In an interview from 1973, Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke frankly about the early days of Magnum. Drawn from Aperture’s forthcoming Henri Cartier-Bresson: Interviews and Conversations, 1951–1998, this conversation with Sheila Turner-Seed is a rare account of the photographer’s process.
Sheila Turner-Seed: Do you think you see more now than you saw when you started photography at twenty?
Henri Cartier-Bresson: I see different things, I presume. But not more, not less. The best pictures in The Decisive Moment were taken right away, after two weeks. [ . . . ] That’s why teaching and learning don’t make sense. You must live and look. All these photography schools are a gimmick. What are they teaching? Could you teach me how to walk?
These schools are phony. And it affects the way you work. To work with people is different. That’s why I liked it so much when we started Magnum, our photographers’ cooperative agency. We were working together and criticizing and going at the same speed, some quicker, some more slowly.
Turner-Seed: But do you think that a photographer’s art can grow and mature?
Cartier-Bresson: Mature? What does that mean? It’s always about reexamining, trying to be more lucid and freer, and go deeper and deeper. I don’t know if photography is an art or not. I see children painting beautifully and then at puberty sometimes a curtain drops. And then it takes a lifetime to get 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.
Turner-Seed: Josef Breitenbach, the photographer and teacher, once told me that he felt most good photographers were good from the beginning and growth was an absurd concept.
Cartier-Bresson: I agree. Either you have a gift or you don’t. If you do, it’s a responsibility. You must work at it.
Turner-Seed: What made you decide to work in places like China and India?
Cartier-Bresson: I think every place is interesting, even your own room. But at the same time you can’t photograph everything you see. In some places the pulse beats stronger than in others. After World War II, I had a feeling, with Bob Capa and Chim [David Seymour], 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. It was to be present when a situation was pregnant, when there was the most tension. When we started our picture agency, Magnum, in 1946 [sic : 1947], the world had been divided by war and there was great curiosity from each country to know what the other looked like. 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 is the fruit of Capa’s genius: he was very creative. He played the horses to pay for our secretaries in the beginning. Once I came back from the Far East and asked Capa for my money. He said: “Better take your camera and go to work. I had to use your money because we were almost bankrupt.” I almost got angry, but he was right. He gave me no specific ideas for shooting, but ten ideas of where to go.
Out of these ten, five or six places were very bad, two were excellent and one, fantastic! And it was like that. I kept on working.
Nowadays, working has become very difficult. There are hardly any magazines, and no big magazine is going to send you to a country because everyone has already been there. It’s another world. But there are heaps of specialized magazines that are going to use your archives. And you can make quite a decent living just with those. But it means you have to build these archives for years. It is a problem for young photographers who are just starting now.
Turner-Seed: Do you know what you want to do next?
Cartier-Bresson: This afternoon I would like to draw. I would like to draw much more peacefully and I would like to see other photographers. It depends. I never plan anything. You see, I feel lonely in a way. I mustn’t be nostalgic, because, I mean, it was not easy between Capa, Chim, and me. We were utterly different. We didn’t read the same books. Capa was staying up at night and I had to wake him up at ten in the morning. He was borrowing my money without telling me, these kinds of things. But there was a fundamental unity between us three. Capa was an optimist, Chim a pessimist. Chim was like a chess player or a mathematician. I was impulsive.
Turner-Seed: One gets the feeling that you miss them tremendously.
Cartier-Bresson: Well, it’s rather strange. I still don’t realize that Capa and Chim are dead. Because in this profession we are gone for a year or two and we don’t see each other. I understood that Capa was dead when [ten years later] I saw the book Images of War. Before that he was not dead at all, just someone I had not seen for some time.
There were not many photographers in Paris in the early 1930s. We drank our cafés crèmes at Le Dome in Montparnasse. I was painting in that neighborhood, which was very lively before the war.
Turner-Seed: Did your friendship with Capa and Chim influence your decision to abandon painting in favor of photography?
Cartier-Bresson: Not at all. We never talked about photography. We talked about life. We were thinking about where to go, and sometimes going together. There wasn’t all that silly talk about photography like now. I never dreamt of talking about all these things. It was only much later, in the 1950s, when we were doing The Decisive Moment as a coproduction between Tériade, the great art publisher in France [at Verve], and Simon and Schuster in the United States. Dick Simon came to Europe and said: “We also need a text. And the text should be a ‘how to.’ ” I didn’t insult him, but I got so red in the face that everybody was embarrassed. And I said: “ ‘How to’—no way!” I got furious and was ready to drop the whole project. And Tériade, putting on his beautiful Greek smile, said: “Well, why don’t you tell why you have been photographing for years and years? What does it all mean for you?” And I said: “Why am I clicking away like this? I don’t know.” “Well, try and find out,” Tériade said. “Marguerite Lang, my collaborator, is going to write down what you say, and then we’ll see.” And then I added: “It’s always good to clarify one’s thinking.” And I put it down practically as it is in the book. We just corrected the French because speaking and writing are not the same thing. Marguerite was telling me: “What do you mean, exactly?” She was pushing me to review my thinking, which is an extremely good exercise. But one should not be talking too much about one’s work. Otherwise one becomes an art critic.
