Magazine article New Internationalist

Master of the Moment: Sadanand Menon Pays Tribute to the Great French Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson - and Marks His Connection with India

Magazine article New Internationalist

Master of the Moment: Sadanand Menon Pays Tribute to the Great French Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson - and Marks His Connection with India

Article excerpt

Sadanand Menon pays tribute to the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson - and marks his connection with India.

No artist/journalist in living memory so epitomized the camera's extraordinary affinity to the gun in its ability to draw-and-shoot and 'hunt reality' as Henri Cartier-Bresson. The work of the French legend illustrates that genre of photography now famous as 'the decisive moment', drawing attention to the legendary instantaneity of his photographic method.

Cartier-Bresson quickly became famous as the hunter of the 'instant'. The American edition of his book Image a la Sauvette (a quick image taken without authorization) was titled Decisive Moment - an expression originally attributed to the 17th century French writer Cardinal Retz. But it was not a catch-phrase Cartier-Bresson himself coined.

He often described his method in the imagery of a hunter or a fisher. 'One is, alas, always an intruder,' he used to say, even in the infancy of photo-journalism in the 1940s, referring to the camera's invasive properties and its implication in the regimes of spying and surveillance - which have become so problematic in recent times. 'Approach the subject on tiptoe... Let your steps be velvet but your eyes keen. A good fisherman does not stir up the water before he starts to fish.' Explaining why he never went into the darkroom to process his films - leaving it in the masterly hands of the equally legendary Pierre Gassman - he used to say: 'I'm only a hunter, not a cook.'

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Cartier-Bresson, who died on 2 August, three weeks short of his 96th birthday, was the greatest 20th century practitioner of the art of photography. His funeral in a little village close to Avignon (venue of the famous annual festival of performing arts) was kept 'camera-free' and no-one took a picture, in deference to his lifelong with for visual anonymity.

For over 45 years, from when he began to work with a camera in 1932 until he stopped taking photographs in the mid-1970s, almost nothing significant seems to have happened in the world without Cartier-Bresson's signature presence there with his battered and taped Leica M-3 camera. He was in Spain during the Civil War; in France during the occupation and liberation of Paris; in China for the last five months of the Kuomintang and the first six months of the People's Republic; in India and Pakistan in 1947 during and after the Partition; the first photographer to be admitted into the Soviet Union after the lifting of the 'iron curtain' in 1954; in Hungary during the 1956 uprising; in China again in 1958 after the lifting of the 'bamboo curtain'; in Cuba in 1960 to photograph Castro and Guevara take over in Havana; at the Berlin wall in 1962; in Prague for the 'Prague Spring', and in Paris standing with the students at the barricades, in 1968.

As a regular visitor to India, where he came on photo-shoots on six different occasions, he was on the spot to take the last photographs of Gandhiji, Sri Aurobindo and Ramana Maharshi. Journalism, for him, was the ability 'to be in the right place at the right time'.

Cartier-Bresson travelled extensively in India photographing people and places. One of his sweetest pictures is of the nozzle of the first Indian rocket being carried to the Thumba launch pad on a bicycle in 1966. Perhaps his most evocative one was taken in 1948, showing the burqa-clad women of Kashmir looking as noble, durable and epiphanic as the mountains they are framed against. He counted among his friends here the Nehrus, the Sarabhais, Harindranath Chattopadhyaya and Mahakavi Vallathol.

Among his dearest friends in India, with whom he lived and travelled, were the dancer Chandralekha and the artist/designer Dashrath Patel, with whom he had an extraordinary photograph taken in an Ahmedabad studio, both of them sitting on the plywood facade of a Vespa scooter and waving their respective Leicas.

Cartier-Bresson's special bonding with Chandralekha dates back to that moment in 1950 when both of them were in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, during the last days of Ramana Maharshi. …

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