Saturday, 15 March 2014

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The man, the image & the world

This is a truly wonderful book – which I’ve borrowed from my local library. It contains just shy of 500 of HC-Bs photographic images, a selection of his drawings and images related to his film-making and his family history. It is split into several sections interspersed with short, but insightful essays from the “curators” of this retrospective.

I’m not going to attempt an explanation of why Cartier-Bresson was important – there are plenty far better informed than I who can do that – just to capture my reactions to some of the images in this book. Inevitably a stepping off point is the idea of the “decisive moment” and there are plenty of the more famous examples on display here, including the gentleman jumping off the plank in Paris and the bicycle whizzing past the foot of the stairs. However there are plenty of others that in many ways I found more interesting.

For example “Seville Spain 1933” shows a group of kids playing. The one nearest the camera is heading away from the other group and it isn’t really possible to tell if he is running away because the others are taunting him, or if he is part of their game. As far as I can tell it’s the moment that he pressed the shutter which has created this ambiguity – and in the process he asks far more interesting questions about the human condition than the more famous images mentioned above. Thirty-four years later he captures a monkey in an experiment in a lab in Berkeley (Berkeley California 1967 – two images near the bottom of the page). In the book version the hapless creature appears to be reaching and trying to turn off the equipment – again the timing and subsequent ambiguity of the photo creates this effect. It’s telling that the other image on the linked page shows the monkey looking almost nonchalant – the narrative is created by the size and timing of the quote from the continuum.

Some of his images are almost pure comedy – the dog sleeping in the mouth of the dragon in “Tehuantepec, Mexico, 1934” and the “Baris Dance, Bali, 1949” would be simply funny if they weren’t leavened by his ability to get everything in just the right place at just the right moment. At the other extreme, his images of Gandhi’s funeral catch human emotion at its most raw. He was also a master at capturing the interaction of people with their surroundings in ways that make almost breath-taking virtuosity from otherwise ordinary pictures.He seems to have taken some inspiration from Escher for Matera, Basilicata, 1951, L’Aquila, Abruzzo Italy, 1951 and Istanbul, Turkey, 1964.

The course notes suggest that Cartier-Bresson was influenced by the ideas of the Surrealists – that every so often in dreams or our waking subconscious - order revealed itself by emerging from the chaos that surrounds us. I’m more inclined to go with the suggestion from Jean Clair of the Musee Picasso in his discussion at p47 et seq, that Cartier-Bresson never left anything to chance, that he was so skilful that he could see, anticipate and act on events going on around him to extract the order himself – HC-B was the vital ingredient that makes the moment decisive.

The variety of images on display is astounding – the book rivals Family of Man for it’s variety and is not tainted with the rather naive idealism of that collection. Cartier-Bresson seems to have photographed virtually the whole of the 20th century – in Europe, America, Africa, and Asia – near and far. I recommend this book – buy it, borrow it – but whatever you do see it.

Cartier-Bresson, H., 2003. The man, the image & the world. London: Thames and Hudson. Ed: R. Delpire et al

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