I tried to find a biography of Cartier-Bresson (no proper one exists), and came across Pierre Assouline’s Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography, which sounds more like a compendium of reminiscences from interviews (although I haven’t read it), thence to a short article by Peter Conrad from 2005 reviewing the Assouline book in The Guardian. There I found this:
Cartier-Bresson refused to venerate photographs, because they are thefts from life, mortified moments that kill the vitality they adore.
That’s a whole lot packed into one sentence, isn’t it? First that photographs are a way of adoring vitality (of life, of the world, I assume?), second that they are “thefts,” which seems strange because you don’t take anything when you take a photograph, third that they are “mortified moments” (he conjures Nabokov’s musings on the fact that a butterfly collector kills his butterflies, or at least they did during the great 19th-century taxonomical project, when specimen collecting was thought to be central to naturalism), and finally it implies that some unnamed cohort (other photographers? curators and critics? The audience for art photographs? We aren’t told) “venerates” photographs. And of course that our hero has rejected this stance of veneration. I count nine extraordinary assertions in that little sentence, which is beautiful to boot.
The funniest thing in the Peter Conrad article is this, which I’ve never heard before:
During the war he buried his Leica in a field in the Vosges, and left it there for three years while he continued to take photographs in his head, developing and displaying them in his memory.
After he exhumed the camera, he touchingly sought to reward it by arranging for it to be caressed by Marilyn Monroe’s bum. He was at work on the set of The Misfits; Marilyn arrived late for a meal, and moved towards the empty chair on which Cartier-Bresson had rested his lucky Leica. ‘Would you give it your blessing?’ he asked. She obliged, and with a wicked smirk pretended to sit on it, just brushing it with her behind.
That does sound like something he might do. And yes, he did, fairly often it seems, claim to take pictures in his head that he remembered. I do that too, and probably you do as well. One little problem, though: if both those things happened, they’d be two entirely separate events. The Misfits didn’t come out until 1961, long after the war, and it’s highly unlikely H.C.-B. was still photographing with the same camera he buried in that field. He started using the M3 as soon as it came out in 1953. But it makes a nice story.
Isn’t it odd that there has never been a scholarly biography of Cartier-Bresson? You’d think there would be by now, especially since so many vivid stories and entertaining anecdotes are connected with him. I wonder if any of you have read Pierre Assouline’s book. It’s not available as an e-book, unfortunately.
P.S. How was that for a clickbait title? I always feel like a fraud when I try to do that. It doesn’t come naturally to me.
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Rob Brodman: “I thought it was cute and accurate according to the article and not just click bait. You’re the real deal Mike. Don’t fret it.”