- Cartier-Bresson: Between Autobiography and Image
Henri Cartier Bresson’s The Decisive Moment (1952) is, as is well known, preceded by an introduction, written by the photographer himself. In this short text Cartier-Bresson presents us with a kind of artistic manifesto, which is clearly meant both to enable us to make sense of his photographs, and to serve as a kind of plan for what small-format reportage photography can or should be in an era of mass circulation photography magazines, frivolous and ignorant camera buffs, and color film hailed as an esthetic panacea.
The introduction opens on a tone of mythological autobiography. The photographer, we are told, first started as a “serious” amateur by attempting to ape Atget: an antique large format camera, static subjects—“Art with a capital ‘A”’ (1–2). This is the first stage: engaging in art for art’s sake, the photographer attempts to be a “jack of all trades,” developing, printing, doing everything himself. Yet he is temperamentally unsuited for this, and, in a childish way, he “got mad when the images didn’t come out right on the paper” (2). Atget-style involvement in a Gesamtkunstwerk died, we can conclude, in the ruins of World War I.
This period of (one assumes) nature photography and juvenile estheticism ends when, abruptly, Cartier-Bresson leaves for Africa at the age of twenty-two. Africa, the colonies, becomes a place of artistic transition: the photographer purchases “on the Ivory Coast” a “miniature” camera, a Krauss, made in France, “of a kind I have never seen before or since . . . which used film of a size that 35 mm would be without the sprocket holes” (2). He has switched to small-format, then, but his camera [End Page 631] is little more than a curiosity, an artifact of French colonial trade; it is slow (the Krauss IKA, in fact, had no film-wind shutter-cocking linkage) and is associated with a kind of material amorphousness (no sprocket holes). 1 Fittingly enough, Cartier-Bresson discovers, on his return to France, suffering from “blackwater fever,” that the hitherto undeveloped photographs he has taken with the Krauss are ruined: “damp had got into the camera . . . and all my photographs were embellished with the superimposed patterns of giant ferns” (2).
This moment sets the stage for Cartier-Bresson’s almost miraculous emergence as a photographer. He’s had the experience of the colonies, and he has, so to speak, internalized it both physically and photographically. His body is carrying the near-fatal jungle fever, and his photographs themselves have merged with the very jungles he has photographed (the “giant ferns”). The perceived leaden formlessness of Africa (“I lived in the bush, isolated” he writes), the art-destroying “contingency” of nature (as Sartre called it), the “en soi,” send him reeling, like Conrad’s Marlowe, back to the mother country, to Marseille, hoping for recovery (2).
It comes in the form of the Leica. This camera, smaller and much faster than the Krauss, and aggressively armed with its spiky sprockets, “becomes an extension of my eye.” No longer is the camera the passive receptor, the victim, of a voracious nature: now it is the instrument of human will: “I have never been separated from it since I found it.” And the helpless, “isolated” fever sufferer now recovers and becomes a stalker running free in the social landscape: “I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life—to preserve life in the act of living” (2). The colonial existence of the trapper, linked to the natural force of the predator (the photographer “pounces” like a lion), has now been transformed into an esthetic force. The experience of the colonies has not been rejected so much as it’s been sublated: the passivity and sickness unto death of the European intellectual when he enters into contact with an uncivilized nature has been transformed, through the dialectical merging of opposites—the will of the colonialist trapper and the cunning and speed of the victim-predator—into a new European artistic practice. Colonialism, internalized and raised to a higher level, has returned just in...