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Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Shadow List: Number 7. (Is Jim Hughes Busy?)

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Madrid, Spain, 1933

The "witnessing" photographer I most admire (a sentiment that's certainly not unique to me) is Cartier-Bresson.

HCB was a phenomenon in a number of ways. An early adherent of surrealism, a professed anarchist, and a "natural" Buddhist, he was peripatetic and driven as well as venturesome and apparently fearless (he appears to have "cheated death" numerous time before finally succumbing to old age a few days shy of 96—he nearly died of blackwater fever in Africa, barely escaped Mao's communists, and even had a "posthumous" retrospective in the U.S. before he turned up alive again at the end of WWII). Yet he was almost perversely independent. He was equally at home covering momentous events as a photojournalist, and also taking pictures that are really only meaningful as pure art. He was his own best press, too, borrowing the phrase "the decisive moment" from Cardinal Jean-Francois-Paul-Gondi de Retz, Archbishop of Paris in the mid-17th century, and applying it (rather decisively, wouldn't you say?) to photography.

One of my most prized possessions is a copy of the book The Decisive Moment. I wonder why it's never been reprinted? Doubtless because HCB didn't want it to be. I hope, before I die, that I get to read a definitive biography of Cartier-Bresson. I hope, too, that the author who is engaged to write it is a first-class interviewer and researcher, an excellent writer, and knows photography and its history thoroughly. I might immodestly claim for myself the latter two attributes, but I cannot claim the first. HCB deserves a biographer of the status of Jim Hughes, who wrote W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance, the definitive biography of Gene Smith. (I wonder if he's available?)

I think I read somewhere that HCB was attracted to the asymmetric windows of this building in Madrid (one wonders how it came to be) and was busy combining it with the playing children when he was astonished to see in his viewfinder that miraculous fat man walking into his frame. Nowadays it would be regrettably easy to "add" an element like the fat man, but in those days the photographer was dependent on nature. I believe this is one of the very few famous Cartier-Bresson's taken with a wide-angle lens. It is certainly one of the most improbable of the photographer's many moments.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps the fat man could be added easily enough now, but would anyone think to? That is the magic, is it not?

4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have always thought this was a good example from his 50mm lens.
I think the bio of Gene Smith by Jim Hughes nearly ruined him, emotionally and financially. It is a wonderful piece of work.

4:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How did you verify this was taken with a 35 instead of a 50?

5:03 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

N.B.: I didn't, and can't, verify it--it just looks like a 35 to me.

7:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So does the "Picnic on the Bank of the Marne, 1938," yet it has been reliably documented to have been made with a 50. HCB had an uncanny ability to expand space with a 50, maybe by shooting from a very low angle (as here) with a small aperture.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

True, but he's also known to have carried a 35 and a 90 consistently. The early date of this picture might argue in favor of its being made with a 50.

8:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why no photo credit for the "self portrait"? the subject is HCB drawing a self portrait. The photo is by Martine Franck.

10:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a wonderful picture, but I must say it looks a little like a montage to me. Do you really think all those shadows and sizes match up?

3:02 AM  
Blogger Andy Ilachinski said...

There is a site (I have no idea about its legality!) that posts HCB's Decisive Moment, page by page:

ALso, while it may not be the definitive biography, the recent Bio by Pierre Assouline *is* a wonderful read about a master:

Likewise, Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Artless Art may not be the definitive bio, but as an extended muse on Bresson's "Artless ARt" it is superb:

I chose HCB's "Siphnos, Greece" as my "Epiphanous Photo #3":

7:31 AM  
Blogger under focus said...

I do not think that the fat man was added in an old photo like these. The legendary HCB was for long time said to only use the "normal" lens of 50 mm for his Leica, but this is not true. There are many photos of HCB indicating that he used other lenses. As can be seen in the book "Decisive Moment" on page 96 the photo from the river side in India. It is most likely a lens in the range 90 to 135. There are pictures of HCB in action were one can see he uses longer lenses.

It has also for a long time been a ledgend that HCB never croped an image. In many publications, most likely agreed apon with HCB, a dark rim was mounted around the photos. Some times with the transport wholes of the film included to give the illutions that the whole negative was reprodused. It is very clear that this not always was the true story. In the french journal Photo (no 349, mai, 1998, page 77), where the very well known photo of the jumping man behind the Saint Lazare Station in Paris is shown, the photo is from a cropped negative, because the lower left side and corner is very dark. As can be seen in the full negative area shown in the same journal on page 106.

HCB probably the documentary photographer of the whole 1900 could also step out of the legend.

5:27 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Don't misunderstand me--I wasn't saying there's even a remote chance the fat man was added. All I meant was that it would be trivial to do so today, in digital, but would not have been possible then. It was certainly not something HCB would care to do. Also, the Garre St. Lazarre man is the ONLY HCB I know of where the blackline was faked--I know of no others. One of my nice HCB memories is of him during an interview with Charlie Rose, saying he never ever cropped--with the Jumping Man framed and hanging on the wall behind him in the television shot.

According to Erich Hartmann, HCB carried a 35, 50, and 90 most of the time, and occasionally experimented with other lenses. From the time of its introduction in 1953 and for the rest of his life, however, the lens he used by far the most was the 50mm collapsible Summicron. I suspect Leica multicoated HCB's later collapsible Summicrons for him, but I have no confirmation of that. Erich told me that in HCB's proof books, there is occasionally a frame or two taken with the 90 but almost never any taken with the 35.


7:46 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Ilachina said:
There is a site (I have no idea about its legality!) that posts HCB's Decisive Moment, page by page:"

Wow, that is...horrible. I mean, it gives the inclusions, picture order, and layout, but looks like photocopied newsprint. The pictures in the book are sumptuous sheet-fed gravures, not faithful to the photographs but very beautiful in themselves.

I do hope the book will be properly reprinted one day. The original binding is also quite infirm--the dj chips easily, the board tend to warp, and the spine is easily shaken. There is almost no such thing as a fine or very fine copy today. Also, the picture captions are provided in a separate insert which most copies no longer inclued.


7:54 AM  
Blogger David Emerick said...

While HCB in my opinion was one of the greatest, and I do like this image, I might have chosen another image of his to represent his great contribution to photography of the "decisive momoent".


9:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just watched the Palm Pictures "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye" DVD the other day. (Was on sale at Borders.)


(I also bought the "William Eggleston in the Real World" DVD but I've no idea what I did with it.)

10:22 AM  

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