I watched this documentary as a sequence of five films on You-tube, uploaded by Rangemastergeneral (O’Bourne, 2001). The final two parts had no audio due to a copyright claim. I found the use of sub-titles with no audio slightly vexing.
I was first struck by the twinkle in his manner and his questions. Discussing his famous image “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris” taken in 1932, Cartier Bresson puts the success of the image entirely down to luck. “What matters is to look” he says, lamenting the photographers who simply identify what they’re photographing rather than seeking meaning in it. “Just be receptive and it happens” he said, pointing out that the image was made by pointing the lens through a hole in the fence; he couldn’t see anything through the viewfinder. I can understand the matter of looking. I struggle with the idea that receptiveness is all you need. You can tell from the film that he is well-educated, curious, presumably he put in a lot of work to learn the crafts of observation, of working his camera, of composition (he seems to rate form of lighting but I’m sure he still knew his lighting). Having faith in your observation (or optimism) is one thing, but I think it has to be backed up with a decent base of skills. Blind luck might work for one, maybe two, iconic images, but I don’t think you can produce an entire iconic body of work with nothing more than luck.
He had plenty to say that wasn’t about photography. “One can be old and outraged” he said. Thinking about this, I wonder what outrages him. He seems very reasoned in his approach; it was important to him that he stopped taking photographs when he had said everything he wanted to say. He comes across as intelligent, impartial, empathetic, enthused by love, all about the process rather than the result. Yet he is very critical about those images of his that he does not think are good enough. He does not observe with a detached eye so much as share with compassion and emotion. His comment “What’s important is what’s next! Erase the past!” made me think – so much photography is about the past, about freezing those moments rather than considering the future.
As he concentrates on drawing a portrait, I watch him blink, and think how much it reminds me of a camera shutter closing and opening.
I would like to learn more about him, his work and his life. I find that I struggle to engage with some of his work, it all feels a little bit “finished”. It documents the moment so perfectly that it is “done” – a slice of time in a perfect moment of humanity motion and geometry. Sometimes it feels as if there are limited places for me to go to in my mind. I found his portrait work more engaging, particularly those where the subjects are fully aware and complicit. Street photography seems to be a well-populated genre and I struggle to identify why I don’t care more for more of it. I have a similar problem with Ansel Adam’s landscape work. I can see the technical and artistic excellence (I think), but I don’t feel overly engaged or wish to know more. There’s definitely more learning for me to do here.
O’Bourne, R. (2001) Profils Henri Cartier Bresson l’Amour tout court. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/user/Rangefindergeneral (Accessed: 8 December 2016).