Henri Cartier-Bresson portraits


In the summer of 2010, I saw the gigantic retrospective of Henri Cartier-Bresson (C-B henceforth; 1908-2004) photographs at the Museum of Modern Art (then, later in the year, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). There is a very heavy coffee-table book from the show. I decided that I liked C-B’s portraits better than his photojournalism, especially with the acrid taste of his celebratory (de facto propaganda) photographs of the epic disaster that was Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” (delusionary programs that left more people dead than World War II had).

An Inner Silence: The Portraits of Cartier-Bresson includes shots from the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s, and does not include any dictators or other officials, French, Chinese, or other. (The inclusion of a photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru is the exception proving the rule.) It includes portraits of a number of French cultural figures with whom I am unfamiliar, along with a lot of painters and writers whom I revere (Roland Barthes, Pierre Bonnard, Albert Camus, Colette, Jean Genet, Alberto Giacometti, Michel Leiris, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Jacques Prévert) or at least those whose works I have some familiarity (iconic photos of Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, François Mauriac, Pablo Picasso, and a very unflattering one of a confused-looking Paul Claudel). Cocteau, Gide, and Hemingway are missing, but there is an interesting photo of William Faulkner with a pair of puppies, a very young Truman Capote, plus John Huston, Martin Luther King Jr., Carson McCullers, Arthur Miller, and Susan Sontag).

On the same trip, I was looking at platinum prints of Arthur Penn photographs that are being conserved in the National Gallery. I decided that unless I was interested in the subject of Penn’s portraits: they did not interest me as visual compositions. C-B’s are more interesting because they are less posed (or less obviously posed and the people photographed are in some environment/context. Both de Beauvoir and Sartre are outdoors—and occupy only a quadrant of the photograph (though the quadrant has been cropped in various other reproductions on book jackets, etc.).

The photo of André Breton with African carvings almost overwhelms the “subject.” The one of Alberto Giacometti in bed with an ornate headboard and baroque painting over that is astounding for its contrast to Giacomettti’s stripped-down art. Many (including Giacometti) have cigarettes in their hands. In most (the one of Nehru in a conspicuous exception: his hands are behind him) the hands as well as faces are visible.


C-B is famous for his claim of catching “the decisive moment” to photograph. The opening of his archives has shown that he chose the most arresting image rather than waiting to snap a photo, that is, he clicked away and then selected the one of “the decisive moment.” For portraits, the subject often did not know when he took the photographs (and the non-celebrity subjects may not have known they had been photographed). He did not like to photograph performers, because he felt they were too conscious of their images, though it’s difficult to believe that Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, both of whom were often photographed, both of whom wrote books about photography, were any less aware of their images and how to project the images they wanted than actors or singers. Besides which there is what seems a fairly unself-conscious photo of Marilyn Monroe (Isabelle Huppert is the only other actress who appears in the book, which is the catalog of a 2006 exhibition, the first one, at the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris.

The book includes a brief, discerning forward by Agnès Sira and a pretentious-starting but ultimately illuminating introduction by Jean-Luc Nancy. He takes up the matter of portraits being self-portraits and the attempt to portray the “inner person.” Many of the subjects look pensive, though I am not convinced that pensiveness is interiority…

The pages are not numbered, which makes finding which image is of who from the listing of the hundred in the back less than easy. I usually wanted to know when the photograph was made, information that is only at the back. The captions are only names, or places for those without names recognizable to French culturati.

The dimensions of the book are 8 ¼” x 9 ¾”. The reproductions have ample inside margins.


Also see my review of the documentary, “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye,” which mostly shows C-B looking at his old photographs, some of his paintings, and some museum installations, — and commenting rather minimally about what he tried to do.

©2010, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


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