August 5, 2010

Cartier-Bresson D’être: Docs by and on the Father of Modern Photojournalism

Last year, during an extended stay in Paris, I literally stumbled across one of those intimate gems of a museum, for which the city is famous. The Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson, dedicated to the work of the photographer known as the "Father of Modern Photojournalism," houses his own collection of original prints, contact sheets, drawings (from his early and later years), publications and correspondence with international political figures and artists, as well as his first Leica camera, purchased in 1930. The narrow, glass Art Deco building also promotes other photographers who work in Cartier-Bresson's candid, semi-surrealist spirit.

An unexpected bonus at the Foundation was the opportunity to view a rarely seen documentary film, Southern Exposure, directed by Cartier-Bresson during his travels in 1971 in the Southern United States. Now, thanks to New Video, the world's largest independent digital video distributor, all of Cartier-Bresson's five original documentaries are available for home viewing.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Collector's Edition contains two films on the Spanish Civil War, made in 1937 and 1938. Victory of Life documents medical aid to Republican Spain under siege by Franco's troops, when the war was at its peak. Committed to the Spanish Republicans, Cartier-Bresson next made a film testimonial that demonstrated the existence of a fascist conspiracy in Europe. The filmmaker unnecessarily apologizes "for the poor photographic quality of the film," but these films were made in Spain at a time when cinema technicians had only four hours of electricity per night and developing was often interrupted by air raids. This veritable historical document records the interrogation of Italian and German prisoners, including a former farm worker who served as a sergeant in the Italian infantry. Fascinating footage of North African mercenaries hired by Franco is also included.

The third film, The Return (1945), follows prisoners of war returning home from Germany to their respective countries. Having enlisted in the army in 1939, Cartier-Bresson himself had spent nearly three years as a prisoner of war. A quarter century later, he traveled to the United States, where he filmed two documentaries for CBS News: California Impressions (1970) and Southern Exposure (1971). The first film observes, among other things, Christian gatherings and a primal "encounter" between a husband and wife at the Esalen Institute retreat center in Big Sur, California. One almost feels suffocated by the dated images from another era, but it proves a valuable (and often sardonic) witness to the times. As one would expect, Southern Exposure is a double entendre on the photographic meaning as well as the revelation of the poverty and racial discrimination rampant in the South.

In addition to the five films by Cartier-Bresson, the set includes a second disc with five documentaries about him. Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye (Dir./Prod.: Heinz Bütler; 2003) turns the camera on the uncomfortable photographer who, during his photojournalist years, had taken great pains to maintain his anonymity. Other photographers comment on the importance of his work, while playwright Arthur Miller reminisces about an image of his then-wife Marilyn Monroe, in which she was caught by Cartier-Bresson deep in thought. The documentary includes some wonderful quotes from Cartier-Bresson, in which he offers advice to beginning photographers: "Seeing comes first...Buy a camera, then feel an emotion...It's a question of time, always, and of economy...If you want something, you get nothing. You mustn't want. You have to be available and receptive...:

In Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Adventure (Dir.: Roger Kahane; 1962), we follow the master through Clignancourt Market and observe him observing life around him. He appears to be in a dance with life and, indeed, seems to exude a dancer's energy as he rises on his tiptoes for a particular shot, or leans elegantly to one side or the other, almost following the energy of his subject. When asked by director Roger Kahane, "How many photographs did you take today?" he responds very matter-of-factly with a question: "How many interesting things did you see today?" One is struck by the immediacy of Cartier-Bresson's images. He works from pure intuition, based on a firm understanding of form, composition and light.

Flagrants Délits (Dir.: Robert Delpire; 1967) provides a montage of photos, accompanied by original music. As its title suggests, Contacts: Henri Cartier-Bresson (Dir.: Robert Delpire; 1994), unveils the outtakes, as it were, of some of the photographer's most famous images: Henri Matisse with his white doves, William Faulkner with his terriers, Mahatma Gandhi's funeral pyre, Ezra Pound half in shadow, and Isabel Huppert, sitting on a couch, her actor's persona penetrated by the photographer's camera.

In A Day in the Studio of Henri Cartier-Bresson (2005), Caroline Thiénot Barbey presents an intimate portrait of Cartier-Bresson, the draughtsman and painter. This lovely, serene film, shot on March 13, 1989, is a fitting tribute to the photographer, who spent much of his life documenting the most famous artists of the 20th century--Matisse, Bonnard, Braque, among many others.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Collector's Edition comprises a magnificent course on the life and work of an astonishing photographer. The release of the set was timed to coincide with a traveling exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the first retrospective of Cartier-Bresson's work in the United States in 30 years.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Collector's Edition is available through New Video and Arthouse Films at www.newvideo.com.

 

Cathleen Rountree, Ph.D., is a culture journalist.

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