Henri Cartier-Bresson was such a young man all his life, all his 95 years -- how could he die?
He was such a graceful athlete, such an instantaneous master of photographs taken at what he called "the decisive moment" -- of the scowl on the face of a woman in a museum, of both the menace and calculating perception on the face of elfin, young Truman Capote, of a hazy landscape, of boys larking around in rubble, a wave breaking, a man failing to leap across a puddle.
Such a masterpiece of composition that man is -- his leaping legs and their reflections, beneath a fence and rooftops with the modern geometric fillips of something like curling barrel hoops in the water next to a ladder.
Cartier-Bresson could do it all at once -- the moment, the humanity, the joke, the squalor and the formal composition. He was a giant in an Age of Giants and he was close to the last of them, a legend.
Cartier-Bresson was the King of Now, and when you look back at his pictures from 70 years ago you don't remember something -- you experience it, as if you were seeing it for the first time. He died on Tuesday in France, but the pictures live on, not as souvenirs or documents of Then, but as things happening Now.
"All photographs taken today are either directly or indirectly influenced by Cartier-Bresson," said Philip Brookman, curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
All! What an amazing legacy! Cartier-Bresson changed the way we all played the photography game, most certainly the photojournalists and documentarians of modern photography, but also the art photographers who have ceased to use time as a medium, instead favoring posed pictures that are ironic confections of surface and self-reference.
To all of them, Cartier-Bresson showed the possibility of not only perfection, but epiphany, of art that reveals the cusp, the tipping point, the crack in the clouds, the shock of recognition.
He photographed the sort of odd moments you remember, and wonder why -- the official wariness of a potbellied Spanish cop dealing with a pedestrian, the seen-too-much face of a disheveled old New England woman who wears an American flag around her neck.
These moments are parts representing a whole reality we can sense but not explain. Cartier-Bresson taught seeing, and how to think about it. He also believed that reality existed as relationships -- even between people and themselves, alone in cafes; and between people and each other, or between them and him, a universe of fabulous accidents.
He was the rebellious son of a family made wealthy by the textile business. He studied painting, he took snapshots, he traveled. Then he discovered the little 35mm Leica camera that freed serious photographers from tripods and let them wander the world in the spirit of spontaneity and freedom. No more freezing the world into Grecian urn eternities.
How strange this seemed.
Historian Beaumont Newhall has noted that when Cartier-Bresson first showed at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1933, an announcement described his pictures as "antigraphic photography." Newhall goes on: "The impression arose that the photographs had been taken almost automatically and that they owed their strange and provocative beauty to chance; they were described as 'equivocal, ambivalent, anti-plastic, accidental.' "
Cartier-Bresson was doing it all on purpose.
He wrote: "It is essential, therefore, to approach the subject on tiptoe -- even if the subject is still life. A velvet hand, a hawk's eye -- these we should all have. It's not good jostling or elbowing. And no photographs taken with the aid of flash light either, if only out of respect for the actual light. . . . Of all the means of expressions, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant. What is there more fugitive and transitory than the expression on a human face?"
He had the reflexes of an athlete who knows the difference between a sixtieth of a second, and the one that follows it. And he had the patience of a predator, returning to scenes over and over before he found the sort of picture he wanted. He waited for accidents, for someone to walk into a scene. He waited for the composition to attain a geometry "without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless."
A lot of artists can do form, and a lot can do life, but it's the Cartier-Bressons who can do both, over and over, while transcending the decisive moment to a private truth. He makes you feel like you're part of a sly conspiracy. Yes, you say: That's the way it is, and if I hadn't been there before, now I have.
He began serving in the French army in 1940, and was interned by the Germans. He escaped on his third try, and spent the rest of the war taking pictures and helping other French escapees. Afterwards, he was one of the founders of Magnum, the photo agency that supplied so much photojournalism to so many magazines back in the brief but golden age of photojournalism, when freelance photographers, like freelance short-story writers, could make a living.
He traveled in America. His credentials as a leftist gave him entree to Russia and China during the Cold War. He photographed the uppers and the lowers. He sold picture stories and books, and museums put up shows.
His work could be cute, serious and beautiful, sometimes all at once. But rarely did he flash the anger and whining that has become a whole raison d'etre for contemporary artists from music to drama. He never stooped to the cheesy politics of ennobling the downtrodden or anyone else. He showed all his subjects with such speed and clarity that they escaped stereotypes, acquiring the glint and randomness of wild animals, quick as coyotes. And he loved looking at them. He looked and he looked. Any well-educated fool can love a million people -- this is a sorry truth of the last century -- but Cartier-Bresson was a well-educated genius who could love them one at a time.
About 30 years ago he stopped taking pictures, and went back to drawing and painting. He explained in cryptic interviews that the camera was nothing more than a drawing tool, anyway. He wasn't good at interviews, and he hated being photographed. He could have become an international celebrity, a cutter of ribbons, a member of boards, famous for what he once was.
One suspects that this plain-faced shunner of spotlights retained until his death the infinite youthfulness or spirituality or whatever it was that enabled him to live in the Now but make it eternal at the same time.
You can only look at his work. You can't define away the miracle of it, maybe because it always seems new, unconstrained by time and place, a collection of universals and particulars arranged with the randomness and necessity of subatomic particles. And delight, of course. He was always young, and he still is.
Above: boys in Madrid, 1933. Left: a woman in Grenada, Spain, also in 1933.