On Henri Cartier-Bresson:
A Conversation with Peter Galassi
“A perfectly straightforward photograph transforms what it describes, and the great achievement of his early work was to cultivate and push that transformation as far as it could go.”
“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression,” said Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004). Armed with a Leica that he likened to a sketchbook, he had a keen eye for eventfulness and the ability to capture the essence of an unfolding episode in a single astonishing image. “He’s one of the great artists of the twentieth century,” says Peter Galassi, who curated “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,” the landmark 2010 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In a recent conversation, Galassi discussed Cartier-Bresson’s extraordinary career of decisive moments.
When did you first meet Cartier-Bresson?
I first met him in Paris in conjunction with the 1987 retrospective [at the Museum of Modern Art]. I was very lucky. It was the institution I worked for that he felt deeply grateful to. That’s what led him to agree to my proposal to do the show. Otherwise he would have thrown me out, I think.
What was he like as a person?
He had a lot of nervous energy that he poured into his work, and he was incredibly intelligent in all of the different ways. He wasn’t an academic, but he’d probably read all the books. He had a great human intuition. If he walked into a room with fifteen people in it, whether or not he spoke the language—although he also spoke a lot of languages—in ten or fifteen minutes, just by observing, he knew who was the powerful one, who was the weak one, who was the charlatan, who was the vain one, who was the ambitious one. He could figure people out.
Do you think that quality factors in his work—his incisive portraits, for example?
Yes, absolutely—plus the fact that he was so interesting. One of the reasons that the people in his pictures seem so alive is that they were interested in him. He was a fascinating person. And there are a lot of pictures that aren’t exactly portraits, but what’s going on is his sense of who this person is within the social hierarchy and then what their personality is.
What were his early influences?
He was born into the unfolding of one of the great artistic moments in the West ever—the work of Matisse and Picasso and Mondrian and others was all around him. But in the end, his talent, there’s no explaining it. There’s just enjoying it.
How do you think Cartier-Bresson was affected by Surrealism?
He was very clear himself on that—Surrealism sort of gave shape to his instinct to rebel. So what was most important, the meaning for him, was about life, not about art. In terms of his own art, there are little principles [that derive from Surrealism] like when you put together two things that don’t have anything do with each other, you’re going to get a spark of activity between the two of them. But above all, it was that a perfectly straightforward photograph transforms what it describes, and the great achievement of his early work was to cultivate and push that transformation as far as it could go. Surrealism was the foundation for that discovery.
The year 1932 is quite significant in Cartier-Bresson’s career. What’s happening during that year?
It was when everything fell into place. He made interesting photographs before that, but 1932 is when he completely embraced the Leica and one terrific picture started coming after another. And remember, he was 24 at that time.
How did he view his assignment-based photojournalism in relation to other work he was doing? You’ve noted in the past that he hated the words “profession” and “career.”
But he did have a career—after [World War II]. The war had been very tough on him—not as tough as on some other people, but he had been a prisoner of war for nearly three years. And the world had gone through cataclysm. So he decided that he was going to use this incredible talent to do something else. This was when the photographically illustrated magazines had risen to their height of importance and influence. They got started in the ‘20s and ‘30s and they were in their height ten or fifteen years after the war. Cartier-Bresson, partly under the influence of his friend Robert Capa, decided that he was going to pour his talent into, in effect, photojournalism. Magnum was the creation of Capa, but Cartier-Bresson very much identified with it. It then became and remained for a long time this close-knit band of friends, so it was very important to him.
How would you characterize the development or evolution of his career? Are there things you see changing or becoming more prominent as time goes on?
There’s the early work that’s a perfect gem in itself and that is quite different from what happened after the war. After the war, what he most loved, was in effect pre-industrial culture—cultures that had not been destroyed by modern industry and above all modern consumer culture, which he hated. And the style doesn’t change at all for those kinds of things from the late ‘40s on for the rest of his life. But what I was surprised to discover, because it had not been featured in most of his books and exhibitions and so forth, is that in the course of the ‘60s when in fact he did engage, describe, explore our world now—the world of consumer culture—the style did change a little bit, because of what he was photographing. It got looser and messier, closer to what we associate with Garry Winogrand or Lee Friedlander.
Are there aspects of Cartier-Bresson’s work that remain unexplored or unknown?
There are wonderful projects—exhibitions and books—to come. I think that the most interesting and rewarding Cartier-Bresson projects now will be on aspects of his career, because it’s too big. It’s worth trying to take a whole retrospective look at see the total shape of the career, but a show like that, no matter how big and ambitious, is going to have to leave out all kinds of wonderful stuff, and you can see that wonderful stuff when you focus on individual pieces of [his career]. I think these are mostly geographical, but you could do a book on peasants and a book on rich people, or a book on shopkeepers. There are other ways to slice through the career, so that it isn’t just the pictures we know already. There are lots and lots of other wonderful pictures.