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Cartier-Bresson: Mourning the Hawk's Eye
An Appreciation

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

His influence on several generations of photographers, and even on the general public, was so great that he was known only by that hyphenated last name. But Henri Cartier-Bresson, who died this week in the south of France at the age of 95, also was appreciated, if not loved, by those who revere the art and craft of making photographs for his magical talent to see and, more important, to capture The Decisive Moment.

That is the time, HC-B said, when all elements of an image come together: gesture (the position and attitude of the subject), composition, and lighting. When that happens, he said, when all those things combine to make a dramatic, or a telling, or an enraging, or a humorous image, photography achieves its highest distinction – reflecting the universality of the human condition in a never-to-be-retrieved fraction of a second.

Cartier-Bresson will be remembered, too, for helping birth Magnum Photos in 1947, arguably the greatest photographic agency of all time. Starting then, and continuing today, as a cavalcade of strong-willed, independent photojournalists more at home with shooting on location than with running a business, Magnum was and is a loose-knit group of diverse personalities who banded together in the postwar years to leverage their talent to create a market for the kind of photojournalism that quickly was coming to the fore, thanks to the emergence of faster films and smaller cameras, most notably the Leica rangefinder.

This was documentary photography, often shot by available light (thanks to the nature of Kodak's wonderful Plus-X and Tri-X films, and the sharpness and speed of the Leica glass) that let photographers work almost by stealth, to capture the events that surrounded them. No longer bound by a huge press camera, or an intrusive flash gun and bulbs, these photographers – and Cartier-Bresson was among the first and best of them – operated with what HC-B himself called "the velvet hand...the hawk's eye."

In fact, Cartier-Bresson would sooner have died than photograph with flash. "Impolite," he famously said once, "like coming to a concert with a pistol in your hand."

Thus did Cartier-Bresson, and colleagues like Robert Capa, David (Chim) Seymour and George Rodgers, to name but a few, bring home to readers of Life Magazine and the other great sheets of the day the first images of the D-Day invasion, the liberation of France, the Communist revolution in China, the assassination of Gandhi – as well as images of everyday life as simple as a picnic ("On the Banks of the Marne", 1938) or of a young boy proudly bringing home bottles of wine to his family ("Rue Mouffetard, Paris", 1960)

"His concept of the decisive moment made all us photographers wait longer and look harder," veteran magazine shooter Kay Chernush declared this week on hearing of the photographer's death. She recalled her early days as a photographer, "going into bookstores and sitting on the floor of the photography section, spending hours studying and enjoying his pictures."

"For me, the feeling you have when you know – really know in your bones – that you've 'got' exactly the right photo, is a feeling of buoyancy and lift that you see in his picture of the guy airborne over that little puddle of water." ("Behind the Gare St. Lazare", 1932.)

In fact, it is that image, one of Cartier-Bresson's many classics, that seems to define the decisive moment as well as any – a wonderful moment frozen in time, when the posture of the man, mimicking that of a figure on a circus poster in the background, seems poised and serene, caring little about the obvious and immediate drenching that awaits.

For me, another favorite always will be his moody made-on-the-fly 1947 portrait of author William Faulkner, the chronicler of the tortured American south. Faulkner is in shirtsleeves, in late afternoon sun in his garden, standing diffidently, seemingly not even aware of the photographer. Faulkner is clutching at his elbow, stiffly holding out his right arm, as two of his small dogs stand nearby. Cartier-Bresson made the picture just as one of the terriers stretched, creating an incredible visual tension between the author's outstretched arm and, at exactly the same angle, the outstretched terrier. The picture works wonderfully because of it.

Cartier-Bresson, who grew up in France in a well-to-family and was able to pursue his art studies rather than enter the family textile business, always regarded himself primarily as a painter, and he betrayed a painterly eye for exacting composition. He was famous, even notorious, for never cropping his work, yet most of the full-frame images by which he is known merely confirm his ability to see composition and gesture superbly.

The danger, of course, is to view anything Cartier-Bresson did as great, which not only is impossible, but actually is unfair to him since it cheapens his truly outstanding work. It also gives ammunition to the foolish notion that the Decisive Moment simply is snapshot photography writ large. In fact, Cartier-Bresson was capable of producing pedestrian work – and even of insisting that it be shown. In the last photography exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery before it closed for renovation in 1999, an otherwise wonderful retrospective of Cartier-Bresson's photography includes two frankly mediocre portraits of the Dalai Lama and of the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. Why? My suspicion is that the Cartier-Bresson, who worked for a Communist newspaper in the 1930s, simply was letting his political sympathies show.

A reticent man who shunned the spotlight in a way almost unheard of in today's 15-minutes of fame society, Cartier-Bresson tried mightily not to be photographed himself – a posture that got his friend and fellow photographer David Douglas Duncan in tepid, not to say hot, water last year when Duncan published a series of photographs of Cartier-Bresson made while the two legendary shooters were having tea and ice cream in Paris. Duncan made the pictures with little more than a point and shoot camera, and Cartier-Bresson assumed they were private keepsakes. When Duncan published the photos in a small volume they were widely panned, especially by Cartier-Bresson.

"Mediocre," HC-B huffed, "It's just what comes out of a camera when a camera works."

Photography columnist

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© Henri Cartier-Bresson - Magnum
Henri Cartier-Bresson 1908-2004 Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was universally hailed as one of the most influential image-makers of the last century, died August 2. He was 95 years old.

Photo Gallery: Henri Cartier-Bresson


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

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