Little Observations

The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers by Henri Cartier-Bresson is an interesting, elegant, little book. It’s not long. Its pages number 107, and they are sparsely populated with text and a few images. In this little volume, the famous photographer (who was also an artist and filmmaker), shares some of his thoughts on photography, art, and the people and places he knew and visited. His takes on Che Guevara and Fidel Castro during a 1963 visit to Cuba are rather droll:

I kept asking to meet Fidel—nobody calls him Castro, only Fidel. Everybody tried to help me, but it was a problem because Castro still lives like a hit-and-run man of the hills.

While waiting I went on with my work, including portraits of Fidel’s right-hand man, Che Guevara, who is much more than his title of Minister of Industries. To the camera as elsewhere, Che is a violent man but a realist. His eyes glow; they coax, entice and mesmerize. This is a persuasive man and a true anarchist, but he is no martyr. One feels that if the revolution in Cuba should break up, Che would appear elsewhere in Latin America, very much alive and throwing bombs.

In the end I did see Fidel. A car came for me, a Cadillac so full of machine guns on the floor in back that my knees were doubled under my chin. I met Fidel backstage at the Chaplin Theater where he was to make a speech. This man is both a messiah and a potential martyr. Unlike Che, I think he would prefer to die rather than see the revolution disappear. Also he is the respected boss; there is no question of that. His men laugh and joke among themselves until he comes in and then, you feel it and see it: the leader is there.

I think you could say of Fidel that his whiskers form a nest for the disinherited. Marxism he speaks aloud—but that is in the head, not in the beard or in the voice. He has the neck of a minotaur, the conviction of a messiah. There is a powerful magnetism about him; in a way he is a force of nature. He makes people sing and say together and carries them with him. I observed, being a Frenchman, that after three hours of speaking, the women in his presence still tremble with ecstasy. But I must say also that in three hours he puts the men to sleep.

In the section of the book on his friends, Cartier-Bresson writes about former model/photographer/documentary filmmaker Sarah Moon:

Question mark? That’s the title Sarah Moon chose for this documentary, which has nothing conventional about it, from which I am constantly trying to escape, and in which she keeps catching me. … Several times in the film, I ask myself the question: “What is this about?” In the end, there are no answers. In photography, as elsewhere, the instant is its own question and at the same time its own answer. What excites and drives me in photography is the coincidence of gesture and spirit. There is no duality, nor are there rules.

Sarah Moon came along without any preconceived notion, diaphanous, translucent, with her little home-video camera—and had to face me, bad dog that I am, who thrashed about like the devil in a baptismal font. She let me say whatever I had to say, in spite of my constant non sequiturs. She wove together and balanced the three activities that absorb me: drawing, photography, and documentary film. But from only one angle, Sarah Moon did not attempt to give more weight to photography, for which I’m obviously not unknown. My notoriety is a heavy load: I refuse to be a standard-bearer; I have spent my whole life trying to be inconspicuous in order to observe better.

The segregation of photography, the ghetto into which this world of specialists has placed it, really shocks me. Photographers, artists, sculptors. … You either have a feel for the plastic, or else a conceptual thought. Some people prefer one over the other; that’s not my problem. My problem is to be in my life. To seize the moment in its fullness. Thought alone doesn’t interest me. Photography is a manual labor: you have to move, to shift. … The body and the spirit should add up to one only. An aside: despite the inconvenience, it was useful for a young surrealizing bourgeois, during the three years of his captivity, to do some manual labor—pounding in railroad cross-ties, working in cemeteries and auto factories, washing grub in huge copper cauldrons, making hay. And all the time with one idea in mind: escape. Sarah Moon understood that. I have seen her film several times, but—doubtless because of her subtlety—I still can’t see what it has to do with me. What good luck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *