asking permission was all that important...).

A nice photograph 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" published in the Daily News might have done HCB a world of good. He might have found out that, actually, nobody cared about him taking photographs outside of other photographers.

Just my 2 cents, fully worth half of that.

I would have been laughing my you-know-what off. We're all human, with whatever disconnects from our true selves there may be. HCB was just one of us. What he did and created remains, undiminished.

I think it's foolish to reward bad behavior. Had he tried this on someone with as quick and volatile a temper as himself, then he may have found himself in a sudden and unpleasant situation. Alfred Eisenstaedt was photographed plenty of times, but only those interested in photography would have recognized his face. I would think that 99% of the people HCB photographed would not know who he was even if his visage had graced Life magazine's cover.

If there is such a thing as the essence of a life, I doubt it could be captured in a moment, no matter how skilled the photographer. Life's a long series of moments and, if we are to define a person, I think we need to do it on the basis of more than any single one of them. Not even HCB could capture the essence, the very soul of a person, on film, because photographs capture moments and no single moment is enough to define someone.

That doesn't diminish his accomplishment in the least. And I have no doubt that excellent photographs, by Henri Cartier-Bresson and others, can reveal something fundamental and important about a person. But I must object to the idea that anyone has ever "captured the essence of" someone in a single frame, or even a series of them. We are more than that.

An artist is an artist and an a-hole is an a-hole. Sometimes the two intersect, sometimes not. Bottom line - being the former is no excuse for behaving like the latter.

Kertesz used the Leica before HCB...and, with no less talent or results, in my humble opinion. He also tutored Brassai, no slouch himself, especially on night photography, ultimately leading to the wonderful Paris de Nuit.

"But I must object to the idea that anyone has ever "captured the essence of" someone in a single frame, or even a series of them. We are more than that."

Amen. Far more.

Reminds me of a story I heard about another legend of photography, this one still very active. At the beginning of a workshop he was teaching and as some of his adoring students started to take some photos of their hero, he said that if someone took another photo of him he would leave immediately cancelling the (very expensive) workshop. He is not French and probably was not even raging as he said it.

Even children outgrow that kind of behavior before they lose their creativity.

"Without the constraints imposed by the passage of time, by maturity, does not the child see what the adult no longer can?"

Jim, thank you for describing your revealing encounter with HCB. However, I disagree with your conclusion that HCB was a great photographer because he was immature, child-like and therefore lacked constraints. I do not see evidence that child-like immaturity provides either the insight or skill required for great photography. Rather, the tantrum you witnessed can be interpreted as demonstrating that HCB had a character flaw, perhaps self-obsession or narcissism, that may have assisted his focus and, therefore, level of skill and accomplishment.

In his March 1996 article for Outdoor Photographer magazine, entitled "Seeing photos - where art and biology meet", Galen Rowell wrote:

"Top photographers learn to 'see' pictures by trial and error after years of field experience. Certain situations worked; others failed to 'come out.' One's quantity of life experience seemed somehow related to the quality and consistency of their ability to produce meaningful, artistic images. Before autofocus, top photojournalists peaked in their late 30s or 40s, just as their ability to focus on the ground glass was starting to wane. Despite countless child prodigies in music, chess, skating, and ballet, there have been few in photography. The early work of talented young photographers remains conspicuously absent from top selections of images with enduring meaning.

Hence, wrote Rowell, "a 1996 camera in the hands of a meticulous PhD who studies the instruction manual won't produce as many publishable images as a 1936 camera in the hands of a person with a refined 'photographic eye'."

(You can read the essay and others at:


Rod S.

"...Despite countless child prodigies in music, chess, skating, and ballet, there have been few in photography..."

wow, that means I still got a chance?


I remember this in its original form, and the Brinnin piece in Camera Arts. Thanks for sharing them again. I travelled to Paris in August of 2004, a couple of weeks after Henri passed his expiration date. I thought for sure that the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson would have a presentation of some kind to mark his passing. Wrong. It was closed. It was August. It's France. The more I think about it, the more I appreciate that attitude.

HCB my thoughts. He was good but others have done it better. I have a hard time believing a fair amount of his work wasn't staged. I think his photographs more famous because of history captured then actual quality. A time gone by you know. Big hats for men and vintage dress and styles for women.

Nothing charming or creative about his temper tantrum though. An undeveloped human being is just that, nothing more.

Partly I think it's that being behind the camera all his life, Henry Carter really hated having his photograph taken that much. I have this joke I like to tell that I hate having my photograph taken, and the best defense I have against that is by always carrying a camera. People tend to avoid taking pictures of people with cameras in ready-position. Once I had a camera, I figured I might start taking some pictures with it. (I think it's backwards, the way I tell it, I only hated having pictures taken of me because I started taking pictures.)

