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Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

There are musical compositions, written, usually, for piano or violin, so difficult of execution that part of what they are about is the extreme dexterity required to perform them. There are others of such oceanic depth that part of what they refer to must be the answering profundity of the artist capable of making it palpable through stirring performance, almost as if the performance were part of the evoked meaning. It is rare that both orders of gift are called upon in any single piece of music, and quite possibly they are antithetical: the set piece for virtuosi celebrates a power so beyond the common measure that its meaning must be correspondingly narrow, whereas a deep work, one feels, must answer to the most universal truths of human existence. The second kind of musical performance closes the gap between artist and audience, as if the artist but gives voice to the feelings that unite them. The first sort, by contrast, flaunts that gap: the virtuoso is viewed with amazement, like a great athlete or startling beauty, across a vast and hopeless divide. And this, too, may explain why the co-presence of these different powers is hardly to be expected in a single work.

Virtuosity may be found side by side with depth in some of the other arts, though the former sometimes drives the latter out. Thus spectacular displays of foreshortening or perspective can be obstacles to artistic profundity. And though there are artists capable of bravura and depth at once, like Rembrandt or Velazquez, it is unclear to what degree the two are interconnected even in admittedly great works. Most of what scholars dispute in Las Meninas would remain were we to subtract the acutely confident brushwork through which a piece of lace or a spaniel's ear are summoned out of flourishes and parries of pigment. Sargent was not a deep artist, though his brush was as athletic as any in the history of painting. And Picasso was a deep artist whose inventiveness made at least that order of gesture irrelevant. The mystery of Henri Cartier-Bresson's art as a photographer is not just that his images are dazzling and deep at once but that these polarities coincide in so remarkable a way that one feels they must be internally connected, that he could not be so powerful if he were not also brilliant. So, while his subject must in part be the singular authority of the photographic act, the other part of his subject--that to which we respond in the fullness of our humanity --must somehow connect with this, as if meaning and attack were made for one another.

As a young, fiercely romantic adventurer, Cartier-Bresson passed a year in Africa as a night hunter, using an acetylene lamp to immobilize his prey while he took his killing aim; and the hunter's exact reflexes, the perfect instantaneity of eye, mind and finger for which the high-speed rifle or the high-speed camera are metaphors, carry over in his work as a photographer. Each of his famous pictures refers internally to the act of shooting it, and each, for all its laconic title (Madrid, 1933; Marseilles, 1932; Mexico, 1934), is eloquent with the implied narrative of the successful kill. Each encapsulates the speed, the deadly accuracy, the total self-assurance and the patience, endurance and will of the huntsman as artist. I owe to Peter Galassi, curator of Cartier-Bresson: The Early Years (at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until November 29) and author of the illuminating catalogue that accompanies the show, the insight that the hand-held camera with the high-speed shutter transformed the condition and thence the content of photography (much, I suppose, as the invention of the escapement action transformed performance on the pianoforte and redefined the conditions of composition for that instrument). The old photographers, with their unwieldy equipment, their need for sustained illumination and a total immobility in their motifs, addressed a world of willed stasis, which the best of them--Atget, say--transformed into a kind of frozen poetry, cleaned of time and change. World and artist stood still for one another, the double immobility vesting the plate with an uncanny, platonic stillness. The hand-held camera liberated both parties to this transaction, allowing the world to be itself. Where the older photographers addressed immovable grandiosities --mountains, palaces, enthroned monarchs--the swift, unburdened sharpshooter of the modern instrument could take on the ephemeral, the transitory, the weightless.

The unmistakable evidence of an advance in the technological side of an art--the unmistakable evidence that technology counts for something in that art-- is that, initially, it becomes the subject of the art it revolutionizes. The discovery of perspective meant that its first users were enthusiasts who made each painting an occasion for demonstrating command over the new technology of distal recession, and they chose subjects that best enabled the demonstration to be made. The subject of the first moving pictures was movement itself: rushing streams, speeding trains, the stirring of boughs in the Bois de Boulogne. I sometimes wonder if the exhibition of gore in film today really testifies to an appetite for gruesomeness on the part of an audience, and not instead to the display of craft in the special-effects department, which, like the enthusiasm for distance as distance, movement as movement, will sooner or later cloy. In any case, the fast-action camera initially addressed fast action as such, the image calling attention to the virtues of the new technologies. A certain number of Cartier-Bresson's first works are simply about the arresting of a motion that could not be held, as in the famous shot of a man leaping a puddle behind the Gare St. Lazare. (I could not help smiling at the two torn posters in the background, advertising a concert by the piano virtuoso Alexander Brailowsky, playing Chopin, exactly the composer to enable his brilliance to come forward.) Had Cartier-Bresson remained obsessed with such tours de force, he would have gone down in history as a master of speed and light, but not the deep artist to whom we respond today. For this he needed a content that transcended and yet incorporated the sensitivity of the instrument. And what we have are not just so many examples of arrested motion but examples rather of transcribed revelations, as if the world itself opened, like a shutter, affording a fleeting glimpse, a flash, of otherwise hidden meanings.

