Cartier-Bresson, A Biography

A well-written biography is a portal to different lives and times, and the best works evoke the character of both.

As I read Edmund Morris’s stout volumes on Theodore Roosevelt I wouldn’t have been surprised to look out the window and see a steam locomotive churn by, with the grinning President waving from the last car. I certainly heard the lonesome whistle.

The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson befriended French author Pierre Assouline in 1994, and for five years their conversations were a bridge into another intensely private world. The resulting book is HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON, A BIOGRAPHY, translated from the French by David Wilson. The book contains a modest 25 illustrations, and none of the black and white photographs which HCB became famous for. If you’re seeking visual proof of “the decisive moment” here, you will be disappointed. What you will discover is a man on a lifelong search for those moments, and it is a determined course over many of the 20th Century’s most historic hurdles.

At times I felt I was chasing HCB down an alley; when I would lose sight, he would reappear in a different spot, always on the move. No doubt part of this is because I do not speak French; the places, politics, and people referred to in that language were largely lost to me. After a while I stopped pursuing in a straight line and skipped ahead…then backwards…and so on to the final chapter. In this it is like reading a book of poetry, another HCB passion. This is not a “photography” book but a testament to a person’s life vision and how they lived it, intensely and with character.

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