The Shadow List: Number 7. (Is Jim Hughes Busy?)
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.
Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON