(Host) Tom Slayton is here with an appreciation of one of the 20th century’s great visual artists: the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
(Slayton) One of the great artists of the 20th century died last week, though you may not have heard about it. It was Henri Cartier-Bresson, and the reason his death received little notice, despite his enormous accomplishments, was that he was a photographer. He made great art with a handheld 35mm camera.
Was Cartier-Bresson an art photographer, a portrait-maker, or a photojournalist? It’s hard to say; his work crossed all the usual boundaries.
In precise, beautifully composed black-and-white images, he recorded many of the most important world events of the century just concluded and the faces of dozens of the world’s leading artists and politicians.
Yet his most haunting images are those depicting the everyday life of common people and children at play. He seemed to have a knack for capturing on film the pain and beauty of the human condition.
His photographs are often suffused with mystery: A boy moves through an angular street passageway, bound for who knows where. A black man in workman’s clothes lies sprawled on a grassy lawn – asleep – or is he unconscious? Or dead? Nearby a white man in formal clothing, a hat and tie relaxes on the same grass, unconcerned.
But while Cartier-Bresson’s images could be tragic, they were often very funny: In one the artist Henri Matisse reclines, drawing a dove while clutching his model tightly in one hand: above, three more doves watch the process anxiously from atop their cage. In another image, a small French boy marches homeward, smiling broadly and carrying two very large bottles of wine.
One of my own personal favorites is his portrait of two plump French couples picnicking on the banks of the Marne. All that glorious fat, pleasure-loving flesh! A glass of wine is being poured by a man in a jaunty hat and suspenders, and a hamper of food is close at hand. Out on the river, fishpoles are mounted on a tethered boat, but no one seems much interested. Life is transitory but good, the photo declares, and we are here to enjoy it in this fleeting moment. We have triumphed, if only for an afternoon.
As spontaneous as Cartier-Bresson’s pictures could seem, they were rigorously composed, often in an instant. He worked so quickly and subtly that his subjects many times had no idea they had been photographed. And he insisted that his images be printed full-frame, with no cropping, precisely as he had seen them.
It is that striking combination of rigorous classical composition and brilliant insight into our common humanity that makes his work so powerful. He once said that a photographer had to be completely involved in the world he framed in his viewfinder. “It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis,” he declared.
So few photographers have done that successfully; so few artists in any medium. His death last week underlines the depth, compassion and clarity of his life’s work. He knew us well; he got in close.