There can be few people with an interest in photography that would not know something about Henri Cartier Bresson. The notion of the ‘decisive moment’ and Cartier Bresson’s catalogue of iconic images, capturing memorable moments in time, must truly make him a central figure in photography’s canon of leading exponents of the art.
Through a long-term interest in the work of photographers associated with the Magnum Agency I was familiar with this photographers work, Cartier Bresson being a founding member of the agency.
It was in this context that I watched (several times) Raphael O’ Byrnes haunting documentary ‘L’amour de court’. Made in 2001 when Cartier Bresson was 92. I was immediately struck by the contrast between the apparent frailty of the famous photographer with the still sharp vivacity of his thinking, humour and wisdom.
Looking more deeply into the content of the documentary, his desire to look forward and move on, was quite uplifting. ‘L’amour de court’ was in many respects simultaneously inspiring and melancholic, the content of the documentary was at times quite broad and wide. The early section about image making with juvenile prisoners in detention in an institution in a former soviet republic was a link between a contemporary photographer and protégé of Cartier Bresson who had in the past worked with him on a similar project in a French prison. At one point Cartier Bresson says:
“I should go back to Fleury with Sluban”
Referring to French photographer Klavdij Sluban who he undertook a prison photography workshop with in 1995. Although the documentary then shifts to Sluban in the former soviet union, I was left reflecting on Cartier Bresson’s thoughts about his own time in prison during his military service. His statement that he always feels line and ‘Escaped prisoner’, a poignant thought from someone who has spent a lifetime observing and recording others.
For me the documentary not only provided insight into Cartier Bresson’s life, thoughts and motivations, but it also says much about photography’s place as a form of expression in a wide spectrum of visual and musical arts. Let me explain this grand statement!
Early in the documentary Cartier Bresson talks deeply not about the ‘instant decisive’ but far more about the geometry of the visual. His reflections on image making as moments when the visual elements of the scene through the viewfinder of his Leica come together in a perfect form. He talks overtly about a golden section, for which he needs no compass, just his eye.
I was left with a sense of Cartier Bresson, as an artist, who happened to use a camera for much of his life but as someone who could well have painted or sculpted. Being a photographer, is just how he chose to express his creativity. In later life he swapped his camera for a sketchbook and he talked in a very matter of fact manner about seeing good shots to make but no more carrying a camera about with him. These scenes did make me wonder what his younger self would have said in a documentary in the 1950’s or 60’s perhaps?
O’ Byrnes inspired use of scenes with the late Avigdor Arikha, painter and historian talking about the compositional quality of Jacques Louis David’s portrait Juliette Récamier, emphasising the geometry of the visual locates not only Cartier Bresson’s work in wider visual arts but also photography’ importance in the visual arts. Similarly the inclusion of scenes of Italian cellist Paolo Beschi’s master class on the subtleties of Bach Cello pieces and in particular his emphasis of the syncopating bow work when playing particular arpeggios creates a sense of the detail and nuance essential to communicate the composers intent. For me this aligned with the subtleties of Cartier Bresson’s image making and complexity he conveys in what at first glance may appear to be a simple image. There was for me a strong linked implied between this and Cartier Bresson’s attention to detail and high level of selectivity about what he committed to film.
There were to some contradictions for me though within the documentary. Cartier Bresson’s work is beautifully composed and thoughtful in its content. So it was interesting that at 17 minutes into the documentary he suggests the following:
“It’s luck that matters, you have to be receptive, that’s all. Like the relationship between things it is a matter of chance. If you want it you get nothing, Just be receptive and it happens.”
However, what is certain is that his keen eye for the geometry of the golden section, his patience and his determination allowed him to time after time collect and record the human condition with skill and aplomb. I would argue this was far from luck and far more to do with a highly sophisticated visual acuity and the ability to find the beautiful and engaging in the everyday. I strongly suspect Cartier Bresson made his own luck.
At 102 minutes into the documentary there was for me one of the most telling expositions of Cartier Bresson’s ability as a photographer and artist. The narrator describes how Cartier Bresson blended into the background at the funeral of a Japanese Kabuki Actors funeral, allowing him to record the poignant moments of grief and remembrance in the faces of the actor’s friends. In the last place a photographer might be welcome, Cartier Bresson moves to the centre of the group of mourners, almost becoming one of them and recording forever the fleeting moments a human emotion, otherwise lost. This really is the ‘instant decisive’, not merely the strongly composed images of a striking group of people, but all the attendant thoughts and emotions locked into this two-dimensional recording of a moment in the human condition, long passed. Cartier Bresson’s legacy is perhaps far more about his record of life and love of it than it is about the legacy of iconic images he left behind
In the closing frames of the documentary there is a poignant moment where Cartier Bresson is asked what of the future holds? He replies:
“Question yourself, it’s essential!”
Reflecting on this thought and a key quote I found by the photographer (1952):
“Of all means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant. We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.”
I have a real sense of the power of the camera, but an even greater sense of power of the photographer. In all, the documentary, which initially I found hard to read, proved to be an inspiring and thought provoking exposition of Cartier Bresson’s contribution to the art form. It also offered me some inspiration for assignment three and my OCA studies beyond!
With that in mind I too am off for a glass of red!
Cartier Bresson, H. (1952) The Decisive Moment. Simon and Schuster, New York
Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford University Press, London
O’Byrne, R. (2001) Henri ‘L’amour de court’ (‘Just plain love’)
Scott, C. (2013) Street Photography –from Atget to Cartier Bresson. IB Tauris, London
The full documentary can be found at: