Part 2: Henri Cartier-Bresson: ‘There Are No Maybes’

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In 1971, Sheila Turner-Seed interviewed Henri Cartier-Bresson in his Paris studio for a film-strip series on photographers that she produced, with Cornell Capa, for Scholastic. After her death in 1979 at the age of 42, that interview, along with others she had conducted, 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 second part of that interview, transcribed from tape by Sheila Turner-Seed,continues where we left off yesterday. It 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.


Have you ever really been able to define for yourself when it is that you press the shutter?

It’s a question of concentration. Concentrate, think, watch, look and, ah, like this, you are ready. But you never know the culminative point of something. So you’re shooting. You say, “Yes. Yes. Maybe. Yes.” But you shouldn’t overshoot. It’s like overeating, overdrinking. You have to eat, you have to drink. But over is too much. Because by the time you press, you arm the shutter once more, and maybe the picture was in between.

Very often, you don’t have to see a photographer’s work. Just by watching him in the street, you can see what kind of photographer he is. Discreet, tiptoes, fast or machine gun. Well, you don’t shoot partridges with a machine gun. You choose one partridge, then the other partridge. Maybe the others are gone by then. But I see people wrrrr, like this with a motor. It’s incredible, because they always shoot in the wrong moment.

Can you bear to talk a bit about your equipment?

I am completely and have always been uninterested in the photographic process. I like the smallest camera possible, not those huge reflex cameras with all sorts of gadgets. When I am working, I have an M3 because it’s quicker when I’m concentrating.

Why the 50-millimeter lens?

It corresponds to a certain vision and at the same time has enough depth of focus, a thing you don’t have in longer lenses. I worked with a 90. It cuts much of the foreground if you take a landscape, but if people are running at you, there is no depth of focus. The 35 is splendid when needed, but extremely difficult to use if you want precision in composition. There are too many elements, and something is always in the wrong place. It is a beautiful lens at times when needed by what you see. But very often it is used by people who want to shout. Because you have a distortion, you have somebody in the foreground and it gives an effect. But I don’t like effects. There is something aggressive, and I don’t like that. Because when you shout, it is usually because you are short of arguments.

If you have little equipment, people don’t notice you. You don’t come like a show-off. It seems like an embarrassment, someone who comes with big equipment.

And photo electric cells in a camera — I don’t see why it is done. It is a laziness. During the day, I don’t need a light meter. It is only when light changes very quickly at dusk or when I’m in another country, in the desert or in the snow. But I guess first, and then I check. It is good training.

In some sense, you impose your own rules that are like disciplines for yourself, then.

For myself — I’m not speaking for others. I take my pleasure that way. Freedom for me is a strict frame, and inside that frame are all the variations possible. Maybe I’m classical. The French are like that. I can’t help it!

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Martine Franck/Magnum Photos A triple portrait of Henri Cartier-Bresson taken by his wife, Martine Franck.

Photography as I conceive it, well, it’s a drawing — immediate sketch done with intuition and you can’t correct it. If you have to correct it, it’s the next picture. But life is very fluid. Well, sometimes the pictures disappear and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t tell the person, “Oh, please smile again. Do that gesture again.” Life is once, forever.

How do you feel about color photography?

It’s disgusting. I hate it! I’ve done it only when I’ve been to countries where it was difficult to go and they said, “If you don’t do color, we can’t use your things.” So it was a compromise, but I did it badly because I don’t believe in it.

The reason is that you have been shooting what you see. But then there are the printing inks and all sorts of different things over which you have no control whatsoever. There is all the interference of heaps of people, and what has it got to do with true color?

If the technical problems were solved and what you saw on the page would really be what you saw with your eyes, would you still object?

Yes, because nature gives us so much. You can’t accept everything of nature. You have to select things. It’d rather do paintings, and it becomes an insoluble problem. Especially when it comes to reportage, color has no interest whatsoever except that people do it because it’s money. It’s always a money problem.

There are some very good young photographers. They want to do photographic essays and there is no market for it.

In 1946, when we started Magnum, the world had been separated by the war and there was a great curiosity from one country to know how the other was. People couldn’t travel, and for us it was such a challenge to go and testify — I have seen this and I have seen that. There was a market. We didn’t have to do industrial accounts and all that.

