"A glass of red wine." Those are his first words; and they're said with a twinkle in his eye. We'd asked him what he'd like to drink at 10 in the morning, before we settle for the interview. Henri Cartier- Bresson likes to joke, but mostly, he knows his own mind. He always has. He is 91, has hearing aids in both ears, and walks slowly with a stick. As a girl wanders past wearing bright rainbow coloured tights, his eyes follow her. We exchange glances and laugh. His antennae still seem acute. We'd snatched a shot of him at Edinburgh's Waverley station last November. We'd stayed back, conscious of how acutely camera shy this photographer is. We were perhaps 20 yards away, and the cameraman rolled as he past us. Cartier-Bresson was alert to it. He stopped, and there you see him on videotape, sharply heaving his body around, an angry old man waving his shooting stick at us. We'd felt like we'd violated him in some way.
The only surviving founder member of the Magnum photographic agency, founded in 1947, and for many, the greatest photographer of his time, doesn't take photographs much any more. He draws. That morning it had been a nude in his studio. He was having difficulty with hands and feet. Our excuse for meeting is an exhibition of his photographs at a small Parisian art gallery. Claude Bernard has shown Cartier-Bresson drawings, but this is the first time that there's been a selling show of his photographs anywhere in France. The French, unlike the Americans and the British, have been slow to collect. Signed Cartier-Bresson prints sell for pounds 2/ 3000. The photographer has left the selection to the gallery owner, 93 of his most famous images, including portraits of Camus, Sartre, Matisse, Giacometti and Bonnard.
The gallery provides a comfortable chair, but before he sits in it, our interviewee tells the cameraman he doesn't want to be shot face-on. We turn the chair, and film him in profile. I pour some water and we clink glasses. Henri Cartier-Bresson folds his arms, and I draw up close, advised by his wife to speak up. Things begin stickily. Within five minutes, the reporter feels likes he's drowning in molasses. Cartier-Bresson doesn't want to talk about the past or to have his work overly analysed. "We are not curators of our work." What interests him is the next thing. Yes composition is important, and geometry, and intuition. His hands frame a shot. He touches his nose, snorts. "You can learn everything but sensitivity. A cat has more sensitivity than some people." But some questions are met with silence, and at this point, I'm saying more than he is. "Are you from the police?" he asks. I'm getting desperate. "Henri," I say, "I'm asking the wrong questions. You're going to have to help me." He smiles, and we both relax and he begins to warm up. An interview in danger of ending abruptly lasts almost an hour. And by the end, we are surrounded by a cluster of gallery visitors, hanging on to every Cartier-Bresson word.
Henri Cartier-Bresson doesn't have any advice to give about taking portraits. But the camera has to be part of you. …