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Friday, 16 April 2010


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Years ago I spent one month remodeling a nursing home dedicated to Alzheimer patients. It was heartbreaking to see these folks suffer and some at a surprisingly young age. In that month I was pulled off a step ladder by my back pockets, hit for no reason at all and called racial slurs that didn't fit my physical description.

It seems to strike females more then men. Two situations hit me hard. The first was a loud voice that echoed through the halls. It cried out in a rhythmic, never ending song. "Take away the orange juice I want milk" It would go on for an hour. At night when trying to sleep I had a hard time getting that chant out of my head.

I also remember a woman named Irene who walked up to the nurses desk when I happened to be working nearby. She slammed her shoe on the counter and in a insulted tone screamed. "I demand an explanation. You call this breakfast?" Later in a mental state closer to reality Irene with a tear in her eye told me about her condition and said it was hard. That really touched me to experience the real Irene for a short moment. The disease quickly claims them back again.

Nice review but, please, it's "foreword", not "forward".

(This is the second time...)

Mike, I'm surprised you said you never heard this kind of criticism of HCB before. I thought that at least what Robert Frank thought (and had said) about him was well known in the photography world. And I'm very, very sure this new article in the New Yorker isn't the first I saw where the author accused Cartier-Bresson of being more interested in the composition than in what he actually photographed.


On the coldness of Cartier-Bresson:




My dear grandmother suffered from Alzheimer's. She had 16 grandchildren, and I was her favourite—we shared a special bond since I was born and she took care of me as a baby while my mother prepared entrance exams to become a teacher. Who could have predicted that 25 years later it would be me caring for her, as she became an infant herself.

It tore me inside to see her disappear, even though her body was still intact. I went away to start school in another country in the Autumn, and when I returned for Christmas a few short months later, the woman I found was no longer her; she was just a shell that once housed my dear grandmother.

I wish I had been into photography in the years prior, as now I would have tangible visual memories of her. Instead all I have are mental images, that one day may themselves be dissolved by the acid of Alzheimer's.

My father used to say that Alzheimer's was the most cruel of all diseases, because instead of affecting the diseased, it instead affected all those around them, for years.

I flipped through the pages in Ms Fox's book that Amazon lets us preview, and her love comes across. I confess I cried when I saw a portrait of her husband which to many may just be that, a portrait, but to me is the portrait of an illness—I recognised the look, it was one I saw on my grandmother's face often during those last few weeks before I left for school that fateful Autumn.

I will be ordering this book, Mike. But I don't expect it to be an entirely pleasurable experience to read through it. Cathartic, maybe; enjoyable, I doubt it.

But thank you.

Mike, your eloquent review of this book makes me want to see it; I'll search my library's catalog online. I'm sure photographing and putting the book together served a very therapeutic role for the photographer.

I'd like to point out a typo, if I may: "forward" should read "foreword." I always trip over that one myself.



Mike said:

"Peter Schjeldahl has judged Henri Cartier-Bresson of being cold and without feeling—a charge I have to say I've never come across before, in years of reading about the photographer and his work. . . "

I have come across this criticism before and Schjeldahl quoted it in his article: it was Robert Frank's "harsh but just" comment that “He traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition.”

When I first saw this comment, it was shocking to me and surprising (I've always called Cartier-Bresson St. Henri; St Ansel?: not so much). But it shined a new light on the work and, in my opinion, it is accurate in a very telling way.


Thank you for bringing this book to our attention. I plan on ordering it through your site later today or tomorrow.

My father, with whom I practiced law, who taught me how to swim as a child, and who bought me a Leica M6 a year before he died, died of metastatic prostate cancer almost 9 years ago. When the disease progressed, and before it spread to his brain, he permitted me to photograph him sparingly. As the cancer spread, he let me photograph him less and less (I understood why - a once vibrant and brilliant man could no longer remember how to use a tv remote control, could no longer swim his daily mile, or even walk the hall of his condo), though I wanted to photograph his struggles and battles even more.

My father never saw me marry and have children, but my wife and children are able to see and know him through photos that I took of him with the camera that he gave me as a present.

Watching him fight the good fight changed my life for the better as I was able to get a better understanding of the man he was, and why. It is just unfortunate that I couldn't document his life the way I wished, but it wasn't my life to document.

Yes, we had our disagreements, but he was still my father. And I miss him.

I like Peter Schjeldahl's work, I suppose I have read most of what he has written in the New Yorker. But he has some interesting quirks. One is that he despises any representational painting that does not include pavement, concrete, brick, steel, or the like. He seems to see no distinction between Andrew Wyeth and Thomas Kincaid.
I think HCB runs into this bias.
Doug Chadwick

For those interested in hearing about HCB from another perspective, it might also be a good idea to read John Malcolm Brinnin's book "Sextet" where he recounts a (seemingly very "interesting") tour through the US with Cartier-Bresson.

I'm with Jeff Glass in that, after having been a "fan" of HCB's work for a long time, these negative descriptions first surprised and kind of shocked me but then helped me to see his œuvre in a different light. I still think he's a towering figure and certainly one of the most important and influental photographers of all time, but he ain't a supernatural being and he had his flaws, too.

I felt more drawn towards photographers like Robert Frank or, to mention more recent ones, Paulo Nozolino and Klavdij Sluban before I heard the negative criticism of HCB's work, but with hindsight descriptions like "cold", "indifferent", or "detached" suddenly seemed fitting for a feeling I couldn't really put into words.

When my mom entered a closed Alzheimer's unit, I had an opportunity to meet her companions and came to appreciate their personalities and struggles. Once when I wore a black turtleneck, an old women shuffled over and stood by my side. When my mom alerted me that she wanted to talk to me, I turned and Betty addressed me as Father and inquired why I was visiting that day. I had such fun practicing my brogue and asking her if she had made her Easter duty.
As I photographer, I had plans to try to make some strong black and white portraits of the residents, but my plans went down the tubes when I was inconveniently diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. I recovered, Kathleen of course, didn't. A back yard snapshot does suffice quite nicely, however. http://www.flickr.com/photos/macwax/4531113150
Kathleen MacKechnie was a wonderful women. I will indeed give Judith Fox's book a look. Thank you for the reference Mike.

My two cents: I am certainly not an 'expert' on this photographer but in most of the recorded interviews he comes across as a pedantic, irritable old man. Always referring to his true art, painting, of which no critic of any distinction has taken a notion. Don't underestimate the French capacity for looking at the world, and those who live in it, top down.

trying to bring this back to the main subject... you might be interested in hearing Judith Fox's interview on NPR's Fresh Air - link

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