Henri Cartier-Bresson

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, October 3, 1987 | Go to article overview

Henri Cartier-Bresson


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


Henri Cartier-Bresson

There are musical compositions, written, usually, for piano or violin, so difficult of execution that part of what they are about is the extreme dexterity required to perform them. There are others of such oceanic depth that part of what they refer to must be the answering profundity of the artist capable of making it palpable through stirring performance, almost as if the performance were part of the evoked meaning. It is rare that both orders of gift are called upon in any single piece of music, and quite possibly they are antithetical: the set piece for virtuosi celebrates a power so beyond the common measure that its meaning must be correspondingly narrow, whereas a deep work, one feels, must answer to the most universal truths of human existence. The second kind of musical performance closes the gap between artist and audience, as if the artist but gives voice to the feelings that unite them. The first sort, by contrast, flaunts that gap: the virtuoso is viewed with amazement, like a great athlete or startling beauty, across a vast and hopeless divide. And this, too, may explain why the co-presence of these different powers is hardly to be expected in a single work.

Virtuosity may be found side by side with depth in some of the other arts, though the former sometimes drives the latter out. Thus spectacular displays of foreshortening or perspective can be obstacles to artistic profundity. And though there are artists capable of bravura and depth at once, like Rembrandt or Velazquez, it is unclear to what degree the two are interconnected even in admittedly great works. Most of what scholars dispute in Las Meninas would remain were we to subtract the acutely confident brushwork through which a piece of lace or a spaniel's ear are summoned out of flourishes and parries of pigment. Sargent was not a deep artist, though his brush was as athletic as any in the history of painting. And Picasso was a deep artist whose inventiveness made at least that order of gesture irrelevant. The mystery of Henri Cartier-Bresson's art as a photographer is not just that his images are dazzling and deep at once but that these polarities coincide in so remarkable a way that one feels they must be internally connected, that he could not be so powerful if he were not also brilliant. So, while his subject must in part be the singular authority of the photographic act, the other part of his subject--that to which we respond in the fullness of our humanity --must somehow connect with this, as if meaning and attack were made for one another.

As a young, fiercely romantic adventurer, Cartier-Bresson passed a year in Africa as a night hunter, using an acetylene lamp to immobilize his prey while he took his killing aim; and the hunter's exact reflexes, the perfect instantaneity of eye, mind and finger for which the high-speed rifle or the high-speed camera are metaphors, carry over in his work as a photographer. Each of his famous pictures refers internally to the act of shooting it, and each, for all its laconic title (Madrid, 1933; Marseilles, 1932; Mexico, 1934), is eloquent with the implied narrative of the successful kill. Each encapsulates the speed, the deadly accuracy, the total self-assurance and the patience, endurance and will of the huntsman as artist. I owe to Peter Galassi, curator of Cartier-Bresson: The Early Years (at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until November 29) and author of the illuminating catalogue that accompanies the show, the insight that the hand-held camera with the high-speed shutter transformed the condition and thence the content of photography (much, I suppose, as the invention of the escapement action transformed performance on the pianoforte and redefined the conditions of composition for that instrument). The old photographers, with their unwieldy equipment, their need for sustained illumination and a total immobility in their motifs, addressed a world of willed stasis, which the best of them--Atget, say--transformed into a kind of frozen poetry, cleaned of time and change. …

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