Understanding how fixing a moment in a photograph transforms it is a good reason to avoid having your photograph taken. And HCB must have understood that better than anybody.


Ironically, "egalitarianism" is a French word....

"I disagree with your conclusion that HCB was a great photographer because he was immature, child-like and therefore lacked constraints....Rather, the tantrum you witnessed can be interpreted as demonstrating that HCB had a character flaw, perhaps self-obsession or narcissism, that may have assisted his focus and, therefore, level of skill and accomplishment."

Can't agree with your more Rod S.

Siu Hay

HCB in his later years stopped photographing and went back to painting. He was of the opinion that his photographs did not amount to much (whether that was some type of false modesty I have no idea). He did say that he wished he had continued his work in movies.

""Top photographers learn to 'see' pictures by trial and error after years of field experience. Certain situations worked; others failed to 'come out.' "

It maybe that once they hit lucky with a particular style they continue with it ad neauseum because the Art world(galleries,critics, curators et al.) prefer them not to change as a recognisable style is a "brand"(sellable). To exhibit your work HAS to fit into a specific classification/style eg Portraits on location (no flowers or landscapes or still etc).

It is only human to stick with what gives you recognition. Has there ever been an exhibition of HCB paintings?

When you look at a photo how recognisable is it as the work of a particular photographer.

Maybe that is why so much highly valued photography is quite old. All the styles are taken (except for the computer aided work of recent arrivals).

I remember that article in Camera Arts it was quite revealing and informative.

Seems that these famous types behave like that because they get away with it. Hard to believe that a bit of the push back anybody else would face would limit their creative abilities.

When everybody wants to your friend...

Thank you for your delightful HCB anecdote, Jim. I never met the man myself but know others who were acquainted with him. The behavior you describe mates perfectly with what they recount. Frankly, it's hard to find anyone that has much praise for him personally, at least anyone who's not French. He was regarded like the God of the Snapshot and found that the deity's mantle fit him well.

Richard Avedon was interviewed at the beginning of a show about HCB. He said that most photographers would 'do anything' to have made 5 iconic images during their life; HCB made hundreds. His personality is irrelevant to his greatness.

MJFeron wrote " I have a hard time believing a fair amount of his work wasn't staged." You don't want to believe HCB was great because you can't believe anyone could do what he did.

HCB's work from Spain in the 30's was as unique as it was ever going to be.... Strong arresting work. He repeated himself from there on. BUt while not a child prodigy, it argues against the lack of "child" prodigies in photo. He was a grown young man but it was his first body of work.

This story does say something about the price of fame, I think. It should be evident that some kinds of work — especially street photography — can't be done very well, if at all, by the famous. For many kinds of ordinary and normal activities (going to the mall, walking down the street, buying a sandwich, etc.), more fame means more difficulty.

I don't know whether HCB had turned to drawing full-time at this point. But I can see why during his photographic career he made it a point to not have his face become a famous face.

To those saying that adults can see everything that children can, I couldn't disagree more.

I am not saying that this excuses HCB for any behavioural outbursts, which are, in my opinion irrelevant to his artistic greatness.

However, I do think that a child like way of viewing the world is often what allows great artists to see things that others miss.


Right...and in point of fact he was often recognized, even when he was working on the street, because there are a number of written accounts of people spotting him, watching him, following him. The most famous (and the most well written, two things which probably have something to do with each other) is Joel Meyerowitz's account, but I've read a number of those stories over the years.

Jim's account is the only one I've read of HCB behaving that way, and I suppose it's possible he could have just been having a very bad day. I've had some problems with my temper myself.

I also worked for a photographer who regularly had full-on tantrums; for him it was a way of releasing stress (or rather, shunting it on to anyone near him). It actually cost him business--art directors wouldn't bring clients to his studio, for instance, for fear of exposing their clients to one of the outbursts.

There are plenty of stories of Cartier-Bresson acting imperiously. Sadly, the person I knew who knew him best is no longer with us. Hopefully we will get a full biography before long, to put all these stories in proper perspective.


Regarding Mike's hope that we'll get a full biography before long, you do know about Pierre Assouline's book, don't you? Or maybe you don't count it as a "full" biography?

There's also a book by Clément Chéroux whose publisher claims that it is the first "scientific" biography of HCB.

Jeffrey, I agree with what you said about HCB's work in the 30s. (Not only the stuff from Spain, but generally all the stuff he did before the war except for his very first photos from Africa. See for example the MoMA catalog "The Early Work".) That was really fresh and new and for me is the best he ever did.

I wouldn't necessarily say that he repeated himself afterwards, but at least he didn't improve. IMHO, he didn't even manage to keep the same level - although he still was a remarkably good photographer all of his life.

Where can one find Meyerowitz's account of spotting HCB?

"Where can one find Meyerowitz's account of spotting HCB?"

