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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Sidetrack: Home On The Range

whitetailHurrying north out of Idaho, Montana state Highway 93 gallops through the Bitterroot Valley to Missoula, then accelerates past Arlee, Ravali, St. Ignatius, Ronan and around Flathead Lake to Kalispell and on to Glacier National Park. Over the hot tourist months it is two-lane mayhem at its worst…sweeping curves, deceptive stretches of straightaway, and too many people in their hurry to see America.

Change your pace and exit this stampede at Ravali, about 50 miles north of Missoula. Turn west onto Highway 200; you’ll immediately cross a bridge over the Flathead River, and although you won’t suspect it, the hills bunching up on the passenger’s side are part of the National Bison Range. Motoring south from Glacier, angle west onto Highway 212 a short ways after Ronan and follow the signs.

A variety of habitats comprise the NBR’s 18,500 acres, from prairie land to forest, and you can experience most of these closely. A self-guiding one-way loop road traverses the hills before topping out at Red Sleep Mountain (on clear days, that’s Flathead Lake in the distance). Viewing the animals, especially the bison, should be done from your vehicle, for your safety and theirs. Walking is encouraged at the small ponds located near the Range’s entrance. Don’t underestimate the photographic potential there; the photo above was taken one evening as I drove out from the Visitor’s Center. Wildlife are often concealed in the tall reeds and cattails (whitetailed deer mostly), but I’ve encountered mink, muskrats, geese, ducks, and an unforgettable and inquisitive weasel on this short trail. (The latter answered the question “Why is a fish flopping in the middle of the path?”)

I was introduced to the NBR nearly 40 years ago; yet while the small communities around it are noticeably busier now, and yard lights speckle the Mission Valley nights, the bison herds still lumber up from Mission Creek in clouds of dust as they’ve always done, and the sun arcs slowly across The Big Sky, and if you forget you have to be somewhere else…your eyes may widen even as your heart rate goes down.
Bison's Dust Bath