WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2006 Copyright The New York Times
PARIS Henri Cartier-Bresson wasn’t always more famous than those he photographed, but by midcareer he was certainly as renowned as many of the literary, artistic, fashion and movie figures before him. How did this affect the power relationship between recorder and recorded in what Cartier-Bresson liked to call a “duel without rules?”
A new show of his portraits, running through April 9 – his first solo exhibition at the Cartier-Bresson Foundation here since his death at 95 in August 2004 – touches on this question in its very subtitle, “The Inner Silence of a Consenting Victim,” borrowed from one of the photographer’s phrases.
Of inner silence, there is plenty. Even when posed, people seem caught in moments of reflection. But there is also external silence: chatty though he could be in private, it is hard to imagine Cartier-Bresson engaging in light banter before getting down to business. Of the 85 portraits in the show, only a couple of anonymous women offer faint smiles.
In that sense, perhaps the duel is over who sets the rules: the photographer decides when to press the shutter, but the subject can decide how much he or she reveals.
Martine Franck, Cartier-Bresson’s widow, accompanied her husband to just one – probably atypical – portrait session, that of the poet Ezra Pound in Venice in 1971, a year before his death at 87.
“There was a tremendous, heavy silence,” recalled Franck, herself a photographer. “Pound didn’t say a word. He just seemed to condemn the world with his eyes. We were there for about 20 minutes. I stayed to one side. I huddled in a corner. Henri took seven pictures.”
What Pound felt is impossible to know. Years earlier, he had been interned for mental illness, and in 1960, he lapsed into long periods of depressive silence and stopped writing. And yet, in the image selected by Cartier-Bresson, Pound’s wild hair, burning eyes and tense hands seem to speak volumes about an old man raging against the dying of the light.
In most cases, consent was implicit in a person’s agreement to sit for a portrait. Here, contact sheets would presumably offer some evidence of how these sessions progressed. Nonetheless, the pictures in this show illustrate how Cartier-Bresson often staged his portraits, either through stylized composition or by using props.
Thus, a large cross appears above the head of the painter Georges Rouault. With AndrÃˆ Breton, photographed behind a desk covered with “primitive” art, an obsidian Maya face mirrors Breton’s profile. Alberto Giacometti lies in bed beneath a painting of the Virgin and Child. The composer Igor Markevitch’s folded hands repeat those in a painting behind him.
With some subjects, Cartier-Bresson said he tried to go unnoticed while they worked. “When I went to see Matisse, I’d sit in a corner without moving,” he recounted. “No one spoke. It was as if I didn’t exist.”
Cartier-Bresson was only 35 when he photographed Matisse. That same year, 1943, he visited another painter, Pierre Bonnard.
“Bonnard’s nephew told him that two dealers wanted to photograph him,” Franck said, “and Bonnard said, no, because ‘little’ Cartier-Bresson was coming and he needed to earn his living. Henri had just escaped from a German labor camp.”
The picture of Bonnard in this show suggests that he had little interest in being photographed. In contrast, in other portraits, the calm, even passive expression of the sitters suggests they felt totally at ease in the photographer’s presence.
But Cartier-Bresson, who coined the phrase “the decisive moment,” also caught people off guard. Of an appointment he had with the French physicists IrÃ‹ne and FrÃˆdÃˆric Joliot-Curie in 1944, Cartier-Bresson recalled: “I rang the bell, the door opened, I shot, I then said good morning. It wasn’t very polite.”
How natural can a portrait ever be? The image of the philosopher Roland Barthes in this exhibition shows him almost consuming the lens. “Very often (too often in my view) I was aware of being photographed,” Barthes observed. “So from the moment I feel I am in the camera’s eye, everything changes: I begin to pose, I immediately create a different body, I change even before the image.”
In the late 1960s, Cartier-Bresson abandoned the photojournalism that had taken him around the world and devoted himself to his first love, drawing. But he continued to do portraits. And by then, his “victims” – the actress Isabelle Huppert; Franck; his daughter, MÃˆlanie; several friends – were definitely consenting.
By then too, of course, the “duel” was over: the importance of the portrait was now its photographer, not his subject.