Review by Michael Ernest Sweet
Henri Cartier-Bresson is a name like no other when it comes to street photography. After all, HCB is often credited as the “grandfather” of the genre. Although HCB was, unquestionably, a key figure in the development of what would become known as street photography, his role may not have been as intentional as we sometimes like to believe. For example, an essential element in the development of street photography was the invention of the highly-portable camera, i.e. the 35mm, which, coincidentally, aligned with HCB’s emergence as a photographer. The result of this new camera format, especially in the hands of a highly-skilled photographer, was some very notable early street photography. Hence, HCB’s notoriety with the emergence of the genre.
Why bother to make this distinction between intention and coincidence? I do so, mostly, in an effort to unhitch Cartier-Bresson from the confines of street photography so that we may more fully appreciate the scope of his contribution to photography in general. Enter the new collection of his work from Prestel Publishing, simply titled, Henri Cartier-Bresson – Photographer. The very generic title is important in two regards. One, it emphasizes the need to see HCB’s work more broadly than merely within the confines of street photography and, two, it hints at the comprehensive nature of this superb volume of work.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is, rightly speaking, a photographer in the most general sense. Some images are posed, some are candid; some of his photographs are portraits, some abstracts, some landscapes, and many are, yes, street photography proper. There is also a compelling argument to be made that HCB was a photojournalist at heart. He was, actually, a master in all genres, really. A mere glimpse through this collection will bear out this fact. HCB was simply a great photographer.
Copyright ⓒ Madrid, Spain, 1933. (c) Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos
Copyright ⓒ Calle Cuauhtemoctzin, Mexico, 1934. (c) Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos
This new collection is a great book for any street photographer to have in her collection. It is a great teaching instrument not only on HCB but on black and white photography in all of its splendor. You will learn too many things about HCB for me to even attempt to enumerate them here. However, some of what you will glean from this collection may surprise you. For example, this book allows one to fully and easily see that HCB had no signature look in his photography. Yes, many of his most noted images, especially in street photography, have a coherent visual signature, but this was not true of his wider body of work. For example, I am reminded of one image, Mexico City 1934, which is a passionate semi-nude entanglement of two bodies. There is some motion blur and the energy is wonderful. However, it does not look, at all, like a Cartier-Bresson photograph. In fact, if it were hanging on a wall, and I had to guess in an instant, I would likely say Daido Moriyama, or possibly Anders Petersen. Elsewhere, there are photographs that require careful study to distinguish them from a painting – L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue 1988, for example. This is the charm of HCB – he is a master in multiple genres and Prestel has done a magnificent job of lying that bare in this collection.
Cartier-Bresson possessed a unique ability to make a fantastic portrait. Some are candid, others are posed, but all of his portraits are uncanny in their capturing of the subject’s personality. Whether on the street, or in a makeshift studio, Cartier-Bresson was able to identify the best setting to sit the subject and the precise (dear I say, decisive) moment to fire the shutter. This feat becomes all the more impressive when one studies his contact sheets. Cartier-Bresson was not a machine gun photographer. He was decisive. There is much to be said about this skill in contemporary times when even skilled photographers shoot hundreds of frames to make a single portrait. We could all take a lesson from this more thoughtful approach. I believe one way history will sift out the master photographers from our “everyone is a photographer” times will be through a careful examination of contact sheets or complete archives. Photographic archives have an uncanny way of exposing the master photographer from the lucky striker.
If you have decided to invest in just one volume of work by Henri Cartier-Bresson this is the volume to buy. It is beautifully printed with quality materials and it presents a comprehensive and eclectic overview of HCB’s full body of work. The images are all reproduced at a generous size for proper appreciation and the layout is straight-forward and uncluttered. The introductory essay, by the late art historian, Yves Bonnefoy, points out that HCB claimed to have no understanding of photography. I would challenge you to keep this claim in your mind as you allow the stunning quality of each image to unfold in this book. If it was, indeed, a lack of knowledge about photography that allowed HCB to produce these images, then this volume is the best argument I’ve ever seen for dispensing with the MFA in photography. Far too many photography editors get it wrong these days. I don’t even review some of the books sent to me, as they are simply not worth the effort. This book is different in every way. Prestel got it bang on!
Henri Cartier-Bresson – Photographer
From Prestel Publishing
With a foreword from Yves Bonnefoy
Hardcover with jacket, 344 pages, 29,5×28,5, 170 photographs