Turner-Seed: What exactly do you mean by The Decisive Moment, the [American] title of Images à la sauvette?
Cartier-Bresson: You want to know more about the title? Well, I had nothing to do with it. I found a line in the memoirs of Cardinal de Retz, in which he said: “There is nothing in this world which does not have a decisive moment.” I used the quote [as an inscription] in the French edition, and when we were thinking of titles [for the American edition], we had a whole page of possibilities. Suddenly, Dick Simon said: “Why not use ‘the decisive moment’?” It worked well, and so I became what’s known as a plagiarist.
Turner-Seed: Are you able to define the moment when you press the button?
Cartier-Bresson: Oh, yes. It’s a question of concentration. Concentrate, think, watch, look, and hop, like this, you are ready. But you never know the apex of an event [before it happens]. So you’re shooting, you say to yourself: “Yes, yes, maybe, yes.” But you should never overshoot. It’s like overeating or drinking too much. You have to eat, you have to drink, but too much is too much. Because by the time you press the shutter, and you are ready to shoot once more, maybe you have lost the picture that was in-between.
The difference between a good picture and a mediocre picture is a question of millimeters, a tiny difference. But it’s essential. I don’t think there’s so much difference between photographers, but it’s that tiny difference that counts, maybe.
Very often you don’t have to see a photographer’s pictures. Just by watching him in the street you can see what kind of photographer he is. Discreet, on tiptoes, fast, or like a machine gun? Well, you don’t shoot partridges with a machine gun. You choose one partridge. Then another partridge. Maybe the others are gone by then.
But I see people with a motor whirring. It’s incredible because they always shoot at the wrong moment. I very much enjoy seeing a good photographer working. There’s an elegance to it, like in a bullfight.
Street photography is a joy. But the most difficult thing for me is the portrait. It’s not at all like an instant photograph of someone on the street. The person must agree to be photographed. And it’s like a biologist and his microscope. When you study something, it doesn’t react the same way as when it’s not studied. And you have to try and place your camera between a person’s skin and his shirt, which is not an easy thing to do.
But the strange thing is that through your viewfinder, you see people exposed. You steal something, and it’s sometimes very embarrassing. I remember once I took a portrait of a famous writer. When I arrived at her home she said: “You took a very beautiful portrait of me at the Libération.” The Libération of France was in 1945, a long time ago. So I thought: “She remembers that in those days her face wasn’t the same. She is thinking of her wrinkles. Damn it! What shall I say?” I started looking at her legs. She pulled her dress down and said: “I’m in a hurry. How long will it take you?” “Well, I don’t know,” I answered. “A little more than a dentist and a little less than a psychoanalyst.” Maybe she did not have a sense of humor. She just said: “Yes, yes, yes.” I clicked two, three times and said good-bye, because I had said the wrong thing.
It is always difficult to talk at the same time you observe someone’s face intensely. But still, you must establish a contact of some kind. [To shoot] Ezra Pound’s [portrait], I stood in front of him for maybe an hour and a half in utter silence. We were looking at each other straight in the eye. He was rubbing his fingers. And I took maybe one good photograph altogether, four other possible ones, and two uninteresting ones. That amounts to about six pictures in an hour and a half, and no embarrassment on either side.
You have to forget yourself. You have to be yourself, forget yourself—the image comes much stronger if you get completely involved in what you are doing. [ . . . ] And no thinking. Ideas are very dangerous. You must think all the time, but when you photograph you are not trying to prove a point or demonstrate something. You have nothing to prove. It comes by itself. Photography is not propaganda, but a way of shouting how you feel. It’s like the difference between a propaganda tract and a novel. The novel has to go through all the nerve pathways, through your imagination. It is much more powerful than a leaflet that you glance at and then throw away.
And poetry is the essence of everything. Very often, I see photographers cultivating the strangeness or awkwardness of a scene, thinking that it’s poetry. No, poetry includes two elements that are suddenly in conflict—a spark between two elements. But it is very rarely a given and you can’t look for it. It is as if you were looking for inspiration. No. It just comes by nurturing yourself and living fully by submerging yourself in reality. If I go somewhere, I am always hoping to get that one picture about which people will say: “This is true. You felt it right.” But at the same time, I’m not a political analyst or an economist. I don’t know how to count. [ . . . ] I am obsessed by one thing: visual pleasure. The greatest joy for me is geometry, which means structure. You can’t go looking for a structure, shapes, patterns and all that, but you will feel a sensuous pleasure, an intellectual pleasure at the same time, when you have everything in the right place. It is the recognition of an order that is in front of you. And finally—that’s just my way of feeling—I enjoy shooting pictures. Being present. It’s a way of saying: “Yes! Yes! Yes!” like the last words of Joyce’s Ulysses. [ . . . ] And there are no maybes. All the maybes should go into the trash. Because it’s an instant. It’s a moment. It’s a presence. It’s there. And it’s a tremendous enjoyment to say: “Yes!” Even if it’s something you hate. “Yes!” It’s an affirmation.
Sheila Turner-Seed was a journalist and filmmaker.
This essay is an excerpt from “It Jumps Out at You,” originally published by Aperture in Henri Cartier-Bresson: Interviews and Conversations, 1951–1998 © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson