H enri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. From the 1930s onward, he travelled extensively around the world, and was witness to historic events such as prisoners being released from WWII concentration camps, photographing Mahatma Gandhi only a few hours before his assassination, and the entrance of Mao Zedong’s troops into Beijing. He was also a cofounder of one of the most prestigious international photographic cooperatives, Magnum.
Starting from Friday October 23, Ateneum Art Museum will open an extensive retrospective exhibition highlighting Bresson’s work. The 300 photographs and publications covering the walls of the national art museum emphasise his skill as a photographer but also his artistic talent and above all, the humanity at the very core of his work.
His photographs underscore the value of human life which he photographed, with a phenomenal eye for composition. However, he always gave room for chance: “I never make calculations. I perceive a structure and wait for something to happen. There are no rules. One should not try too hard to explain the mystery,” he was once quoted saying.
The current exhibition highlights seven geographic area, separated according to his travels in the United States, Bali and Indonesia, China and Japan, Europe, India, Mexico, and the USSR. The display also contains landscapes, portraits, and a wealth of supporting material about the personal and professional history of Henri Cartier-Bresson. It contains many of the most iconic images of the 20th century.
Director of the museum, Susanna Pettersson explains: “It allows up to revisit the key moments of the past century, but its message is as contemporary as it always was: the dignity and value of human life is precious, no matter where you travel.”
‘Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image & The World’ was originally curated by Robert Delpire in close collaboration with Henri Cartier-Bresson himself. It is presented together with Magnum Photos and the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation (Paris) in Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, from October 23rd, 2015 until 31st January, 2016.
Below is a video-interview with Agnès Sire, the director of the HCB Foundation, who has met and worked with Henri Cartier-Bresson. Following that, there is a transcript of her thoughts on why Bresson and this exhibition are so significant.
Video: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today
What was Henri Cartier-Bresson like (as a person)? He was a really emotional person. He was calling himself a revolutionary and anarchist. He was always against everything. You say something, he was against it. He was passionate, and he was not so interested by photography…he was more interested by paintings and literature. You have to know that in 1969 he decided that he would no longer accept assignments from Magnum, although he was willing to do some more photography. He wanted to concentrate on his work in drawing and painting. Everyday he was working on this, drawing, painting, and thinking…. He always said he had so much learn. That is what so amazing about him in his 60's and 70's, when I first met him – he would always say he had so much to learn. This is a very important part of his character. He said that he had so much to learn, yet I'm sure so many others have learnt from him. How would you describe his influence that he has left in the field of art and photography? He was not at all interested in looking at photographs made by other photographers…. He said, '"You should read, you should draw, you should paint. Photography, it's not so important." At that time, he was not so interested in photography anymore. Yes he was interested by the field itself, yet he became a photographer by chance. In the 30's he met people and just took photographs like breathing — he always said it was like breathing. He took photographs until the war like that, and finally he liked this life, yet he wasn't sure what to do with his life to make a living, as a job. After his trip to Mexico he decided he could be a film-maker and learn to make films. This is how he ended up in Spain, to make 2-3 films there. It didn't bring the money he was expecting, and then the war broke out. He was a prisoner of war in Germany for three years (after serving in the French Army), and then escaped. After three years as a prisoner, your brain obviously changes. You are not any more the surrealist guy – you're thinking, you have to engage yourself to do something, and you're concerned by what is happening. While he was hiding in the South of France (when he took the famous pictures of Matisee, Braque etc), the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York decided to do a post-humous exhibition of his work, because they thought he had died during the war. Nobody knew about him. He said “No, I'm here! I'm very happy to work with you” and he went to NY and opened his exhibition at the MOMA. I'm telling you this because its at the MOMA that he met Robert Capa, David Seymour, and another guy named William Vandivert (whom joined them after), and they created the international agency, Magnum Photos. From that moment it divided the world in three: Capa went to Africa, Seymour to Europe, and Bresson to Asia, where he remained for three years. He had this amazing flair to be in the right place: to be in China for the arrival of the Communists, to be there in India for the assassination of Ghandi, etc. He was not always interested by the events, although it has always been stated that way. He was not a journalist at all; in fact, he hated that expression. He hated the expression 'journalist' because he said, 'I like journalism, in the meaning of a personal job diary. But journalism doesn't mean anything to me.'
For example, when you view his pictures of George VI in England, he was sent by newspapers, but you cannot see any pictures of the coronation. He was interested by the people drunk in the street, and that is what he photographed. The magazine doesn't have any picture of the coronation itself. As his name was already established, and he had 2 or 3 exhibitions in New York first, you know, he could do whatever he wanted. That was really important. He was supposed to be a painter from the beginning...he wanted to be a painter. He was interested in literature. He was always reading. You can guess in his pictures that his brain is solidly built with all this poetry, literature, painting, and the like... he is not like your usual 'click' journalist.
I would like to ask you about the origins of the exhibition (The Man, The Image, & The World). As we understand, this was exhibited for the very first time in 2003, in the National Library, Paris (Bibliothèque nationale de France.), and a special feature was that Bresson was involved in the selection process of the prints himself. Would you like to explain the significance of this?