Magnum was the genius of Bob Capa, who had great invention. He was playing the horses and the money paid for the secretaries. I came back from the Orient and asked Capa for my money and he said, “Better take your camera and go work. I have taken your money because we were almost in bankruptcy.”

I kept on working. Now it is a very big problem because there are hardly any magazines. No big magazine is going to send you to a country because everybody has been there. It’s another world. But there are heaps of specialized magazines who are going to use your files. And you can make quite a decent living just by files. But it means you have to add pictures for years and years. For a young photographer to start is quite a problem nowadays.

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Martine Franck/Magnum PhotosHenri Cartier-Bresson with a photograph of his mother, Marthe Leverdier.

There are necessities of life, and everything is getting more expensive in a consumer society. So the danger is that photography might become very precious — “Oh, a very rare print.” There’s not a very real place for it. But what does it mean? That preciousness is a sickness.

Why do photographers start giving numbers to their prints? It’s absurd. What do you do when the 20th print has been done? Do you swallow the negative? Do you shoot yourself? It’s the gimmick of money.

I think a print should be signed. That means a photographer recognizes that the print has been done either by him or according to his own standards. But a print is not like an etching, where the plate wears out. A negative doesn’t wear out.

Perhaps the only lead that photographers had was to imitate painters, and they still have to learn their own identity.

Yes. Why be embarrassed? We are not what you call “misfit painters.” Photography is a way of expressing ourselves with another tool. That’s all.

Can we go back to something we were discussing earlier? What is it like to return to a country you have visited before? Is there a difference between the first time and when you return?

I like very much going back to a country after a while and seeing the differences, because you build up impressions, right or wrong, but always personal and vivid, by living in a country and working. You accumulate things and leave a gap, and you see the changes strongly when you’ve been away for a long time. And the evolution in a country is very interesting to measure with a camera.

But at the same time, I am not a political analyst or an economist. I don’t know how to count. It’s not that. I’m obsessed by one thing, the visual pleasure.

The greatest joy for me is geometry; that means a structure. You can’t go shooting for structure, for shapes, for patterns and all this, but it is a sensuous pleasure, an intellectual pleasure, at the same time to have everything in the right place. It’s a recognition of an order which is in front of you.

The difference between a good picture and a mediocre picture is a question of millimeters — small, small differences — but it’s essential. I didn’t think there is such a big difference between photographers. Very little difference. But it is that little difference that counts, maybe.

What is important for a photographer is involvement. It’s not a propaganda means, photography, but it’s a way of shouting what you feel. It’s like the difference between a tract for propaganda and a novel. Well, the novel has to go through all the channel of the nerves, the imagination, and it’s much more powerful than something you look at and throw away. If a theme is developed and goes into a novel, there is much more subtlety; it goes much deeper.

Poetry is the essence of everything, and it’s through deep contact with reality and living fully that you reach poetry. Very often I see photographers cultivating the strangeness or awkwardness of a scene, thinking it is poetry. No. Poetry is two elements which are suddenly conflict — a spark between two elements. But it’s given very seldom, and you can’t look for it. It’s like if you look for inspiration. No, it just comes by enriching yourself and living.

You have to forget yourself. You have to be yourself and you have to forget yourself so that the image comes much stronger — what you want by getting involved completely in what you are doing and not thinking. Ideas are very dangerous. You must think all the time, but when you photograph, you aren’t trying to push a point or prove something. You don’t prove anything. It comes by itself.

If I go to a place, it’s not to record what is going on only. It’s to try and have a picture which concretizes a situation in one glance and which has the strong relations of shapes. And when I go to a country, well, I’m hoping always to get that one picture about which people will say, “Ah, this is true. You felt it right.”

That’s why photography is important, in a way, because at the same time that it’s a great pleasure getting the geometry together, it goes quite far in a testimony of our world, even without knowing what you are doing.

But as for me, I enjoy shooting a picture. Being present. It’s a way of saying, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” It’s like the last three words of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which is one of the most tremendous works which have ever been written. It’s “Yes, yes, yes.” And photography is like that. It’s yes, yes, yes. And there are no maybes. All the maybes should go to the trash, because it’s an instant, it’s a moment, it’s there! And it’s respect of it and tremendous enjoyment to say, “Yes!” Even if it’s something you hate. Yes! It’s an affirmation.

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Martine Franck/Magnum Photos Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1996.

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