April 16th, 2010

Contact with Cartier-Bresson

Posted in photographers by Greg Benson
Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris", 1932

Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris", 1932

This is the first Cartier-Bresson photo that I ever remember seeing. The tension of the moment before the man’s foot hit the water, almost touching his reflection has stuck in my mental image bank. I remember in 7th or 8th grade art club, seeing it in a magazine for young art students. When I think back on it, this was the time in my life that I first started photographing on a regular basis.

A new retrospective of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography has opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show with over 300 photos will run until June 28, 2010. Last night I watched Charlie Rose interview three people connected to the show: Cartier-Bresson’s widow, Martine Franck; the curator of the MOMA show, Peter Galassi; and Agnès Sire, the director of the Fondation HCB.

Cartier-Bresson is a seminal photographer. His 1930s black & white images of “decisive moments” broke new ground in photography. Perhaps because of his training as a painter, composition is paramount in his photographs. Timing, too, is important.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Hyères, France", 1932

Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Hyères, France", 1932

Contact Sheets

In the late 1980s I visited Burk Uzzle’s studio. Burk had worked at Magnum, the photo agency Cartier-Bresson co-founded. Burk told the story that when he first was hired at Magnum in the 1960s, he would go in off hours and look at Cartier-Bresson’s contact sheets. And apparently, from what Burk said, there were many many lousy photos on those contact sheets. In order to arrive at the stellar moment, lots of un-stellar moments were shot.

In the Charlie Rose interview, when asked about first meeting her future husband, Martine Franck, a successful photographer herself, told the story that when they first got together, Cartier-Bresson’s opening line was, ” Martine, I want to come and see your contact sheets.”

From a 2004 obituary: “My contact sheets may be compared to the way you drive a nail in a plank,” he said. “First you give several light taps to build up a rhythm and align the nail with the wood. Then, much more quickly, and with as few strokes as possible, you hit the nail forcefully on the head and drive it in.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Valencia, Spain", 1933

Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Valencia, Spain", 1933

Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Srinagar, Kashmir", 1948

Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Srinagar, Kashmir", 1948

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One Response to “Contact with Cartier-Bresson”

  1. Jim McCall Says:

    Wonderful insights and great photos. I love the first one. Thanks for sharing!

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