A morning in Paris with Cartier-Bresson

January 12th, 2010 by

Decisive Moments

2010 started with a whimper, a cough and then a near hospitalization with what was probably H1N1. Thus I have not been able to continue my plan to write a series of posts/interviews about the changing economics of a photographer’s life. Instead I decided to recall a wonderful meeting with one of photography’s giants and share what I learned from Henri Cartier-Bresson one morning in his Paris apartment overlooking the Tuileries.

I was introduced to Cartier-Bresson by Robert Kirschenbaum who was, at that time, the Japanese Magnum representative through his company Pacific Press Services in Tokyo. HCB was one of the four founding members of Magnum and by the time I met him he was in his 70’s, an authentic national treasure in France and admired throughout the world.

Bob and I were scheduled to meet on the Rue de Rivoli at 10 in front of the apartment. We entered an elaborate and tiny cast iron open cage elevator to gain access to the upper floor rooms where HCB lived while in Paris. Henri himself opened the door and ushered us into a modest space. We settled around a small table and Henri served us expresso. There was none of his work hanging on the walls, as I recall, but he was very pleased to show us a small table that his friend, the brother of the sculptor, Alberto Giacometti, had made for him.

Cartier-Bresson was a slender, handsome man with compelling eyes. He was smart and stories came spilling out of him for hours. After the second or third round of expresso, I noticed that he had stopped serving himself although he returned again and again to the kitchen to refresh our cups. I asked why he only had partaken of one small cup of coffee. He responded that there had been an incident the previous summer in the south of France where he and his wife, the photographer Martine Franck, had a home. He had walked down to the village cafe for his morning coffee and newspaper and after a few cups stood to go home. At this point he fainted dead away.

A commotion immediately occurred as friends and strangers alike gathered around to see what had happened to the great Cartier-Bresson. He was apparently out for a while as there was time for the local newspaper to fetch a reporter/photographer down to the cafe. After all, the first images of the death of Cartier-Bresson would surely be a scoop. At this point in the telling of the story, HCB paused with an amused look on his face and said, “My friend the proprietor of the restaurant rushed over and took the camera from the newspaper fellow yelling, ‘Cartier-Bresson does not allow himself to be photographed while he is alive! He certainly doesn’t want someone to photograph him while he is trying to die!'”  (HCB  went on to live many more years.)

I left that day with many more stories and a print enscribed to me by Cartier-Bresson. He had handed me a box of prints from which I chose his photo of Giacometti crossing a street in Paris  because Giacometti was Cartier-Bresson’s close friend and I was privileged to have met the famous man thanks to the efforts of my dear friend, Bob.

Cartier-Bresson describes that the “decisive moment” was sometimes the result of luck and that “light is like a perfume” in this video.