Impassioned Eye: Henri Cartier-Bresson, The

Reviewed By PaulBryant
Posted 11/02/04 01:58:43

"Maybe the 20th century's greatest photographer"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s is in some ways the classic life of the freelance photographer. In other ways, he is a completely out of the mainstream, and possesses very much his own way of life. Independent, with his own eccentricities, he is the envy of all living black and white photographers. His style shifts brilliantly between being remarkably simple and astonishingly complex. He has an unerring eye for geometry, and the convoluted aestheticism of architecture.

We learn a lot of things about this multiple prize-winning photojournalist that are rather surprising. For one thing, he doesn’t believe in enlarging his own photos. To him, all the art, skill and fascination is in the taking of the photograph. So, he’d rather let a trusted friend enlarge his captured negative into a beautiful printed picture. Being able to “see, feel, and then let the surprised eye respond” is the essence of his artistic life. This means that he doesn’t usually allow the enlarger to crop the negative when he prints it. Unlike most photographers, who like to cut a picture down to its bare essentials, Bresson believes this lessens the value of the picture.

Despite Bresson’s continued downplaying of the profession by which he has worked almost his entire life, he has been present at some of the most important moments of his era. Through WW2, the Korean War, the death of Mahatma Gandhi, Vietnam; he was there, toting his camera around, capturing brilliance. He explains, rather modestly, considering he has covered nearly all the major events of the 20th century, “I don’t have a message, I don’t have a political angle."

He tells us in the film (which is basically a feature length interview and expose of his pictures) how he enjoys portrait taking, but thrives really in the spontaneity of the real world, rather than the created environment. He has taken pictures of Coco Chanel, Gandhi, been friends with Matisse (who drew Bresson a book cover for an anthology of his photographs), and is understandably a living legend among photographers.

Since the completion of this film – which also consists of interviews with other artists who knew him or admired his work – Bresson passed away in his Paris home. Most obituaries would retell the life of who many considered to be the greatest photographer of the 20th century. This documentary, while fascinating merely for showing a myriad of Bresson masterpieces, tells little about his personal, intellectual or spiritual life; instead it lets the audience make their own conclusions about him through the pictures and drawings he made, and the famous paintings he adores.

An ardent studier of human life, it is fascinating to see how exuberant Bresson becomes looking over a picture he took of Coco Chanel - at how he was able to catch the moment (one of few) when the famous curmudgeon cracked a smile. His achievement was felt as much in the fact that he had made the old woman grin as it was in the knowledge that he was there to capture that moment when her guard was down, when she shed her façade, “but for a moment – and then the next, it was gone”. The film tells us about Bresson’s interesting method of waiting until the moment right after someone speaks to snap his portraits. Evidently, Bresson discovered this was a reliable way of capturing a natural, spontaneous human moment.

Legendary author Arthur Miller lends his opinion on Cartier’s genius at capturing the normally unseen aspects of a individual’s personality. Cartier’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe exemplifies, says Miller, his ability to see qualities which are deep within, and which are externalized sometimes just for a moment. Miller cherishes the photo of his late wife, and rhapsodizes for a moment about how true a representation of Monroe’s thoughtful introversion it is. This was not a glamour shot, a beautiful smile, or phony pose; it was a moment where a solitary Marilyn let her guise of celebrity down for a split second, and in that second Bresson was there to click the shutter of his camera.

Such things are what separate the photographers as artists; as individuals with the ability to make people emote with the subtle commentary of their pictures.

In his later years, Bresson gave up on his passion for photography to focus his attentions on his first love: painting. Possibly due to his declining health, Bresson quit taking pictures altogether, to again pick up brush, pencil and sketchpad. His unique take on geometry, architecture, and human life coalesce beautifully in the examples we see of his sketches. Sometimes remarkably and pointedly simplistic, we see what is possibly the root of Bresson’s aesthetic interest - a simple drawing of only the nose, eyes, and forehead of his infant child shows the curious way Bresson can exemplify what is truly important to his mind’s eye.

The film itself leaves a bit to be desired when one considers the importance of its subject. More interviews, and a broader historical reference to Bresson’s life and work would have been welcome additions. Even so, it is well worth watching merely for its insights on the man, and its display of his magnificent photographs.

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