It seems like there's still hella people mad that Bresson took, it turns out, more than one exposure for each picture that we see. I am pretty sure I've been reading about this controversy for decades now, but every generation throws up a new bunch of people.
By now it is impossible that they ever genuinely held the belief that HCB only shot one perfect photo since literally
no sources or people say this. There is literally only the phrase "the decisive moment" which never appears without
a pile of caveats and explanations. I maintain that you cannot be interested in photography and under about 40 years
of age, and have actually believed any of the supposed mythology around this.
But there's tons of people, apparently, still mad about it.
What is unclear to me is whether there was ever an interval in which something resembling conventional
wisdom held that Cartier-Bresson's methods were anything other than what they were. He appears to have been completely
open and honest about them throughout his life. The entire controversy appears to have been built, essentially,
on a couple of vague sentences, translated from French, which can if you squint be misconstrued to suggest a
working method other than what he actually used.
I am reading, on someone's recommendation, a 2016 paper entitled "The Decisive Network: Producing Henri Cartier-Bresson at Mid-Century"
by one Nadya Bair which, on the one hand, is pretty reasonable, but which on the other hand seems to be a little intent
on finding smoking guns. Just now I read in it a quote from Beaumont Newhall on HCB which, again, if you squint could be
construed to mean one thing, but which is equally consistent with HCB's actual methods if you just stop squinting so hard.
The author intends us — kinda sorta — to see it as part of, essentially, a kind of conspiracy to present
HCB as he was not.
It's not actually clear if the article is intended to be a historical summary of the shenanigans involved in
producing and promoting a book (which, to be fair, invariably involves a certain amount of fiction and
hagiography) or whether we're to see this as a more-or-less unique conspiracy to create HCB as an artist
rather than a photojournalist.
The paper's central complaint, if indeed it is a complaint, is that HCB-the-artist was manufactured by a consortium
of gatekeepers. Which, well, of course he was. That's how anyone-as-artist happens. It has almost nothing to do with
the work. I will also remark in passing that HCB's photos are different in many cases. There's something
going on there, and what it is isn't a mystery, it's well known and thoroughly explained.
Being an artist requires only that you make art. Being recognized as an artist, especially an important
one, is essentially a PR job performed by a cast of thousands. You don't even have to make art, you just have to get
picked out of the box of kittens and submit to having the lipstick applied.
We get a little insight when the author contrasts HCB as sold to the amateur photographer (as a man with a mysterious
unteachable technique) with Ansel Adams. The latter was, supposedly, sold to the same (American?) amateurs as a photographer
with a teachable technical method, rather than a philosophy. Which, I guess, is not far off? Adams, of course, was no such thing.
The guy was drowning in philosophy.
Nevertheless, we were infested for decades with losers who had mastered the Zone System and a strong sense of their
own self-worth, but nothing of importance. Was there, somewhere, a corresponding community of Decisive Moment
people who'd learned an equally useless set of anti-facts about HCB's work?
I dunno. But certainly I cannot recall ever seriously "knowing" anything substantively wrong about HCB's methods. As the man
and his photographs crept into my consciousness, so did his methods and ideas.
ADDENDUM: It is worth noting that Bair takes issue with the whole idea of Art (or at least Photography) as
a sequence of Great Men. This is a drum that I too have been beating, and a theme I agree with completely. This is,
arguably, the larger theme in her paper.