Henri Cartier-Bresson's Last Decisive Moment

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Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)

Jean-Philippe Charbonnier (1922-2004)

Pierre Gassmann (1914-2004)

Carl Mydans (1907-2004)

Van Deren Coke (1921-2004)

A lot has been written, and more will be, about the life in photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson. If Europe contributed to the medium in the twentieth century. Cartier-Bresson, a.k.a. HCB. probably stood among the best. If not the spear-head of its protagonists. For decades, this now world-famous photographer tried to seize the essence of his time, and crystallize it in the fraction of a second within the frame of his viewfinder. Once he had picked it up, back in the early 1930s, his Leica, a brand that he made famous around the world, became the true "extension of his eye."

It all started in 1932 when Leitz Cameras (Lei-Ca) released the second model of a long series of small, "miniature" then, cameras using 35 mm movie film That model was equipped with its ideal complement, a range-finder allowing extremely precise focusing. That same year Cartier-Bresson had to leave Africa, where he had been working as a safari guide, because of a life-threatening case of black fever. They met in Marseille, and never parted. The tool gave the photographer the versatility, discretion, speed, and control that matched his character. Cartier-Bresson gave it his eye and mind trained by the cubist painter Andre Lhote, and his experience as a hunter in Africa. For him, from a simple way of seeing, photography became a way of thinking, feeling (with the appropriate distance), and a way of life, an evolution that would be confirmed by, and would extend into his experience of Buddhism.

For years, until he "retired" in the mid-1970s, and dedicated his time to drawing. Magnum allowed him to roam the world while Pierre Gassman, in Paris, would develop his negatives and print them at "Picto." (Pictorial Service Lab). 2004 has been a rather deadly year for photographers. Van Deren Coke. Carl Mydans recently, and, within weeks, on the other side of the ocean three men, two of whom were photographers. Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) and Jean-Philippe Charbonnier (-2004), and one darkroom sorcerer. Pierre Gassman. In Henri, a booklet edited by Brigitte Ollier and published by Filigranes in 2003. Charbonnier remembered his first meeting with Cartier-Bresson (pp. 16-17).

"The Monument [...] I think I met him by chance at Pierre Gassman's Picto, rue de la Comete, or maybe rue Delambre [...] We were doing the same job, we had the same lab to get our rolls processed, but we did not have the same stripes on our sleeves. [...] I can see him going for the first time over the contact sheets of a series he had just shot. Here comes Pierre who stops and stands behind him. "Get the hell out of here!" said Henri. There was an attitude that matched the character, he wanted to be the first one to look at his contact sheets. Every photographer behaves this way, one does not just get master pieces out of 36 exposures, and one does not have to advertise one's hesitations and errors. Later we exchanged two photographs.

He is a formidable "statue." Henri, even if I regret that he should be so stiff. For me he is THE living National Treasure at its best, [...] I even allow myself to call him THE INSTITUTION." Cartier-Bresson generated the type of admiration he both enjoyed and ran away from. In Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Mind's Eye (Aperture, 1999, p. 86) he mentions, while recalling the documentary video that Sarah Moon made about him: "My notoriety is a heavy load: I refuse to be a standard bearer: I have spent my whole life trying to be inconspicuous in order to observe better."

Beyond his photographic oeuvre, and as a disclaimer to his alleged desire to remain unknown, if Cartier-Bresson must be remembered, it is as a co-founder in 1947 of the photographers' co-operative. Magnum, and as the author of The Decisive Moment (Images a la sauvette, or "images on the run" in its French version) in 1952. …