Part 1: Henri Cartier-Bresson: Living and Looking

Part one of Sheila Turner-Seed’s incredible interview with Magnum founder Henri Cartier-Bresson on The New York Times Lens. It has a deep principles of Henri Cartier-Bresson photography that any photographer should read it. Here I’m reposting the interview for my followers.

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The journalist and filmmaker Sheila Turner-Seed interviewed Henri Cartier-Bresson in his Paris studio in 1971 for a film-strip series on photographers that she produced for Scholastic. After her death in 1979 at the age of 42, that interview, along with interviews that Ms. Turner-Seed had conducted with Bruce Davidson, Cornell Capa, Lisette Model, W. Eugene Smith, Don McCullin and others, sat like a time capsule in the archives of the International Center of Photography in New York.

That is, until 2011, when Ms. Turner-Seed’s daughter, Rachel Seed, learned of their existence and went to I.C.P. to study the tapes. It was a profound experience for her, since she was 1 when her mother died and did not remember her voice.

Ms. Seed, herself a photographer, has been working on a personal documentary, “A Photographic Memory,” about a daughter’s search for the mother she never knew through their shared love of photography. She is raising money with aKickstarter campaign.

The following interview was transcribed from tape by Sheila Turner-Seed and has been lightly edited. A DVD of the Cartier-Bresson interview, with his photos, is available from the International Center of Photography’s online bookstore.

I’m not interested in documenting. Documenting is extremely dull and I’m a very bad reporter. When I had an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946, my friend, Robert Capa, told me, “Henri, be very careful. You must not have a label of a surrealist photographer. If you do, you won’t have an assignment and you’ll be like a hothouse plant. Do whatever you like, but the label should be ‘photojournalist.’ ”

All my training was surrealism. I still feel very close to the surrealists. But Capa was extremely sound. So I never mentioned surrealism. That’s my private affair. And what I want, what I’m looking for — that’s my business. Otherwise I never would have an assignment. Journalism is a way of noting — well, some journalists are wonderful writers and others are just putting facts one after the other. And facts are not interesting. It’s a point of view on facts which is important, and in photography it is the evocation. Some photographs are like a Chekhov short story or a Maupassant story. They’re quick things and there’s a whole world in them. But one is unconscious of it while shooting.

That’s a wonderful thing with a camera. It jumps out of you. I’m extremely impulsive. Terribly. It’s really a pain in the neck for my friends and family. I’m a bunch of nerves. But I take advantage of it in photography. I never think. I set, quick! I hit!

How did you start in photography?

When I was very young, I liked the life of adventure and I knew only one thing: that I was strongly appalled by the idea of working in the family textile business. My father’s brother was a painter who got killed in the first days of World War I. I was 5 or 6 when he died, and I had always been dreaming about painting. And my father said, “Well, all right.” He was nice enough not to force me into the business. So I was painting at a friend of that uncle who died. And later, I studied two years in a studio of André Lhote, who was not a great painter, but a very important teacher. It is from him I know everything — between him and Jean Renoir, the filmmaker.

These are the two pictures I remember very well. One is a picture by Munkácsi of three kids running into a huge wave on a beach. And that — it’s so perfect, the relations, the design of all the plastic problems. And their movement is wonderful. That struck me very much. Otherwise, it was not photography that influenced me. I just thought that the camera was a quick way of drawing intuitively.

Do you think you see more now than you saw when you were 20?

Different things, I presume. But not more, not less. The best pictures were in that book, “The Decisive Moment.” I took them when I was 20. Immediately, after a fortnight. The first day I started pictures. It’s in that book.

That’s why teaching and learning is nothing. It’s living and looking. All these photography schools are a gimmick. What are they teaching? Could you teach me how to walk?

It provides work for photographers.

Yes, but it is a phony world. And it affects the way you work. To work with people is something different.

Josef Breitenbach, the photographer, once told me that he felt most good photographers were good from the beginning.

I agree. Either you have a gift or you have none. If you have a gift, well, it’s a responsibility. You have to work.

Brian Seed, courtesy of Rachel Elizabeth Seed Sheila Turner-Seed and her daughter, Rachel.

Do you think a photographer’s art can mature?

Mature? I don’t know what that means. It’s always re-examining, trying to be more lucid and freer and go deeper and deeper. I don’t know if photography is an art or not an art. I have no idea of all this.

I see children painting beautifully well, and at puberty sometimes there’s a curtain that drops, and then it takes a lifetime to get it back. Not the purity of a child, because you never get it back once there is knowledge, but to get back the qualities of a young child takes a whole lifetime.

