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, ISBN 978 2 84426 639 2
  • BuyHenri Cartier-Bresson: Here and Now edited by Clément Chéroux
    Thames and Hudson, 400 pp, £45.00, March, 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.

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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.