In French the title of the exhibition (De qui s’agit-il?) translates to 'Who is it about?'. It was quite difficult to translate in to English so they changed the title (to the current). Henri Cartier-Bresson was all the time asking the question, 'What is about?'. He would ask it about anything. It was a joke to title the exhibition this way – 'Who is it about?'. What is very important is that it is the last exhibition that he followed closely (as he died in 2004). He followed all the steps of the production in the exhibition… the catalogue, sections in the exhibitions, and the printing. I remember him shouting at the lab because he didn't like the prints. He said 'I'm not a yankee, I like the grey. Don't do them too black! They are too black!'. He was really involved, and it was the last exhibition in which he was involved. People who know about making exhibitions understand how different it is when you work with an artist and when you don't. When you work with an artist, it's another type of collaboration. You have to listen to him, but you cannot move from the vision he has for himself, because he is there. When he's is not there anymore, he or she, they cannot influence your vision: it can be expanded to different points of view. There will now be many different points of view about the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Recently, shows were made in both 2010 & 2013. They were extremely different to one another. For this exhibition (The Man, The Image, & The World), the foundation was just created in the same year (2003). All the documents were not yet open to researchers. Now they are: we have all the letters, correspondence, all his notes, all his captions, everything. So researchers can come and look at that, and of course, it will change the point of view, because, a photographer, when he's alive, is creating his own myth. This is very interesting. But then, you have a different point of view, especially when you really see and really read. Will there be surprises in the archives? Not really surprises, because I think he had been editing quite well. For example, I was mentioning earlier this scrapbook that he prepared to do an exhibition. What is really interesting was that in this scrapbook that he had been editing himself, of all these pictures he had made before 1946. This scrapbook he brought to the exhibition and from which the selection were made. What is very interesting is that you sometimes see two or three versions of the good image we know. For example, the famous jump in Saint-Lazare,1932, which he only discovered in 1945 when he was preparing the scrapbook. Why? Because Cartier-Bresson is known as a guy who has the geometry in his eye, and does not crop any picture. It was a philosophy, not cropping. This was a picture he cropped. Why? Because in fact he took the picture behind the fence. If you print it like he did originally, a third of the image is black: the fence was hiding the scene from his lens. Finally he decided to crop it and it became the masterpiece you now know. It could have simply been ignored. In this scrapbook you see both versions, and you also see that the famous pictures in Spain, in the arenas: there are three or four excellent images and he has chosen one, but three others could be equally as good. You also see the famous sequence in Germany where the prisoner recognised the woman who denounced her and slapped her...there are ten images and it's fascinating. When he chose, he would say 'this is a good picture' and would show just that one, but of course, he gave everything to the foundation knowing that he was giving us everything. We have the copyright, we own the copyright. So if he didn't want us to use that, of course he wouldn't have given it to us. Now the archives can be opened. We respect them, and we would never chose a picture that hasn't been made as a print. We don't make prints, we use what we have. We open the research to other points of view which are really interesting. In France there were many followers of Henri Cartier-Bresson. He invented a way of photography and many people followed his steps.
What is the story behind 'The Decisive Moment'?
In 1952 after three years in Asia, Henri Cartier-Bresson was approached by a great French publisher, who was the publisher of the famous magazine, Verve. This guy offered him to create a book of Bresson's work, though he had never published a photography book before. He also offered Henri Cartier-Bresson to have the book designed by Matisse. The cover was also drawn by Matisse. Recently we made a facsimile of this book, where the title translates to 'Images on the Run'. Images that you take while you are running in to a situation and you don't stop.
Then, they asked Bresson to write a text, a kind of text about photography at that time. He wrote a text... a big source about photography. They had offered the book to an American publisher, who was of course very interested in publishing this book. Naturally, Henri made a long list of titles for this book. He mentioned many that didn't seem to be commercial enough for them. There were perhaps forty titles, different ones, and finally they chose 'The Decisive Moment'. He didn't especially like it, but he agreed. Even in the text, Henri doesn't make any mention of the decisive moment in the French copy, and in the U.S version there are two lines about it, as he needed to at least mention it in the text. What is really funny is that now Henri is known as the master of the decisive moment. It's totally wrong, it's a trap. He was limited to it as people were saying you are the master of this, and he would say 'Well I prefer the unconscious, I prefer the memory.' The decisive moment is not wrong, but it's too narrow — it's really narrow. It means that there is only one moment where you can get something, and it's the moment. It doesn't take in to consideration what you have in your brain, and again I repeat, Henri Cartier-Bresson was reading all the time. He was very interested by writers, the famous painters, and all that was building in his brain. When he was taking pictures all of this was present: it was not only a question of decisive moment. But you know, the Americans at the time were very good marketing people, and in terms of marketing it worked very well. It's also a diminution of his talent, for me.
My final question is a very difficult one: thinking about the fantastic set of work, if you had to pick one, what would that be and why?
It's really difficult because it's such a huge work, and also I think that everyone can make an excellent image, even not an artist. When I feel I like a particular image, it is because of the context. Many images go around, and you where it comes from, and where it's going. I'm particularly attached to the pictures of the thirties, because I think for any photographer, the press damages you. I think even if Henri Cartier-Bresson never obeyed the idea that you have to do photographs in a particular way (e.g the aforementioned coronation) and he was resisting the press, the press nonetheless imposes on you a kind of … trauma… you react because you know it will be published in a magazine. That is also why Henri Cartier-Bresson made very few colour shots, which he hated. For example he had to shoot colour in China, because LIFE magazine wanted him to do colour, so he had to do it. Yet he never printed them, and he never appreciated them. Yet the pictures in the thirties express so much liberty, so much discovery of the world. I'm very attached to the images in Mexico for example, where he stayed for a year. You can't say there is one image because it's all his life there. You know, he had no money, he left for Mexico to photograph a group of people building a big road going across America and that didn't happen. Finally, he decided to stay. We have all the correspondence with his family: he borrowed a little money and he was living in a district in Mexico where all the prostitutes were living, as you can see in the pictures. He was telling this fantastic story, that during the day the people were working to make coffins and during the night prostitutes were there and that was a wonderful mixture of death and life, which is something that Mexico is all about. That is the kind of stuff that he was saying, you can see that it's really poetic and not journalistic at all. For me, those are the body of work that I like the most.
Sources: http://www.henricartierbresson.org/en/, https://ateneum.fi, Ateneum Press Conference