Conversation with Henri Cartier-Bresson

Legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson doesn’t like giving interviews. In fact, he doesn’t give them as such. If he does agree to meet you, it is on the condition that you don’t tape the conversation, you don’t make notes and you don’t even fire questions at him. “I prefer to have conversations,” he tells me. “Doing an interview is like being in front of a magistrate.”

He doesn’t like being photographed, either. Throughout his career, he has closely guarded his anonymity and portraits of him are few and far between. A few years ago, he agreed to participate in a television documentary as long as his face was not shown. “But the only people we film from behind are prostitutes and gangsters,” said the astounded director. “Well, prostitutes and photographers do both earn their living on the streets,” replied Cartier-Bresson.

Furthermore, he doesn’t want to talk about photography, even in connection with his retrospective at the Maison Européenne de la Photo. Cartier-Bresson insists that “for me, painting has always been most important. Photography is simply a sideline.” He gave up photojournalism at the beginning of the ’70s (“Because I had said everything that I had to say”) and has since mostly devoted himself to drawing. “It is contemplation and meditation. It gives me an inner peace and it’s not important whether people like it or not,” he says, before adding, “but Balthus, for example, thinks it’s good.” While he does still take out his camera to shoot the odd portrait or snap a landscape, he agreed to meet me only if we steered clear of the subject of photography. He was willing to talk about his life, the Europe of his youth and life in general.

His own life has been the story of huge professional success (he is generally considered the greatest photojournalist ever) and a series of privileged meetings. He was born into a bourgeois family near Paris in 1908 and originally studied painting. By his early 20s, he was hanging out with the Surrealists, being invited to Marie-Louise Bousquet’s famous salon and befriending the likes of Max Jacob and Marcel Duchamp. He was also taken to the home of Gertrude Stein, who took one disparaging look at his painting and advised him to go into his father’s business.

Instead, he became a photographer in the 1930s after seeing a picture by Martin Muncaszi of three Africans running into the sea. “I was startled. I said to myself,‘My God, you can do that with a camera.'” After the war, he co-founded the Magnum photo agency. He was the first western photographer admitted into the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death. He was also present at Gandhi’s funeral, witnessed the first civil rights sit-ins in Alabama and spent two weeks following US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy around.

Entitled “Des Européens” (On Europeans), the current show is a selection of shots from over 40 years of travels around Europe, and it clearly demonstrates Cartier-Bresson’s genius. His wonderful sense of geometry is brought to the fore in photos of lines, benches and trees. He depicts his human subjects with great compassion and truth. Most of them are working-class – a family on a houseboat on the Seine, a group of women cutting hair in the streets of Spain. He also manages to capture amusing visual coincidences. As you look at the photo of two ducks swimming past a couple floating on their backs in a lake, you can’t help breaking into a smile.

We meet in one of the exhibition rooms during a preview for a few of his friends. Cartier-Bresson is dressed in a pale green V-neck sweater with a bright red cravat. He walks with the aid of a stick, but while his body may be frail, he remains remarkably vibrant. His face is kindly, but rather nondescript apart from the piercing blue eyes. The crown of his head is bald, his remaining hair white and he wears hearing aids in both ears.

Our “discussion” gets off to a tricky start. As I compliment him on the exhibition – the finest the Maison Européenne de la Photo has held since its inauguration in 1995 – he scowls and raises both hands in front of his face as though to stop me. “It’s nothing, it’s nothing,” he insists, waving his hands dismissively at the photos on the wall. Yet, while ostensibly not wanting to talk about photography, he does actually say quite a lot about his views on the medium. He mentions that he has never cropped his images, that photography is simply a means of “instantaneous drawing” and that its main importance is that it allows for the expression of the subconscious.

He is equally unforthcoming about other subjects. When I ask how he came to be in India at the time of Gandhi’s death, he abruptly replies: “By chance.” Similarly, he says he has known so many famous people simply because “I am so old.” He is, however, more willing to talk about his depressing views on modern society (“We were much better off in the 5th century B.C.”), Christianity and Buddhism, and literature (he is rereading Proust “for the last time … perhaps”).

Indeed, when you get him out of the defensive mood photography seems to provoke, Cartier-Bresson is extremely likable. He displays great curiosity and intelligence, and there is a profound warmth between him and his friends. He also remains extremely down-to-earth. One reason he lay down his camera in the ’70s was to shun the power fame might have given him, and he seems decidedly skeptical about the importance of success. “As Cocteau once said, ‘There is nothing which goes out of fashion as quickly as fashion,'” he declares. Nevertheless, it may be some time before his own image slips out of style.