JibJabbing for artists' rights
Inside Wikipedia

Camera Lucida

Henri Cartier-BressonWSJ -- The world remembers Henri-Cartier Bresson and the wonderful years of images composed through the lens of his camera. Bernard-Henri Levy puts the thoughts to print.

The first time I saw Henri Cartier-Bresson was in 1989, in Paris, during a street demonstration against the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.

I can still see him, lost in the crowd, very tall, very elegant, blue eyes, red scarf, the very silhouette of a bird of prey, dreaming, grouching, his indignation contained, the dry passion of an old anarchist-on-a-tightrope.

I can still see him, in his hand the legendary old Leica that, once in a while, very quickly, he would bring to his eye: he had at the time, and for quite a while already, given up photography; I'm not a photographer anymore, he would say; I'm a watercolorist, an aquarellist, a painter, anything you want, but I'm absolutely not a photographer anymore. Sure, but the Leica was still right there, hunting for the right angle, a reflection, an unknown face, a smile, a cry -- never better than on that day did I understand to which extent the little black box had become, for him, another eye, a third eye, a physical extension of his own, the quasi-Kantian frame that enabled him to dissect reality, and to see it.

To take pictures? No. To see. To make the world discover, through photography, a vision that was, for him, neither natural nor given.

The world isn't visible, thought Cartier; it is never pure spectacle offered to the innocence of a simple glance; and if photography exists, if it is to have meaning and vocation, it must be to make present that which, without it, would steal itself away.

Afterwards, we saw each other again.

We spoke of the China he loved so much, though maybe less passionately than India at Gandhi's cremation, of which he left us unforgettable images.

We discussed his memories of the first Mao, of the last days of the Kuomintang, of his encounters with Edgar Snow.

We talked about the extraordinary adventure, in 1947, with Robert Capa, George Rodger and "Chim" Seymour -- the creation of Magnum, the first and the only agency where photographers were kings.

He recounted to me his true great era, the one that would change him forever, and which he shared with the surrealists: Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, the brothels of Paris with Mandiargues, automatic writing and his own theory of "the decisive instant" -- Cartier-Bresson, yes, is the photographer who had the most radical theories about the relationship between taking a picture, improvisation, and randomness; he would one day call it "catching it red-handed," and he owes this, obviously, to his surrealist affiliation.

He also described what he owed, he, so deeply French, to the European side of America -- the great 1933 exhibition, in New York, organized by the gallery owner Julien Lévy; the colored savageness of his 1934 Mexican photos; "Life," which he said would send him to places -- Cuba -- where an American photojournalist couldn't go; Beaumont Newhall who, thinking him dead, offered to display him in the Moma as early as 1947; the travels with Capote; Peter Galassi's book; the encounters with Paul Bowles, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner.

How come Susan Sontag, in her texts on photography, doesn't talk about him?

Nor, to my knowledge, in France, does Roland Barthes in his admirable "Camera Lucida"?

The way he had, maybe, of being in the world but not of it.

The manner in which he was, all at once and with just as much energy, bewilderingly alive and yet already nearly dead.

The side of him like Marcel Duchamp, whom he resembled in many ways -- in the first place by that same familiar invisibility, that unending retreat, that taste for witnessing throughout his life, endlessly, for 40 years, the spectacle of his own funeral.

And the inimitable style, the art of staging and of framing, the "no one enters here if he is not a Surveyor" inherited from the staunchest Platonism, the rejection of the blurry, those sharply focused suns, the wit for the anecdote and the right line, the secret blackness of white, the milky whiteness of the gloom, all of which belonged to painting before photography.

The contemporaries of Cartier-Bresson?

He said it himself. Uccello more than Edouard Boubat. Piero della Francesca or, at most, Mondrian, before Brassaï or Diane Arbus. The absolute photographer.

Bernard-Henri Levy -- "Camera Lucida: Remembering Henri Cartier-Bresson"