The Man of the Moment: The Most Distinguished Living Photographer Is Now 94. He's Hardly Shot a Picture for 30 Years, but That Doesn't Mean He Hasn't Been as Busy as Ever with His Art. Here's What It's like to Spend a Rainy Morning in Paris with Henri Cartier-Bresson

Article excerpt

Byline: Malcolm Jones

When Henri Cartier-Bresson saw me pull out my notebook, he asked in mock horror, "Are you from the police?" I said no, I would make a very poor policeman, and he smiled. Mindful of his distaste for interviews, I went on, "I know you don't like questions--" but he cut me off. "Why not? There are no answers." I started to see why journalists who have wangled interviews with the 94-year-old grandmaster of photography have come to regret it.

We were sitting in the Paris apartment he shares with his wife, the photographer Martine Franck. It was a rainy Easter Sunday, the day he'd picked for the interview because he is "an anarchist"--a word he uses to suggest his impudent disregard for propriety. We sat by the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the Tuileries, the Louvre and the Seine. Monet and Cezanne used to sketch this view from the apartment below. Cartier-Bresson sketches it now. But he does not photograph it. For the last 30 years, he has only rarely touched a camera, preferring instead to capture the world with a pencil and a sketch pad.

Yes, it's as if Michael Jordan had decided to stay in baseball. This is the man who virtually invented street photography in the early '30s and then went on to set the standard in photojournalism. He shot the communist takeover of China and the fall of British India. He took Gandhi's portrait hardly an hour before he was assassinated. Once Cartier-Bresson photographed something or someone, you might as well have retired them as subjects: best picture of a man jumping over a puddle, best portrait of Sartre, best image of a picnic. Just don't expect Cartier-Bresson to agree. "I'm not a photographer," he insists. "I'm not interested in photography. With photography, you don't grasp anything. It's just intuition. To be a draftsman is very different." Sure enough, he has no photographs on his walls, only drawings and paintings, by other artists.

Clearly Cartier-Bresson wants to put his past behind him and, just as clearly, the rest of the world isn't cooperating. A huge retrospective of his work--more than 600 photographs, as well as selections from his documentary films and his drawings--just opened at Paris's Bibliotheque Nationale. A definitive catalog, published in English as "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, the Image and the World," accompanies the show. Concurrently, the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson has also opened in Paris. Besides housing his archives, it will serve as exhibition space for other photographers and offer financial support to visual artists. When I mentioned all this, Cartier-Bresson first feigned deafness, then indifference. Finally, his wife reminded him that the Fondation opening was only a week away, and he looked up in unfeigned alarm. "Do I have to wear a tie?"

These days the globe-trotting photojournalist, who nearly died of blackwater fever in Africa and escaped from Nazi POW camps three times, usually sticks close to home. "We travel," said Franck, "but mostly to attend exhibitions of Henri's work." Still, considering his age, Cartier-Bresson's physical infirmities are negligible. …