PARIS — Henri Cartier-Bresson does not take pictures anymore. And he seldom speaks about photography, which he bemoans is "artisanal compared to the other arts." Since his recent retirement, Cartier-Bresson has been preoccupied by his first childhood passion: painting.
In between adolescence and his return to painting, Cartier-Bresson managed to become one of the most energetic and definitive voices in the history of photography. His pictures from around the world span the 20th century and show a slice of all walks of life. And the magnitude of his work has influenced generations.
Fittingly, this summer he celebrates his 90th birthday in his native Paris with a major retrospective, "Les Europens," at the Maison Europenne de la Photographie.
From 1932, when he first discovered the 35-mm Leica camera, until the mid-1970s, "H.C.B." remained a central figure in this budding medium. Initially inspired by Surrealist painting, the French painter-turned-photographer showed that the camera provided the perfect tool for modern artistic expression. Like the Surrealist painter, an astute photographer could organize the ordinary and transform it into a creative object. But unlike the painter with his canvas and brush, the photographer's creative process occurs in the fraction of the second necessary to trigger the shutter of the camera.
Dominant humanist voice
Cartier-Bresson's vagabond spirit held him in a state of perpetual international hopscotch. Regardless of location, however, his visual intuition allowed him to organize his subjects in an intimate manner that spoke to both the spirit of place as well as greater, more ambiguous qualities of life. So appropriate was his visual voice that Western critics embraced the poetic tenderness of his images, making him one of the dominant voices in a new humanist tradition so needed in the aftermath of World War II.
In 1947 his vision took on even greater international dimension when he co-founded the Magnum photo agency. In 1952 he distilled his concept of picture-taking with his essay "The Decisive Moment," offering his disciples a rational formula in which to organize the spontaneity of life.
His creative drive matched Picasso's. As a result, organizing a major retrospective is equally daunting. The Maison Europenne de la Photographie opted to start by limiting the show to Cartier-Bresson's European photographs - after all, it is the European House of Photography.
The final selection includes 180 works that span three floors of the renovated building in Paris's Marais quarter.
"The editing process was truly frustrating," laments Maurice Coriat, one of the exhibit curators and a friend who examined more than 5,000 contact sheets before making the final selection. "The European theme automatically excluded many of Cartier-Bresson's most famous images. But on the bright side, it allowed us to show about 20 never-before-seen photos. When I came across something new that intrigued me, I would ask Henri whether or not we could print it. And let me tell you, there were some real hidden masterpieces."
Mr. Coriat leafs through the new exhibit catalog, also titled "Les Europens." "Look at this picture," pointing to an image from Cartier-Bresson's voyage to Irsina, Italy, in 1951. "It has everything: the old carriage, the industrial smokestack, the factory worker, and the aristocrat's top hat. But the picture never left the contact sheet. Why? Because it came from a sheet filled with other legendary pictures. It simply lost out."
In the shadows of the Maison is the Agathe Gaillard Gallery, the oldest gallery in Paris devoted to photography. Cartier-Bresson constituted part of its inaugural stable when Mme. Gaillard first opened her doors in 1975.
"My memories of Cartier-Bresson are inseparable from that of his friend and contemporary Andr Kertesz," she says. "I'll never forget one evening when the two were hanging a show of Henri's. At face value, their conversation seemed meaningless, but then I understood that each sentence, each demi-sentence, held within it five or six concepts or ideas which only they understood. I went home that night exhausted, but I also understood what it was to stand before genius."
Today Gaillard considers Cartier-Bresson's legacy synonymous with French photographic tradition.
"You know despite all his traveling, Cartier-Bresson remained above all French. Despite all the tragedy he saw, he never exploited the ugliness, and he never went in for shock value."
Moderation and the French spirit
"I think that is in keeping with the French spirit," Gaillard says, "which has always been very moderate. It prohibits us from getting too extreme. For us it is the little details that make the difference, and Henri is very much about those details."
This sense of moderation also explains why contemporary French photography - still largely rooted in the romantic and picturesque - often shies away from the shocking hard-edge pictures often produced by American photographers like William Klein, Joel-Peter Witken, or Eugene Richards.
"Today Cartier-Bresson is such a fixture in France, he is like Notre Dame," says Gaillard. "Young photographers might not think about him daily, but he is simply part of their culture. His life could be a film."
Coriat also feels Cartier-Bresson's contribution merits further investigation. But before Hollywood gets hold of him, he would like to see an even more comprehensive exhibition that includes Cartier-Bresson's entire oeuvre.
"There are still many hidden treasures to uncover, but that would take lots of time and money. Still, though, I find it criminal that no country, no foundation, is willing to make that investment while Cartier-Bresson is still alive."