It is in fact as though beneath the visual appearances of the familiar world there were another system of reality altogether, covert and disguised, but which stands to the surface world as the unconscious stands to conscious mental processes. Certain juxtapositions, certain startling associations of ordinary thing with ordinary thing, open up the deeper reality to the observation of an instant, after which the fissures close and we are restored to the commonplace. Cartier-Bresson, who after all had ingested the theory of a double layer of meaning and reality from the Surrealists, who in turn derived their theory and program from the thought of Freud, functioned, as a photographer, on two interpenetrating levels of appearance. Freud famously saw in dreams, jokes and free association the aperture into the primary processes of the unconscious system, which the Surrealists of course treated as the creative substratum of the mind. Cartier-Bresson's work is filled with the power and menace of such associations and puns.

Consider one of his masterpieces, Madrid, 1933, which shows a group of men beneath the wall of a mysterious building. The wall is punctuated by windows of various sizes, small in proportion to the wall itself, and seemingly distributed randomly across its surface; it is impossible to infer the internal architecture of the building from the evidence of these openings. Indeed, the wall looks like a rampart of some sort, its original purpose subverted by squatters on the other side who punched holes here and there, opening it to the flat expanse that is the foreground of the picture. The array of square windows conveys the sense of meaning, much in the way in which, though the analogy is forced and anachronistic, the holes in a punch card imply that with the right device the card could yield a piece of information. Or the squares dance across the surface as if in a ready-made counterpart to "Broadway Boogie-Woogie.' Or the tiny squares look like the square notes in Gregorian notation, as if someone had composed a chant in the medium of windows. I have often wondered what the building was and whether it still stands, and though only an eye driven by certain beliefs and attitudes could have been sensitive to its overtones, it could have been the motif of a still photograph made by a heavy camera, requiring a tripod. But at the bottom of the picture is the crowd of men and boys--I count fourteen--whose bodies are sheered off, in many cases, by the bottom edge of the picture so that we are conscious, mainly, of the rhythm of their heads, which echoes the rhythm of the windows, like the accompaniment, in another clef, of treble harmonies. Or it is like two voices in an intricate fugue of heads and windows. Or it is as if heads and windows were different forms of the same thing, or metaphors for one another--and in at least two cases one has to look carefully to see whether a certain dark shape is head or window. Yet this is not some formal exercise; the heads and windows are too insistently in resonance with one another for us not to seek a meaning our rational self denies can be there. The image is clotted with magical possibilities, and it seems to force an opening into the mind of the artist if not the mind of the world-- one can barely tear oneself away from the riddles it poses. The entire exhibition is a set of traps for the interpretive resources of the eye, but Madrid, 1933 has the power of a great musical questioning.

Andre Breton, the relentless theoretician and dogmatist of Surrealism, once said that "Automatic writing is a true photography of thought.' By that, I believe he meant that the absurd illogic of automatic writing replicates a corresponding rhythm of thought, recording the creative pulses of the subrational mind. If the real--or better, the surreal --world has the same dislogic the Surrealists attributed to the mind, then a true photography of it would record the magic to which rationality is blind. There can be no doubt that the Surrealists characteristically used photography to insinuate this, using the premises of optical exactitude to demonstrate the fantastic exterior of the after-all-not-so-ordinary world. But often they achieved this by flagrant manipulations and montages, or by using as motifs things they found rich with their own silly meanings. Cartier-Bresson's photographs do not, characteristically, look surrealistic, in part, I think, because he sought the surreal in natural conjunctions that have to be seen as connoting the kinds of things the Surrealists instead built into their own vocabularies. The consequence is that he managed to break through the crusts of habitual perception with images so astonishingly fresh that one's response to them, however familiar they have become, is composed in part of a sense of one's own visual pedestrianism. We feel that between our eyes and the world out there, cataracts of habit have formed, and our own vision is dirty, clouded, oblique. So the surrealism is invisible. What we have instead is the sense of restoration to our true powers and the objective wonder of a world we have taken too much for granted. The photographs of Cartier-Bresson come to us in the form of marvelous gifts; one feels cleansed and empowered by them, and enlarged.
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Title Annotation:Museum of Modern Art, New York
Author:Danto, Arthur Coleman
Publication:The Nation
Date:Oct 3, 1987
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