- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

Anyone who enjoys looking at pictures as the world whizzes by owes Henri Cartier-Bresson a

great deal. He did it first and did it beautifully.

For 70 years in the 20th century, he remained the most important influence in photography, in the realms of both art and journalism. He was a positive, commanding and true original, and yet, paradoxically, the fuel of his life was pure contrariness.

While he described his favorite discoveries through the viewfinder as moments of pure “yes,” his career was more that of a man apart from the world, a person in the chronic habit of saying no.

He said “no” to the way that photographers had been working before he came along.

Until then, the craft of making pictures required slow, large, cantankerous machines and quite unreliable chemicals.

All this obliged the photographer to play ringmaster, often leaving subjects hyper self-conscious: “OK, everybody. Hold still. Look at me. Say cheese.”

Until his emergence, photographers sought the safety of the past: “I saw something worth saving today. Before it slipped any farther into the past, I grabbed what was left of it.”

Mr. Cartier-Bresson made his reputation by anticipating the world that had not yet arrived. He embraced a new generation of camera, one little larger than the palm of his hand, which became an extension of his mind and trigger finger. Compared to the typical cameras of his day, this little Leica was quiet, rugged and much easier to use.

By today’s standards, however, it was the opposite of ergonomic. Just to take one picture required the use of two separate peep holes, stingy in size and fuzzy in their clarity, one for focusing the dim range finder, and the other for guessing more or less what would fall within the final frame.

To figure out the exposure, one needed a separate meter. To advance the film for the next shot, pinch and twist the knurled knob on top. To load the film through the bottom of the camera was a challenge better suited for a watchmaker.

For those today who’ve known only autofocus, auto exposure and motor-driven multi-frames per second, it is all the more inspiring that Mr. Cartier-Bresson found fleeting perfection without any of it.

Mr. Cartier-Bresson possessed a personality tailor-made for a new way to work. He was elegant, humble, insightful, lyrical, candid and most important, invisible.

Born into a life of comfort and leisure, he could have done other things. Instead, he said no to his family, no to inheriting their huge textile business. He found his greatest satisfaction through art and self-expression.

He began, in his teen years, as a painter. He was struck by geometry, layers of meaning and surrealism. At age 24, while recovering from malaria in Africa, he bought a 35 mm camera that many considered to be no more than a novelty or a toy.

He taught himself how to master it in three days, and he wisely preferred the normal perspective of a 50 mm lens, turning only rarely to the 90 mm telephoto. He said no to all the other gear that bulks up and slows down photographers, including tripods and light stands.

He said no to the chores of the darkroom; no to any cropping of his full-frame compositions. Throughout his career, he nearly always said no to color.

Those first mature pictures were made in 1932, and his first exhibit in New York City followed within two years. Briefly, he assisted the great filmmaker Jean Renoir.

He said no to the Nazi occupation of Europe and joined the Partisan Resistance, using his camera as well as gun.

In 1952 the best of his first 20 years’ worth of work appeared as “The Decisive Moment,” with a dust jacket silk-screened by his good friend, the painter Henri Matisse. So profound was his method that the book’s title became a catchphrase and goal for all who followed in his footsteps.

Even though the history books already call him the father of photojournalism, he said no to the responsibilities of matching his pictures to the front page headlines.

While he would often be in the middle of world news — the rise of communism in China, of democracy in India — he only wanted to make timeless, feature pictures.

“With photography,” he once promised, “you could reach eternity.” It was as if the whole world had been reinvented as his oyster, and he was free to roam — through an early, yearlong trip to Mexico, and, later, through Russia, China, India and America.

He said no to the constraints of most picture assignments and no to pack journalism. He demanded total freedom to wander. He said no to producing sets of pictures that might resemble a photo story, insisting that the best pictures were merely fortuitous, perhaps part magic, and the enemy of anecdote.

He had the stamina to invest days or months in a search for his delicacies, which he could get away with because his final results were so good.

He said no to anyone who wanted to take a picture of his face. For a television interview, he only allowed his hands to be seen as they caressed a trusty camera.

If a fellow photographer tried to take his picture on the sly, Mr. Cartier-Bresson was known to pull out a knife and underline his refusal in the air.

In 1975, he even said no to photography, preferring instead to draw, to sketch the most still of still lifes, often buildings or bones.

In old age, he said, “I don’t think about photography. It doesn’t interest me.”

Before he died this past Monday, just a few weeks shy of his 96th birthday, he had come to a poignant, eye-opening realization: He was being surpassed by his own artistic progeny. Generations of the best photographers, suckled on his images, could now hunt for their own as well as, even better than, the master.

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