Nothing to Do with Me

Gaby Wood

  • Henri Cartier-Bresson
    Pompidou Centre, until 9 June
  • ‘Voir est un tout’: Entretiens et conversations 1951-98 by Henri Cartier-Bresson
    Centre Pompidou, 176 pp, €19.90, January 2014, ISBN 978 2 84426 639 2
  • BuyHenri Cartier-Bresson: Here and Now edited by Clément Chéroux
    Thames and Hudson, 400 pp, £45.00, March 2014, ISBN 978 0 500 54430 3

At the Pompidou Centre in Paris, a two-hour wait will get you ‘priority access’ to the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition. It’s available only to friends of the museum, members of the press, and those who bought tickets in advance and naively thought they’d walk straight in. As the American woman behind me remarked, it’s the kind of queue that would be generated in the US by the opening weekend of Terminator 4. The show is well worth it. But once you’re in Paris, taking in the blockbuster effect and the tidal waves of press devoted to ‘the master’, with his ‘genius’ and his ‘magical moments’, you can’t help thinking about the easy sort of patriotism Cartier-Bresson now elicits: he’s French, he’s familiar, he soaked up a century and worked in a medium that lends itself to fridge magnets. Of course, if we have become blasé about photography’s reach – in the world and into our homes – then Cartier-Bresson, art photographer, photojournalist and co-founder of the Magnum picture agency, is among those we have to thank. But still: ten years after his death, how should his work be understood? The curators have answered that question by claiming to break down the received view: his life, travels and allegiances are conceived as a whole, and the greatest hits – the so-called ‘decisive moments’ – are complemented by other work.

His early imitations of Eugène Atget, and his attempts when in Africa to be more like the great Hungarian Martin Munkácsi, were unpromising. Then came Surrealism – or an attempt at it. A curtain wrapped around a head, a shirt hanging upside down on a washing line like a ghost, animal entrails arranged into abstractions: photography, for those who take a principled stand against the manipulation of images, is just not that surreal. While he hovered around the edges of the group – worshipping André Breton, befriending René Crevel, looking up to Max Ernst – he preferred their talk of revolution to any art they made, and never said a word at their gatherings. His photographs from that time feel as timid as he professed to be in their company. He was under no illusions about some of the early phases of his career. His Ivory Coast pictures came back damp and fogged, he later wrote; and as for the Atget-like shop-fronts, he never got the hang of that large format camera anyway. His prints – as the exhibition confirms – were poor and Pierre Assouline’s 2001 biography is full of gallery people saying so at the time. The photographer later joked that friends referred to him as a ‘foutugraphe’, given the likelihood that he would screw things up.

Although he was given a camera (‘un Brownie-box’) at the age of 14 or 15, he was not an instant convert to the medium. Born in 1908, he didn’t really start taking pictures until he was twenty, and was, even then, largely uninterested in anything technical. He mainly wanted to paint. From the point of view of his family – industrialists, château-owners, and the extremely wealthy manufacturers of Cartier-Bresson sewing thread – that was bad enough. But he turned out to be so lacking in painterly flair that Gertrude Stein, in her un-Delphic way, told him not to give up the day job – he would do well to join the family business. (Some of his early canvases have been included in the show to prove her point.) Though he switched to photography, he always said he was more influenced by painting and cinema – ‘I owe nothing to photography,’ he claimed, looking back – and at various points in his life gave up taking pictures for years at a time.

But when he bought a Leica in 1932 he became a purist in its service. He tended to stick to three fixed lenses (35mm, 50mm and 135mm), and was adamant that cropping of any kind was an admission of defeat. In the same year, equipped in this way, he produced two of his most famous photographs: the cyclist caught gliding down a cobbled hill at the base of some stone steps in Hyères, and the man jumping over a puddle behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, captured in mid-air and reflected perfectly in the water, the pitched roof of the station behind him shrouded in mist.

In 1933 he took some exceptional pictures in Spain: bright, human, swift. Many of them were organised against walls. Painted, dotted with tiny windows, pasted with posters or knocked through to make a jagged hole, the walls have a structuring effect on the final shot in much the same way that a backdrop in the theatre does. Over these plain, static grounds Cartier-Bresson presented people vibrantly: a group of boys playing in Madrid, one of them smiling to camera as a round, moustachioed man in a hat and suit rolls by behind them; a smart gentleman with a cane silhouetted against a white circle painted on a fence, as if in the final diminishing frame of a silent movie; a group of children clambering around rubble, one of them almost seeming to burst out of the photograph itself.

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[*] HCB: Scrapbook, a near facsimile edition compiled by Michel Frizot, was published in French by Steidl and in English by Thames and Hudson in 2006.