Monday, October 18, 2021

Notes on Henri Cartier-Bresson

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.


  1. It would have saved a lot of huffing and puffing if someone had given more thought to translating HCB's original French title, "Images à la sauvette", which sounds a lot more sneaky. To do something "à la sauvette" is to do it on the sly, in haste, e.g. "vente à la sauvette" is illegal street peddling.


  2. When HCB died I was incensed that the tributes on TV news shows were showing his pictures Ken Burns-style, close-up scanning over details. A friend sent me a VHS (google it if you youngsters need to) tape of Charlie Rose interviewing HCB: possibly the worst interview ever recorded, even by Rose's standards. Rose apparently had been assured that the great man is brilliant and just repeats that in many ways, while HCB indeed has no teachable technique or comment to make about it at all. It made me feel, "Jeez, just let the old guy do his work."

    1. Yeah, exactly. The work speaks for itself. If you want to buy into the whole promotional overkill thing, knock yourself out.

    2. I always want people to interview photographers and artists about pretty much anything other than their photography/art.

      If I had an hour to interview Sally Mann it would be 100% horses and dogs. You can just go look at the photos, for god's sake, but Mann herself is an actual 3D human with more going on.

  3. Interesting why an academic exhaustively researched and documented how this photographer did not, in fact, fall out of the sky, but worked under the same constraints as every other photographer, ever. Go big or go home I guess?

    1. Bair went on to write a book about Magnum, presumably tearing away the same veil and revealing Magnum Photographers to be also ordinary people rather than beings composed of pure light.

      I mean, I guess there is some sort of point to be made? But there are lots of professions that habitually promote their members as heroes, as special, in usually kind of vague terms, and I suppose it's harmless to point out that firefighters generally work a well-defined process and obey chains of command, and rarely charge in to burning buildings to rescue small children in defiance of the Captain's direct orders.

    2. the following may be (sort of) apropos:

      "The furtive fallacy is the erroneous idea that facts of special significance are dark and dirty things and that history itself is a story of causes mostly insidious and results mostly invidious. It begins with the premise that reality is a sordid, secret thing; and that history happens on the back stairs a little after midnight, or else in a smoke-filled form, or a perfumed boudoir, or an executive penthouse or somewhere in the inner sanctum of the Vatican, or the Kremlin, or the Reich Chancellery, or the Pentagon. It is something more, and something other than a conspiracy theory"