Just How It was

Anne Hollander

  • Tête à Tête: Portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson edited by E.H. Gombrich
    Thames and Hudson, 144 pp, £32.00, February 1998, ISBN 0 05 005421 X
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson: Europeans edited by Jean Clair
    Thames and Hudson, 231 pp, £29.95, January 1998, ISBN 0 500 28052 5

Like Titian’s, Cartier-Bresson’s work began as the mirror of one epoch and is ending as that of another, simply because he invented the best mirror and kept polishing it Cartier-Bresson’s influence has been immense since his beginnings, not just on photography but on cinema and photojournalism, so that he has been largely responsible for 20th-century notions of what a superior realistic camera image should look like. Which is to say, for our sense of how modern life looks.

It is therefore most instructive to see how deeply his photographs draw for their verisimilitude on traditions of Western representation that prevailed long before the camera. In the full tide of current events, with no posing of subjects or manipulation of backgrounds and no cropping afterwards, Cartier-Bresson manages to suggest Goya and Guercino, Metsu and Phidias, Daumier and Rossetti, Mantegna and Degas and many others. He evokes such ghostly optical presences all the more strongly by avoiding the direct references often made to them by painters or by ‘pictorial’ photographers. An eye with Cartier-Bresson’s deep artistic sympathy can register and store the traces of past representations so effectively that he is able to transmit them straight into the receptive lens as if without knowing it. They are conjured into the midst of life to tell a modern truth by purely modern means.

This is what a great artist has always known how to do, although usually not in such a wholly distinctive medium. Cartier-Bresson’s was photo-reportage, later to shift into portrait-photo-reportage, documentary film and photojournalism, all of this a long way from Mantegna. It is evident from the pictures in both these books that the artistic past absorbed by Cartier-Bresson also comprised such giants of photography as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen – and look! here’s Stieglitz himself, whose portrait Cartier-Bresson took in 1946, the lastyear of the great forerunner’s life. Stieglitz’s face has a weary look not unlike that of Robert Flaherty, father of the documentary film, another great forerunner whose portrait Cartier-Bresson took in the same year.

A similar weariness infuses the faces of Georges Rouault and Pierre Bonnard in their 1944 portraits; but the relationship between these aged artists and the portrait camera is quite a different one. Both elderly painters are closely buttoned up, Rouault formally with waistcoat, wing-collar, cravat and Homburg, his tired eyes not quite meeting the lens. Bonnard is informally but more totally packaged, with a thick wrapped scarf, a droop-brimmed cotton hat, a moustache and spectacles all obscuring the physical Pierre, who gazes far away into the light. Both men are thinking of something other than this moment and this camera, which they only stoically permit. Picasso (never an old master, though finally an old man in his 1967 portrait) was also photographed in 1944, apparently in the act of undressing to recline for the camera, his hands fumbling at his belt and fly, his torso already naked, prune-like eyes staring and an undraped bed right next to him.

In 1946 the old masters of the camera, on the other hand, were wearing wrinkled shirt-sleeves without neckwear, the skinny Stieglitz lolling and polishing his glasses, a white lock falling over his brow, his glittering gaze fixed beyond us; the plump Flaherty with his hands on spread knees and two fingers delicately supporting a cigarette, the white wisps rising a little, his look reflective. These two fatigued pioneers are comfortably welcoming a young master and colleague. The Flaherty portrait recalls Ingres’s M. Bertin (the drawing, not the painting), the bluff man with his hands on his knees in defiance of all portrait convention.

The glorious black-and-whiteness of all these portraits and scenes keeps them firmly in the chiaroscuro tradition which depends for its basic verity, even in painting, on the interplay of light and shade. They can therefore suggest the paintings of Guercino, whose drawings are so telling, but not those of Piero; they can suggest Mantegna, because of his great engravings as well as his paintings, and Degas because of his paintings and monotypes; they suggest paintings by Daumier the lithographer and by Rossetti the book-illustrator, paintings by the Goya of the ‘Caprichos’, and by Metsu among the other Dutch painters who could invite the light with such vital magic. Colour has the same brilliant irrelevance to Cartier-Bresson’s works as it has to Picasso’s Guernica: all impassioned tints and hues are distilled into black and white and their varying combinations and relations. Cartier-Bresson has lately given up fulltime photography to concentrate on drawing, saying that he is going back to where he began, which was as a student of painting. We can certainly tell.

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