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  • Henri Cartier-Bresson at Age Ninety-Four: Turning the Lens Inward
  • Nicholas Fox Weber (bio)

There is a single line from my three hours with Henri Cartier-Bresson in the winter of 2003 that I hear in my head just about every single day. Why the remark of the photographer, who was then ninety-four years old, persists in replaying itself like a mantra has to do, possibly, more with my own psyche than his, but I assure you that I recall it all the time, with such insistence that it has become part of my everyday life. Clearly it speaks to an issue that is very personal to me, but I am convinced it is also a pathway into our understanding the sensibility and deepest desires of the extraordinary photographer who made such powerful images of human life that many people see civilization, all over the world, differently, and more compassionately, as a result of them.

Cartier-Bresson’s remark, the first time he made it, simply baffled me. I smiled politely as if I understood completely, but I was absolutely clueless. We had been discussing, first, his initial foray into photography in Côte d’Ivoire. A bit later, I had asked him about Langston Hughes; I love Hughes’s poetry, and knew they had lived together for a while in the 1930s. But the conversation was not linear; it rambled, and I was simply doing my best to follow and steer at the same time. Then, making it clear with his raised eyebrows and intense regard that he was about to issue a major statement, that he was giving me a key that would guide me to his ultimate self, Cartier-Bresson said to me, “You know, I can pass for white.”

Maybe the reason five of those words –the “I can pass for white” is what counts, the “you know” a form of politesse—are so tantalizing is both because I am, at times, totally convinced that I understand what Cartier-Bresson was telling me, and at other moments I return to the confusion I experienced when he uttered the provocative statement for the first time. The [End Page 153] photographer repeated it, verbatim, ten more times during our three hours together. I was taking notes, both during our initial conversation and then at lunch, and after the second “I can pass for white,” which I transcribed as he said it, I simply would put a checkmark in the top right corner of my notebook page, which is why I know the total was eleven.

Each time he said it, Cartier-Bresson, who was one of those people who in old age had the look of a mischievous child, his skin almost translucent and very fair and pale, glanced at me making sure that he had made an impact. He patently elicited a sense of surprise, but he also, I was convinced, was saying “I can pass for white” because he felt I understood this elusive gambit.

I indicated in my mannerly way that I grasped his meaning. I am deft at feigning comprehension, and even someone as astute as Henri Cartier-Bresson either did not see through me, or, like his friend the painter Balthus, cared only about making an impact, and keeping himself as the one everyone wondered about. I expected the photographer to be mysterious. But I could not tell if “I can pass for white” was concealing or revealing a fact of vital importance.

I

I had long wanted to meet Henri Cartier-Bresson. Having written a biography of Balthus and run the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation for many years, I adored his pictures of people whose work obsessed me. I knew Balthus and his wife Setsuko quite well, and knew the Alberses extremely well; I also had written a book in which Lincoln Kirstein is a major figure, and Kirstein was another of Cartier-Bresson’s subjects with whom I had spent time. I wanted to hear whatever Cartier-Bresson might tell me about these individuals, because, with all of them, I felt that he had captured, to a remarkable degree, the essence of their very strong, and very different...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1085-7931
Print ISSN
0065-860X
Pages
pp. 153-178
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-25
Open Access
No
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