Henri Cartier–Bresson. French, b. 1908, d. 2004 is one of the most influential, and beloved figures in the history of photography.
Henri Cartier Bresson traveled to Cuba in late 1962 to photograph Cuban life under Castro. (LIFE Magazine- 15th March 1963, Castro’s Cuba). He was only able to get accredited as a European, as no American photographers were allowed into Cuba. Something related to politics happened during that trip. Bresson is a Master of Photography whose eyes registered a century, but his work was not welcome by the Cuban photographer’s inner circle during the 70s and 80s.
I never knew why nobody talked about him. When I asked my fellow photographers they just answered: you better stay away from Cartier Bresson, he is a French bourgeois. It was impossible for me to reach the anecdote that was at the origin of the prohibition, I’m guessing it was something the photographer said or did that triggered number #1 ( meaning Fidel Castro)’s vindictive anger.
French intellectuals were in love with the Cuban Revolution at the beginning, but not so much with its leader. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote as early as 1960 about the voice of Fidel Castro “in the middle of five hundred thousand silences” while still in exhilaration about the Caribbean political process. Later he walked away from it.
Unlike Sartre, when referring to Bresson it does not have to be something that the photographer said since his photographs speak for themselves. Enough sample is the image of Benny More’s burial procession, with the line of Cubans chained to each other, apparently of their own volition, under a dazed heavy wall full of propaganda about the state one and only production of tobacco.
I invite you to visit Cartier-Bresson’s Cuban portfolio at Magnum online catalog to discover much more than smiling little pioneers, to find different levels of nuances in the images able to offend the stubborn political commissars of the moment. Bresson’s assignment for Life, with photos of the everyday Cuban life and Castro appearing as a normal human being, -the kind of images so avoided by the Cuban official press- is maybe the tip of the iceberg. Therefore, I don’t want to speculate on what stayed unpublished aside from the selection.
Cartier-Bresson and the decisive moment.
The most astonishing advice I received in the 1980s was to avoid photographs using the decisive moment technique. One image could not tell a story, they told me, we have to use many instead. In consequence, Cuban photographers engaged fiercely at the time in the creation of portfolios in the best Robert Frank’s style. As if one master denied the other.
As to the procedure itself, the book Images a la Sauvette, in the English version of the same material for the MOMA, contains the term the decisive moment for the first time that we know. Cartier-Bresson wrote at the occasion: “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.”
“Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative,” Cartier Bresson to Adam Bernstein who was writing a column for the Washington Post.
Cartier Bresson decisive moment’s pictures are matchless because something interesting and perfectly framed stands in the background, while there is a detail, an action, a gesture, a shadow or a reflection that make the moment unique. An element in the picture, hard to take place again in the same manner, gone in a split of a second.
Sadly, I should say that I found a lot of the photographer’s images to be carefully arranged by the master. However, it does not matter. The effect is perfect, and we will never know if this was the case. Today, worldwide photographers and art lovers continue to engage enthusiastically with Cartier-Bresson’s books, art reproductions, and exhibits because his vision is still alive and well.
Taken prisoner of war in 1940, he escaped on his third attempt in 1943 and subsequently joined an underground organization to assist prisoners and escapees. In 1945 he photographed the liberation of Paris with a group of professional journalists and then filmed the documentary Le Retour (The Return).
In 1947, with Robert Capa, George Rodger, David ‘Chim’ Seymour