P3 Research Point

Henri Cartier-Bresson, L’amour tout court’

This is Cartier-Bresson as an old man, someone who recognises that he is nearing the end of his life. I found myself wondering if, at that point, whenever people talk to you you feel a sense of having to say something profound because with age and position it’s expected? From the interviewer there are both questions and pauses; the silence is allowed to happen so that Cartier-Bresson can fill it. When he does, the mood turns from one of slight melancholy to happiness, sometimes even silliness. But there is always a serious point to his lightheartedness.

Cartier-Bresson says,

“We live in a privileged world. You don’t have to go far to notice the difference…. We should use it for something we believe in.”

This is then illustrated by finding out that he spent time in jail. He says,

“I always feel like a prisoner on the run.”

Klavdij Sluban is a photographer who runs photographic workshops in prisons. He talks about the way the prisoners feel about and sense their lack of freedom by either projecting themselves back to their lives before prison, or to the future when they will be released. Sluban says that photography,

“is always about here and now.”

The workshops then, seem to be a way to help the prisoners adjust to their current situations, a sort of mindfulness exercise perhaps? It is interesting to see them speak about meaning. The first thing they want to do is take photographs of the group; I suspect this would be the case whether or not Sluban had spoken to them about meaning or not. That was quite impactful for me, because for them, the group is the thing that has the biggest meaning. After that, they want to be individual subjects. One wants to be able to take a photo of his mother when she visits. It is interesting that we are really being invited to imagine Cartier-Bresson not just as a visitor to this in his past, but also as an inmate in a similar situation. The photographs the prisoners took are shown with the sounds of their environment.

At the beginning of the documentary, Cartier-Bresson talks about the importance of looking – about people not really looking and not being taught to look. Later he seems to be suggesting that a lot photography is a matter of being receptive to luck, and that really looking puts you into that place where you can be receptive.

That is echoed by a narrator talking about his experience of being photographed in a group of children by Cartier-Bresson. He says,

“While others are distracted and unobservant, Henri is on the lookout ready to react, not even needing to stop.”

For Cartier-Bresson, making a portrait is a “physical embracing of the person”. He speaks about the artist Avigdor Arikha and the fact that he finds him intimidating.

Arikaha’s views on seeing are presented: That our view is always conditioned by recognition, that,

“We can only see what we know.”

He talks about being able to forget that you’re seeing an eye, to get to a position where you can see the eye as a shape in relation to other shapes around it. In that way you can capture the essence of the person, rather than just the likeness. This echoes Bresson’s ideas expressed here about form.

Form, not light, comes first for Cartier-Bresson. Geometry. Physical rhythm. He talks of light being like a perfume. Presumably nice, but not essential. He speaks about the visual recognition of the golden ratio as being something you either have, or don’t. Later, when he is asked if it’s something you can learn, he seems unsure. I feel there is a sense of wanting to, or being expected to say yes. But I believe he thinks that no, you cannot learn it if you don’t have a bit of it to begin with. Perhaps it’s something he thinks you can improve on though. Similarities are drawn between the act of seeing and the act of hearing that interest me.

As we see Bresson in 2001, he has turned to drawing rather than photography. He seems brutally honest towards the person he draws, telling him he has a pointy head. There is obviously a point at which he sees the drawing as finished; there is a point at which to add more ruins the impression, gets in the way. Personally, I think the same is true of photography, although it is not a point that many people recognise. Cartier-Bresson’s images, both photographs and drawings, have this sense of completion without fussiness although there is certainly attention to detail.

I am left wondering if it was the process rather than the result of his photography that meant so much to Cartier-Bresson. For three years he claims not to have seen the results of any of his photographs, and is unconcerned by that. It is the relationships he made while taking those images, the places he has been and the things he has experienced that seem to have stuck with him. Like all elderly people, there are a lot of friends now missing from his life and his photographs seem to be his connection to them. But, at the time this was filmed, he seems intent on the future rather than stuck in contemplation of the past, determined that he be allowed to age, to be himself, rather than be forced into a false sense of youth and dynamism, and it seems to me he was determined that his work should be allowed to age with him.

 

Bibliography

Cartier Bresson documentary on YouTube