Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 1, 2004
Philippe Arbaïzar Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, the Image, and the World; A Retrospective London: Thames and Hudson, 2003. 432 pp.; 39 color ills.; 593 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0500542678)

The fascination of the late Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, both the pleasures of the photographs and the interest of his project for those who think about the problems of art, lies in his concept of the “decisive moment.” His work exemplifies a central mode of photographic practice—the snapshot—but the snapshot is not just a way of making pictures. It is also a clear demonstration of a technical determinant of the medium. All photographs, from the staged, long-exposure tableau in the studio to the digital montage, are on some level snapshots. Instantaneity forms the core of photography. The snapshot taken in the street, catching people as they move and capturing history as it unfolds, is simply one capacity of the medium brought forward and displayed with what might be called a modernist economy. Though plenty of other photographers have worked in the same way, using the same equipment and making very good photographs, Cartier-Bresson has come to stand for one important kind of practice; that practice raises some important aesthetic questions.

From an art-historical point of view, the work of Cartier-Bresson forces us to ask how the decisive moment is framed, in other words, how it becomes decisive. Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, the Image and the World may be the first to address this matter, although it does so in a somewhat schematic way. The bulk of the book is comprised of the six hundred or so illustrations, so the accompanying texts are necessarily brief, often more like sketches for what could be much more comprehensive studies.

The most germane of the seven essays is Claude Cookman’s study of Cartier-Bresson’s professional practice, that is to say, the author examines the way that the photographer selected groups of photos, combined with captions of his own devising, to compose his published photo essays and books. This is a crucial point: we cannot contemplate the pictures singly but must see them in the context for which they were made, which means simply the printed page but more generally the narrative they create. The notion is obvious and should not surprise the scholarly reader, yet it seems as if the research itself has not yet been done. Cookman’s essay is full of interesting observations, but even though he says repeatedly that we must go back to the published reportages, or photo essays, he does not actually do so himself. The author provides neither case study nor any concrete examples of what we can learn from making a close reading of Cartier-Bresson’s works, which, Cookman insists, are in fact not single photos but rather more complex entities that include many images, often in temporal sequences, and words. The illustrations in this book are grouped by topic and roughly by date, but there are no integral examples of reportage. Over the years Cartier-Bresson has been actively involved in all aspects of the many exhibitions of his work, and he has always stressed the experience of the individual shot, the subjective dimension of the decisive moment. This puts pressure on his critics and curators to stress the discrete image, and presumably has also affected the form of this book. But the artist’s own interests should not be absolutely determining; all the material is publicly available for such a study.

Cookman has combed the archives at Magnum, the photography agency that Cartier-Bresson founded with Robert Capa and David Seymour, among others. The author reviews the photographer’s correspondence, contact sheets, and manuscripts, but he gives us only his conclusion, namely that a lot of planning went into Cartier-Bresson’s assignments. Apparently, the decisive moment is not a chance event but a product of wise foresight and careful planning augmented by lightfootedness on the ground—improvisation abetted by good preparation. A careful look through one of Cartier-Bresson’s photo essays with these points in mind would be most illuminating. While the experience is not actualized here, this book will serve as the first resource for anyone who wants to do that kind of work—the bibliography mentions over five hundred reportages.

This volume also documents Cartier-Bresson’s books, which are generally better known than his magazine assignments. The art world, which in recent years has been infatuated with large-scale photography, forgets that the history of the photograph is largely the history of the photo book. What is new of course is the massive size of the contemporary photograph in the gallery, not the gallery display itself. Before the advent of this new photo-art there was always something unsatisfying about photos on gallery walls; it can sometimes be tedious to stand and look, the more so as small prints demand a close attention. The freedom and comfort of the photo book—in its speed and slowness, in the way that a reader can control his or her pace—has something to do with how a photograph can be something small and ordinary and at the same time aesthetically important and beautiful. The artistic importance of the photograph is in some way enabled by, even produced by, the book—and it has yet to be determined how this works. Nevertheless, this retrospective anthology, at once a good selection of individual photos and a comprehensive reference catalogue, offers the beginnings for such an inquiry. Scattered among the chronologically grouped black-and-white photos are color reproductions of the book covers, an attractive touch that is yet more tantalizing than edifying.

The other essays in the book are interesting, although perhaps not as forward looking as Cookman’s. Best are those of Jean Clair and Peter Galassi. Clair presents a very good meditation on the decisive moment, which he develops through the classical Greek concept of kairos. This thesis is very suggestive and opens up the aesthetics of the snapshot both poetically and philosophically. It is a good example of a belles-lettres kind of scholarship, more imaginative than rigorously historical. Clair’s article is the only one that seems to be the right length; the ideas are developed fully. Galassi too has interesting things to say about the decisive moment. He distinguishes between the shot that extracts a moment from the flow of events and one that brings with it, like trailing roots, all the connections to an ongoing history. But his piece seems a tad too brief—a few interesting thoughts that deserve to be further developed.

Other contributions, such as the survey of Cartier-Bresson’s work in film by Serge Toubiana, are workmanlike but not so possessed of ideas. Philippe Arbaïzar’s article briefly examines a few crucial exhibitions by the artist; it is informative but largely descriptive. The piece by Jean Leymarie on the drawings that Cartier-Bresson devoted himself to after he retired from photography in 1973 is dispensable, as are the drawings themselves, although I am not happy to say it. (The drawings of the French–Israeli painter Avigdor Arikha are the closest parallel that comes to mind.)

The brevity of the articles seems deliberate, as many more pages are given over to the photos. The result is something like a coffee-table book with bibliography—not quite a full-fledged scholarly effort. Yet such a criticism seems a little beside the point: the book has a lot to offer. For example, Cartier-Bresson’s involvement with film is new to me. It is fascinating to find out that he acted, along with Georges Bataille, in Jean Renoir’s Une Partie de campagne (1936) and in La Règle du jeu (1939), and that the photographer made two documentary films in the United States in 1969. I am also happy to learn more about the full scope of Cartier-Bresson’s books and reportages.

The decisive moment is a concept that we must come to terms with because it is still significant to contemporary art photography, although little discussed. This book proves that if we are going to achieve an adequate understanding of this important idea, we will first have to examine aspects of the history of photography that much of the art world is not currently thinking about—the book, the photo essay, the small black-and-white print, and the professional role of the photographer in the twentieth century.

Robert Linsley
Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Arts, University of Waterloo