IT'S ODD to realise that a 17th-century Archbishop of Paris came up with the phrase that encapsulates the most influential aesthetic in photographic history: "There is nothing in this world," wrote Cardinal de Retz, "that does not have its decisive moment." When, just over 50 years ago, Henri Cartier-Bresson quoted this line in the introduction to his first major book, Images a la sauvette, he clarified its meaning for him as "the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms." As the original title translates as "Hurried Images", we must be thankful that its American publisher, Richard Simon, chose to call the English version The Decisive Moment.
Cartier-Bresson has been well-served by publishers and editors, notably his beloved Teriade, and the indefatigable Robert Delpire. His long association with the photographer continues with this wonderful new book. The Man, the Image and the World is timed to celebrate two linked events in Paris: a major retrospective at the Bibliotheque Nationale (until 27 July 2003), for which the book serves as a catalogue, and the opening of the Cartier- Bresson Foundation in Montparnasse. Besides preserving his legacy, the foundation will encourage and exhibit emerging photographic talents.
To call the book a "catalogue" does it an injustice. Its roster of distinguished contributors - from Jean Clair of the Musee Picasso (with a beautifully written meditation on time in photography) to Serge Toubiana of Cahiers du Cinema (who writes valuably on Cartier- Bresson's film work) - makes it the clearest introduction anyone could wish to the life and work of the man Pierre Assouline has called "the eye of the century". Then there are the images, over 600 (many never before published). Photographs from all stages of his career touch on every aspect of human experience - a distillation of all our days. That he finds compositional harmony in the bleakest of prospects reminds me of a remark he made in a letter to the screenwriter Ben Maddow: "There is no such thing as ugly, only disorganised." Here, too, are many of his paintings and drawings; and a "family album" of personal memorabilia. and snapshots.
Knowing Cartier-Bresson slightly, and having met him several times, I have a few snapshots of my own - although only in my memory. I recall the historian Eric Hobsbawm asking Cartier-Bresson if he knew the critic and novelist John Berger. "Yes," he replied, "but I'm intimidated by his intellect." Hobsbawm, amused, said he had never before heard a …