Henri Cartier-Bresson: A way of seeing, a way of living

Poetry is the essence of everything, and it’s through deep contact with reality and living fully that you reach poetry. Very often I see photographers cultivating the strangeness or awkwardness of a scene, thinking it is poetry. No. Poetry is two elements which are suddenly conflict — a spark between two elements. But it’s given very seldom, and you can’t look for it. It’s like if you look for inspiration. No, it just comes by enriching yourself and living.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, “Interview with Sheila Turner-Seed” (1971) The New York Times (21/06/2013)

Henri Cartier-Bresson described himself as an anarchist, meaning by it, in his own words, an ethics, an attitude, a way behaving, of loving. As an ethics, he says, it calls for fulfilling a necessity within oneself, without compromise, while not stiffening, breaking, in this engagement. It is along this “thin line” of life that his artistry will find its form.

He refused the title of “photographer”, of “artist”, words that suggested a mastery that can be taught, for he believed that anyone sensitive to the world, to life around oneself, is an artist.

He claimed not to take photographs, but that the photographs took him; that one must not want the picture, think the picture, but rather be receptive to it, as the expression of being present to and in reality.

What we find in Bresson’s way of seeing is not an ideology to be followed and assimilated, but a beautiful sensitivity to those whom he so lovingly shoots. He is a “thief” of the moment photographed. But the beauty of the moment captured pulls it out of time, as love withdraws lover and loved into the silence of ephemeral eternity.

Photography is the process of rendering observation self?conscious. … The true content of a photograph is invisible, for it derives from a play, not with form, but with time. One might argue that photography is as close to music as to painting. I have said that a photograph bears witness to a human choice being exercised. This choice is not between photographing x and y: but between photographing at x moment or at y moment. The objects recorded in any photograph … carry approximately the same weight, the same conviction. What varies is the intensity with which we are made aware of the poles of absence and presence. Between these two poles photography finds its proper meaning.

John Berger, Understanding a Photograph

Henry Cartier-Bresson interviewed by Charlie Rose, and introduced by a brief interview with Richard Avedon.

A documentary (1973) dedicated to Bresson’s photography, in his own images and words. Bresson’s words for this film were recorded by Sheila Turner-Seed’s interview of 1971 (already cited above), published in two parts with The New York Times, in 2013. (Part 1 and Part 2)

While Bresson did not consider himself film maker – and he confessed no love for the art form, as he could not imagine himself directing people -, he did make, or participated in the making of, a remarkable collection of documentary film about the spanish civil war/revolution and the liberation of prisoners of war and forced labourers (Bresson had himself been a POW, managing to have escaped from a POW camp).

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