Born in black and white.
Click images to enlarge.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is the legendary photographer who saw it all and recorded everything in a monochrome diary of dramatic, enigmatic imagery over an eventful 72 years. From prisoner of war to interviewing Gandhi the day before his assassination, and founding MAGNUM Photos in between, Cartier-Bresson was one of the most accomplished photographers of the 20th Century. Shunning colour not only because of the technical difficulties of the 50s but as the medium of the garish advertising world at the time, Henri chose to use only black and white and so, on his little Leica, he captured ‘decisive moments,’ and gave them their place in a greyscale history.
Today the use of colour has come into question again as Henri Cartier-Bresson becomes the subject of a vibrant retrospective at Somerset House. Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour displays ten of Henri’s lesser known street snaps alongside colour photographs from fifteen international contemporary photographers, including Ernst Haas, Harry Gruyaert and Carolyn Drake, an unquestioning enticement for the viewer to compare the colour captured today to works from a master of monochrome and come to their own conclusions as to whether it’s content over colour or colour over content – if one needs to override the other at all.
i-D online took a trip down MAGNUM’s memory lane and chatted to one of its longest standing members, photographer David Hurn, to find out what Henri Cartier-Bresson was like in real life.
“I suppose if you’re going to have heroes, he was one of my heroes. By that I mean somebody that one had an enormous respect for and in fact, in a strange way my introduction to photography was through a picture of his. I was in the army at the time and at the end of the Second World War my father, who had been away all the time, came back and took my mother and myself to Cardiff; I come from Wales, and he bought my mother a hat. This gave her enormous joy and the memory of that joy implanted itself in my mind. Much later when I was 20, I was in the army and I saw some copies of Post magazine, which was a very good British documentary magazine during that period and it was a series of pictures from Moscow. I was at Sandhurst and in a way had been indoctrinated that all Russians eat their children and suddenly I opened this thing and there was a wonderful picture of a Russian army officer buying his wife a hat in a department store. Of course it instantly brought back my memory in 1945 and I started to cry and I realised that not only did I feel that photography could be more accurate than the propaganda that I was being taught at Sandhurst, it also had the capacity to make you cry and I just loved that. I had no intention of being a photographer; it literally was that which made me decide. So I’m incredibly indebted to him for that. And then later I became associated with MAGNUM through my interest in photography and doing very personal stories, and obviously as I became closer to MAGNUM, one went to Paris and there he was and one met him and one realised that actually he was a normal human being like the rest of us with a gift that none of us have. I learnt an enormous amount just from talking to him. As much as anything, his sheer humanity as a human being. That’s what to me is the most important part of his pictures: this feeling that this is a decent human being, looking at the world and saying to you that the world is quite a nice place to be in, and he’s telling you that in a very accurate way. You feel it’s authentic. With all the nonsense of critical theory about truth etc. the reality is that you look at a Bresson picture and you feel that that happened and I think for me, photography is much more about feeling than about intellectualising the looking process. Obviously you have to intellectualise before you start going out and shooting, you have to research, it’s very useful to know how you act in a Muslim world, so as not to be rude. That’s an education process. But you don’t have to, in my opinion, know about space theory in a mosque. It’s much more important to know whether to take your shoes off or not! So yes, I am totally indebted to Bresson, we became friends and he enriched my life in a way few other people ever have. “
Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour is open at Somerset House now until 27th January 2013. Stay tuned for more on David Hurn.
Text: Felicity Kinsella
Photography: From top, Henri Cartier-Bresson (top two), Ernst Haas, Harry Gruyaert, Carolyn Drake