Why Cartier-Bresson, The Peintre Manqué, Became Photographer

I was glad to see that The New York Times featured its obituary of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) on the front page. After all, no other photographer of his time lived and worked so long or commanded the admiration of so many artists, critics, editors, museum curators and connoisseurs of photography-not to mention the public at large-and none bore worldwide fame with a more appealing combination of intelligence, authority, insouciance and self-deprecating irony. In high spirits, Henri (as I shall speak of him here) was as amusing as his most amusing pictures, and he was certainly a master of comedy in many of his photographs. Yet what was deepest about both the man and his work was the gravity of his moral candor.

It’s worth recalling that he wasn’t always so admired, especially among newspaper editors, as I discovered when I first wrote about his work for The Times back in 1968. The occasion was a large exhibition of Henri’s photographs at the Museum of Modern Art. I was then the art-news editor of The Times , and it was one of my duties to write for and edit the paper’s Sunday art page. When I wrote a piece about Henri’s exhibition, however, there was trouble.

No sooner had my review reached the Sunday department than I was called in by the Sunday editor, Dan Schwarz, who was in a state of intense indignation. “Why in the hell are you writing about photographs on the Sunday art page?” he asked. “You know, we have a whole staff of photographers on this paper who produce stuff like that.” Until then, alas, the subject of photography had been confined to The Times ‘ “Photo” column, which was of course more about cameras than about photographs. Without meaning to, I’d initiated a new policy by writing about Henri’s photographs for the art page.

Fortunately for me, the editor of the Sunday Drama section (precursor to the Arts & Leisure section), Seymour Peck, interceded on my behalf and managed to persuade Mr. Schwartz that it might be appropriate for the Sunday art page to devote some attention to photography from time to time. I look back on this episode with mixed feelings, for it sometimes seems to me that The Times devotes too much space to photographic trash.

Be that as it may, what has to be understood about Henri’s artistic sensibility is that even as a photographer, he remained essentially a peintre manqué , and the loss of his vocation as a painter remained for him a wound that never healed. Why, then, did he give up painting for photography?

The story I heard many years ago, but which I cannot vouch for, is this: When Henri informed his businessman father that he intended to pursue a career in painting, his father turned for advice to a family friend, the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche, who is mainly remembered-to the extent that he’s remembered at all-for his stylish portraits of the upper classes. Blanche was actually an interesting figure whose circle of friends included Degas, Renoir, Whistler, Proust and Henry James. Because he didn’t feel he was competent to judge “modern” painting, however, Blanche suggested that Henri take some examples of his painting to Gertrude Stein for an opinion.

According to the story, the meeting with Stein was devastating for Henri. She looked at a couple of his paintings and advised him to go into his father’s business, since he had no future as a painter. The awful irony is, of course, that Stein’s gifts as a connoisseur of modern painting were much exaggerated. It was her brother, Leo Stein, who had an expert “eye.” But it was Gertrude who had a famous salon and a talent for publicity, and thus took credit for all of her brother’s discoveries among the School of Paris masters. When they separated and Gertrude was left to judge paintings on her own, her idea of genius was Sir Francis Rose, a figure now happily forgotten.

If this is indeed the story of Henri’s abortive career as a painter, it’s certainly a mercy that he found a parallel career as a photographer, and was thus able to bring his pictorial sensibility to another medium. This was essentially the point I tried to make in the piece I wrote for The Times in 1968. “The analytical detachment which Mr. Cartier-Bresson achieves in the face of his subjects … is itself indicative of a certain disposition to form-specifically, to a kind of classicism that is essentially French,” I wrote. “Mr. Cartier-Bresson, who once aspired to be a painter, studied in his early years with Andre Lhote, and he brings to his photographic work a sensibility imbued with the Cubist aesthetic. There are no abstract images in this work; it abounds in vivid representations of particulars, in anecdote and reportage and minute attention to concrete detail. Yet the work belongs to Cubism, and to the larger tradition of French classicism of which Cubism is but the most recent chapter, by virtue of its compositional rigor, its clear and highly rational placement of forms, and its impeccable pictorial logic.”