Raphaël O’Byrne’s film/interview L’amour tout court can be found on YouTube with English subtitles and split into five parts. Because of a copyright issue with part of the soundtrack, parts 4 and 5 are muted, but we are still able to hear Henri Cartier-Bresson’s (“HCB”) voice in parts 1-3. The film can be found as a single entity but the whole soundtrack is muted.
In the film we meet HCB as an old man, age 92 or 93, reminiscing and perhaps rambling a bit (this could be the result of editing) over a full life. His speech is slow and he is occasionally vacant or on the verge of tears as if a memory is particularly hard to reach, or painful. An example is the assassination of Gandhi, minutes after HCB had been discussing death imagery in a photograph with him.
Although one of the greats of photography, Assouline (2005) sees HCB as an artist, first and last, who expressed himself with a camera for a time. In the film (O’Byrne 2001, part 3 3:00) HCB tells us that he has not taken a photograph for a long time and prefers to draw. However, much of the same principles apply, “You look, you transcribe” and you have to know where to stop, where any more would detract from the image (HCB in O’Byrne 2001, part 3)
It is in parts 1 and 2 that we learn most about HCB’s philosophy of photography, through a series of quotes:
Most of them don’t look. They press the button… (part 1, 1:27)
This is about seeing and composing the image before taking it. HCB composed in the viewfinder and instructed that his images should be presented without cropping.
It’s always luck. It’s luck that matters… You have to be receptive, that’s all… Like the relationship between things, it’s a matter of chance. If you want it you get nothing. Just be receptive and it happens (part 2, 0:55)
HCB is being modest. I am reminded of the quotation (attributed by Gary Player to Jerry Barber) “The more I practice, the luckier I get”. HCB had trained his powers of observation; elsewhere in part 2 we have a third-party description (Yves Bonnefoy?) of the taking of a photograph of children in a covered square. The narrator had not even noticed children there; HCB snapped the image as he walked, without slowing down. While others are distracted or unobservant, HCB was on the lookout and ready to react.
I go for form more than light. Form comes first.(part 2, 2:11)
Sensitivity, intuition, sense of geometry. You have it or you don’t. Even now, that’s all that interests me (part 2, 4:30)
HCB’s images are composed (possibly ‘designed’ is a better word) in the viewfinder, which is why he would not crop them post-capture.
In parts 4 and 5, we learn of the influence of the Far East and Buddhism. In parallel, Assouline (2005, 127) records that a great influence on HCB’s approach was a copy of ‘Zen and the art of archery‘ presented to him by Georges Braque on D-Day 1944. This approach is seen in the way that HCB could apparently fade into the background so that his subjects didn’t see him, even at emotional times such as the Japanese actor’s funeral.
Overall a fascinating insight into the man and his philosophy. I watched it twice and was inspired to read Assouline’s biography as a result.
Assouline, P. (2005) Henri Cartier-Bresson: A biography [English translation] London: Thames and Hudson
O’Byrne, R.(2001) Henri Cartier-Bresson L’amour tout court (with English subtitles) [online] at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL707C8F898605E0BF