It doesn't interest me," Henri Cartier-Bresson says of photography. "It never has. The only thing that has ever been important is drawing." He is sitting at the living-room window of his fifth-floor Paris apartment, looking out over the Tuileries Gardens. It's almost exactly the same plunging view, he points out, that was painted by Monet and Cézanne. Cartier-Bresson abandoned photography in the mid-1970s and now prefers to discuss painting and drawing, his later passions. But even he can't deny the unforgettable images he captured during a half-century of photojournalism.
This week, a stunning retrospective of that work goes on display at the Bibliothèque National de France (BNF). An exhibit that is as much about the man as the pictures. The title, "De qui s'agit-il?" (Who is he really?), is a play on one of Cartier-Bresson's signature catchphrases, De quoi s'agit-il?, or What's it all about? "I didn't want the show to be just a collection of Henri's best photographs," says curator Robert Delpire, founding director of the Centre National de la Photographie and a close friend who has worked with Cartier-Bresson since 1952. "I wanted to try to explain the man behind the myth, and how he became who he is, to show the exceptional coherence of everything he's done." The show includes a raft of family-album pictures, memorabilia and snapshots of Cartier-Bresson as a PoW in World War II. "Luckily," says his wife, the photographer Martine Franck, "Henri kept almost everything," to which he adds: "I didn't keep anything. I just didn't throw anything away."
The retrospective coincides with the publication of a weighty companion book and with the opening of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, a permanent archive and exhibit center. "It was very difficult to get Henri to accept the idea of the foundation," says Delpire, who is director. "He didn't want it to be a museum, or a mausoleum. He only agreed after he was satisfied that it would be entirely open to other photographers and artists." Located on a tiny impasse in Montparnasse, the artists' quarter where Cartier-Bresson spent much of the late 1920s and '30s, the foundation boasts two 60-sq-m galleries, a library and archives.
Cartier-Bresson is a little frail now, at 94, slightly unsteady without his cane and hindered by a hearing problem that is at times severe. In conversation, he often looks to his wife for assistance, but he remains as feisty as ever. He hasn't lost his enthusiasm for painting, and is happy to talk about Picasso ("He was good until about 1905, then he squandered his talent") or contemporary artists he admires (Balthus, Sam Szafran, Avigdor Arikha).
But turn to the subject of photography, and the man who defined "the decisive moment" the instant when an image should be captured professes his famous indifference. Truth be told, Cartier-Bresson has returned to his trademark Leica cameras for a couple of assignments his 1994 portrait of France's beloved priest of the poor Abbé Pierre is in the retrospective but he essentially retired from his peripatetic photographic career nearly 30 years ago. He stopped, he said, when a longtime mentor, the Greek-born critic and art publisher Teriade, told him that he had gone as far as he could go in photography, and he agreed: "I knew I had nothing more to say. I felt it."
Since then, he has devoted his time to painting and drawing, working on life-model nudes in his small Parisian studio or copying in museums. A handful of his pencil copies are included in the retrospective, along with delightful 1976 photos by Franck that show him sketching in Paris' Museum of Natural History, calmly ensconced in a spiky forest of prehistoric skeletons with huge tusks and twisted horns.
A self-described "fine family's son gone bad," Cartier-Bresson grew up surrounded by art, and it has always been his first love. His father kept a sketchbook and his uncle Louis was a painter who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Villa Médicis. His wealthy Parisian thread-manufacturing family lived in a grand bourgeois neighborhood near the Europe Bridge, famously painted by Gustave Caillebotte.
The teenage Cartier-Bresson worked in the studio of society painter Jacques-Emile Blanche, and later studied with Cubist painter André Lhote, honing his geometrically precise eye for composition at the Louvre. By the 1920s, he was hanging out in Montmartre cafés with André Breton and the Surrealists. Breton, he says, "intimidated me. I was very much younger, and he was the Pope." But he was fascinated by Surrealist theories of automatic drawing and writing; of the importance of chance encounters and intuition; and above all, of rebellion. (He still claims to be an "anarchist, but not violent.") He also met the cream of bohemian Paris, from Jean Giraudoux to Max Ernst and Gertrude Stein.
In 1931, after a year hunting game on the Ivory Coast, Cartier-Bresson had a fateful chance encounter when he came across a photograph by the Hungarian Martin Munkacsi: three boys leaping in the waves of Lake Tanganyika. "I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant," he explained. He bought his first Leica and the odyssey began.
At first he worked on his own, prowling the streets of Paris, Italy, Spain and Mexico, "ready to pounce." An army photographer in World War II, he was captured in the Vosges Mountains in 1940, but managed to escape in 1943. In 1944, he was back in Paris to cover the Liberation. After the war, with the founding of the Magnum photo agency, he and his cohorts divided the world among themselves. At first, Cartier-Bresson got India and Southeast Asia, but over the next three decades, on assignment for Life, Paris Match and other magazines, he traveled without bounds, documenting Gandhi's funeral, the Berlin Wall, the deserts of Egypt, and China during the fall of the Kuomintang. Along the way he stopped long enough to take exceptional portraits of Jean-Paul Sartre, Picasso, Colette, Matisse, Ezra Pound and Alberto Giacometti.
"De qui s'agit-il?" is at the BNF until July 27. It will then tour Europe, starting in Barcelona before moving on to Berlin and Rome. As for the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, its inaugural show offers 90 works by other photographers Cartier-Bresson admires including Walker Evans, Robert Doisneau, Sebastião Salgado, as well as Cartier-Bresson's fellow founders of Magnum, David Seymour, Robert Capa and George Rodger.
But for all Cartier-Bresson's efforts to draw the spotlight off his own photographs, the retrospective will not let him get away with it. His powerful black-and-white, natural-light photographs formally rigorous, timeless and often enigmatic adorn the BNF's vast exhibit space. Cartier-Bresson once wrote that photographers need "a velvet hand and a hawk's eye." Here is the master class.