Henri Cartier-Bresson: A legend behind the lens
The great photographer who, with his 35mm Leica camera, captured the human response to defining moments of history died last week at the age of 95
By Andrew Robinson
There are few photographers whose style is instantly recognisable, like that of a great painter or film director; even fewer whose photographs have also been printed in popular magazines and newspapers throughout the world, in many cases over and over again; and only one whose life has, in addition, become legendary - Henri Cartier-Bresson, who has died aged 95.

One of my cherished possessions is his book Henri Cartier-Bresson In India (1985), handsomely signed for me by its author. The preface by the film director Satyajit Ray distils Cartier-Bresson's uniqueness as a photographer better than any other writing.

His work, said Ray, was "unique in its fusion of head and heart, in its wit and its poetry. The deep regard for people that is revealed in these Indian photographs, as well as in his photographs of any people anywhere in the world, invests them with a palpable humanism.

Add to this the unique skill and vision that raise the ordinary and the ephemeral to a monumental level and you have the hallmark of the greatest photographer of our time." One is tempted to add: perhaps of all time. The celebrated series of photographs of Gandhi, his assassination and funeral in 1948, first published in Life, show how right Ray was.

Cartier-Bresson had been fortunate in his timing. He was introduced to Gandhi on the afternoon of January 30, 1948 and showed him the small catalogue of his one-man exhibition the previous year at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Gandhi looked through it slowly, page by page, saying nothing until he came to the photo of a man gazing at an elaborate hearse.

He asked: "What is the meaning of this picture?" Cartier-Bresson told him, "That's Paul Claudel, a Catholic poet very much concerned with the spiritual issues of life and death." Gandhi thought for a moment, and then said, very distinctly: "Death - death - death." Cartier-Bresson left at 4.45pm. Fifteen minutes later, the Mahatma was dead. Stories like this, combined with the catchphrase title of the English translation of Cartier-Bresson's first book, The Decisive Moment (1952), have tended to give the impression that Cartier-Bresson believed that story-telling, the catching on film of the historic moment, was the essence of good photography. In fact, he meant something very different; and his best work was remarkable for the way it ignored - as opposed to focused on - the usual dramatic props of the photojournalist.

One of his well known photographs of the communist takeover of China in 1948-49 shows an agitated queue of ordinary Shanghai Chinese "like a human accordion, squeezed in and out by invisible hands," in his own words. It is, in fact, a gold rush - a run on a Shanghai bank - but we see no bank, no bars of gold, and no mounted police in the photograph. Instead, we concentrate on the faces of the people and the form of the crowd and are offered "the perfect visual metaphor for civil strife" (Dan Hofstadter).

Photography, wrote Cartier-Bresson, "is at one and the same time the recognition of a fact in a fraction of a second and the rigorous arrangement of the forms visually perceived which give the fact impression and significance".

Cartier-Bresson constantly spoke of his attraction to Buddhism, which in his view taught that "life changes every minute, the world is born and dies every minute." But the discrepancy between himself and the Buddha belied his claims. According to his amused wife, he belonged to the sect of the Agitated Buddhists. And an old friend once told him: "But think about the statues of Buddha, Henri. Their eyes are almost always closed, while yours are almost always open."

We must be eternally grateful for what those penetrating blue eyes chose to record over more than half a century. Whatever else he was, Cartier-Bresson was in love with life.

The Guardian

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