The freshness of impression is extremely important. Blasé is an awful thing.

What has made you decide to visit certain countries?

Well, certainly, everything is interesting — your own room. But at the same time, you just can’t photograph everything you see. In some places the pulse beats more than others.

After World War II, I had a feeling with my friends, Bob Capa and Chim, that going to colonial countries was important. What changes were going to take place there? That’s why I spent three years in the Far East. We didn’t know what was going to happen. There were different possibilities. Sometimes it’s war. Sometimes it’s not war. Sometimes it’s peaceful. When a situation is pregnant — it’s to be present when there’s a change of situation, when there’s the most tension.

Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos The photographers David “Chim” Seymour, left, and Robert Capa, in Paris. 1952.

Can you talk a bit about your China experience?

Well, I don’t want to say anything. It’s as if you invite someone for dinner and serve wine in a decanter instead of the bottle with the label. People should guess if it’s a good wine. But no, they want to see the label. This is awful. That’s why there shouldn’t be any captions. People should just look. We should awaken our sensitivity. But people don’t. If it’s in a decanter, they won’t dare say it’s a good wine or it’s a bad wine because they haven’t seen the year. They don’t know which chateau. That’s what I resent. I think photographs should have no caption, just location and date. Date is important because things change.

I hate tourism! I like to live in a place. I don’t like to go for short time. Rodin said, “What is made with time, time respects,” or something like this.

And at the same time, when something happens, you have to be extremely swift. Like an animal and a prey — vroom! You grasp it and people don’t notice that you have taken it. Very often in a different situation, you can take one picture. You cannot take two. Take a picture and look like a fool, look like a tourist. But if you take two, three pictures, you got trouble. It’s good training to know how far you can go. When the fruit is ripe, you have to pluck it. Quick! With no indulgence over yourself, but daring. I enjoy very much seeing a good photographer working. There’s an elegance, just like in a bullfight.

But the most difficult thing for me is not street photography. It’s a portrait. The difference between a portrait and a snapshot is that in a portrait, a person agreed to be photographed. But certainly it’s like a biologist and his microscope. When you study the thing, it doesn’t react as when it’s not studied. And you have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt, which is not an easy thing, because you steal something. The strange thing is that you see people naked through your viewfinder. And it’s sometimes very embarrassing.

I’m always nervous when I go to take a portrait, because it’s a new experience. Usually when taking a portrait, I feel like putting a few questions just to get the reaction of a person. It’s difficult to talk at the same time that you observe with intensity the face of somebody. But still, you must establish a contact of some sort. Whereas with Ezra Pound, I stood in front of him for maybe an hour and a half in utter silence. We were looking at each other in the eye. He was rubbing his fingers. I took maybe altogether one good photograph, four other possible, and two which were not interesting. That makes about six pictures in an hour and a half. And no embarrassment on either side.

Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos Ezra Pound, 1971.

What do you see for yourself now? Do you have an idea of what you want to do next?

I was to draw this afternoon. I carry a camera. I don’t know. It depends. I don’t plan life, period. I would like to draw much more calmly and I would like to see other photographers. You see, I feel very lonely in a way. I mustn’t have nostalgia about the past, because, I mean, it was not easy between Capa, Chim and I either. We had different habits.

Yet one gets the feeling that you really miss them.

Well, it is very strange. I don’t realize that Capa and Chim are dead. Because in this profession, we are gone for a year or two years and we don’t see each other. And then he comes. I knew Capa was dead when I saw the book “Images of War.” Before that, he was not dead at all, just somebody you don’t see for some time.

The influence of Capa went beyond his lifetime. He was on the same wavelength with everybody socially. He was not impressed by queens. He was impressed by everybody as a human being. He was facing them front. I liked Capa for that very much.

At the same time, we were utterly different. We didn’t read the same books. He was staying up at night and I was waking him up at 10 a.m. and he was borrowing my money without telling me — all sorts of things. But there was a fundamental unity between Capa, Chim and I. Capa was optimistic and Chim was pessimistic. Chim was like the head of a chess player or mathematician.

David Seymour/Magnum Photos David “Chim” Seymour, left, greeting Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris, 1938.

Where do you place yourself in there?

I have no idea — impulsive.

There were only a few photographers in the early ’30s in Paris. We were taking café crème at the Dome in Montparnasse. I was painting there in Montparnasse, which, before the war, was something extremely lively. It was my city.

Did your association with Capa and Chim influence you to concentrate more on photography and less on painting?

Not at all. We never talked photography.


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