Hmm. Now that you ask, I'm not quite sure. I *believe* I encountered it in Barbaralee Diamonstein's book "Visions and Images," but I'm not 100% sure...and I don't seem to be able to find the book here to check. (I really should do something about organizing my books so I can find them on purpose.) I probably loaned it to somebody and never got it back....


...it's true what they say; best not to meet your heroes.

And of course, the Nikon is LOUD compared to the Leica. Pisses me off, too.

Mike, I find it interesting and hard to believe that he was spotted much. I started blogging it here before I got to your comment about it.

Jay says

"MJFeron wrote " I have a hard time believing a fair amount of his work wasn't staged." You don't want to believe HCB was great because you can't believe anyone could do what he did."

Never said he wasn't great but give me Elliot Erwitt any day. (BTW maybe some of his work was staged as well?) We may never know.

Amazon lists a book 'Faceless: The Most Famous Photographer in the World' by David Douglas Duncan. The product description provides background on how Duncan took the photographs of Cartier-Bresson. One reviewer claims Cartier-Bresson did everything he could to prevent the book from being published.

"Where can one find Meyerowitz's account of spotting HCB?"

He discusses it in this interview:


I'm surprised no one remembered the book of portraits of HCB that David Douglas Duncan published. HCB was enraged about it! DDD shot a quick 36 exposure roll of film on HCB while the two men were having a conversation when Duncan was in his 80s and HCB in his 90s. Duncan liked the shots so much he published them in a book called FACELESS, the Most Famous Photographer in the World.


The show Jay mentioned is Charlie Rose's interview w/ HCB, prefaced by Avedon's remarks. The entire hour can be seen via google.

There is child-like and there is child-ish. Two different things, I believe.

It is funny that someone as camera shy as HCB would marry a fellow photographer. Shooting pictures for the family album must have been an uphill battle for Martine Franck.

Tom K.,
Thanks...I hadn't seen that in ages.


No child genius in photography?
Well, the genius bit is debatable but let's not forget Lartigue.

Cheers, Robin

Without excusing any "behavioral issues," I think that in Europe artists, writers, and intellectuals are taken seriously enough that people are in fact likely to recognize them on the street, and Cartier-Bresson's concern about his anonymity was not entirely off the wall. In the U.S., indeed, it might have only been other photographers who would have taken an interest in what he looked like, but in Paris, not so much so.

I remember the Camera Arts article. Fair or not it left me liking HCB's work less. I still think it's great but I can't seem to enjoy it in the same way I did before.
Do all artists with a real gift have to strike some kind of balance between the admiration of strangers and the feelings of the people around them?
Fortunately I have not been burdened with sufficient talent to have to deal with questions like this.

I can't for the life of me reconcile HCB's attitude as retold here (or about the Douglas Duncan shots) and the image illustrating Mike's earlier post. The two can't be separated by more than ten years.

As said before, boorish is boorish. The young man should have kept his roll of film - HCB, after all, kept all of his.

Thanks, Tom K.!

I enjoyed the piece, but I don't understand your analogy with Mozart at the end. Are you thinking of the character from the Shaffer play/movie rather than the actual person? A professor of mine wrote about the problem with that portrayal here: http://www.mozartproject.org/essays/brown.html



I'm guessing from the publication date that this incident might have happened after 1975, which is [from what little I know about it] when H C-B retired from full-time photography. Not that it justifies such behavior but maybe the guy was just fed-up.
Case in point: Having just seen "September Issue" recently I was struck buy the candor with which Anna Wintor commented on her father's retirement saying something like, "He was just tired of the battles". A precursor to her stepping down someday soon? Hard to tell - not that I care - but it does make me wonder about H C-B's state at the time of this incident.
The point is: Many, if not all, these "household names" face much, much greater pressures than most of us will ever know. That's one price of fame, success or whatever you call it. It just seems so curious that we are always so quick to judge others about things which we can hardly know that much about.
Let's face it - underneath it all they're only human - not gods. And, being human, they will invariably turn out to have feet of clay. Hear, hear I say. So, if you'll excuse me, I'll get back to my own little toils & troubles . . .

He is one of my photo heroes for his work in the 30s.

Understandable that he was outraged, since he himself would never dream of taking a photo of a stranger, such was his concern for the anonymity of his fellow man.

Hank's propaganda era, working in print and film for Communist causes, might belie any claim to childlike innocence. On the other hand, it might underscore it.

I think HCB turned to drawing again because he couldn't get around anymore. I'll tell you what, if I took those pictures of Henri, and he started screaming, I would have kept the film, and laughed as i walked away. Then I'd publish them with the story. Arrogance and temper tantrums! I bet this guy was a bear to live with, and I feel sorry for his wife and kid.

Love his photography though, but "ouch" on the attitude.

Public Enemy says "Don't Believe The Hype". Maybe HCB shouldn't have believed his own hype. LOL!

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