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Book Reivew: Henri Cartier-Bresson: Here and Now


Book Review Henri Cartier-Bresson: Here and Now Edited by Clement Cheroux Reviewed by Blake Andrews For miners of photographic history, Henri Cartier-Bresson is a reliable vein. His oeuvre was influential, brilliant and massive. So what if his best photos have already circulated for decades? There's always more where they came from, and more after that. Every time the ore seems played out, someone sifts through the tailings with a slightly new approach and returns with more treasure.

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Edited by Clement Chéroux.
Thames & Hudson, 2014.
 
Henri Cartier-Bresson: Here and Now
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Here and Now
Edited by Clement Chéroux

Thames & Hudson, 2014. 416 pp., 500 color illustrations, 9¾x11¾".

For miners of photographic history, Henri Cartier-Bresson is a reliable vein. His oeuvre was influential, brilliant and massive. So what if his best photos have already circulated for decades? There's always more where they came from, and more after that. Every time the ore seems played out, someone sifts through the tailings with a slightly new approach and returns with more treasure.

The treasure hunting began during Cartier-Bresson's life, shortly after he gave up photography in the 1970s, and the pace has only increased since his death in 2004. In 1992, ICP gave us Photographs. In 1996 it was Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Artless Art, followed a few years later by Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image, & The World. There was Scrapbook in 2007, Photographing America in 2009, Portraits in 2010, all of which were capped off by MoMA's The Modern Century in 2011, intended as the critical standard bearer on Cartier-Bresson. At this point one wonders what's left to consider?

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Edited by Clement ChérouxThames & Hudson, 2014.

Plenty as it turns out. And now the French have a taken a shot at it. Clement Chéroux's Here And Now is a massive retrospective, with hardcover tome (400 pages, 500 illustrations) published by Thames & Hudson in conjunction with a large exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This is the first French overview of HCB since Chéroux's own book Discoveries (2008), and a significant expansion on that earlier work. More importantly it's been put together with help from Martine Franck, Cartier-Bresson's wife, colleague, and possibly the person who knew him best, and with full cooperation and access to the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation.

Does all of that add up to the definitive statement on HCB? I'm not sure any book can do that, but this one adds a few new clues to the puzzle. The main effort here seems to be to separate Cartier-Bresson from the legacy of The Decisive Moment with which he has been so closely associated. Yes, he did formulate that philosophy but he was many other things as well: surrealist, activist, war prisoner, fugitive, international wanderer, communist, filmmaker, Magnum founder, reporter, and those are just the tip of the iceberg. All of these facets and more are explored in the book.

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Edited by Clement ChérouxThames & Hudson, 2014.

Here and Now recounts his life in roughly chronological order, with heavy emphasis on his political ideas and activism, along with some of the very familiar photos we've come to cherish, and many less familiar. There are several previously unpublished color slides, and some great early paintings, as well as examples of later drawings, which are perhaps less inspiring. Following the fashion of recent photobooks, there is a wide mix of photographs, clippings, and scrapbook reproductions, all scattered in dynamic layout that keeps the eye entertained from page to page. Not only is the emphasis not on The Decisive Moment, the curation goes out of its way to reject it. Very few of the photographs chosen exemplify that philosophy, and even the ones that do are given a twist. One of Cartier-Bresson's best known Decisive Moment photos, of a woman recognizing her Gestapo informer, is represented in the book not as a sequence rising to inevitable peak, but as a series of film stills casually recording cinematic footage.

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Edited by Clement ChérouxThames & Hudson, 2014.
Henri Cartier-Bresson. Edited by Clement ChérouxThames & Hudson, 2014.

Once The Decisive Moment is removed from the equation, HCB the modernist steps into the void. His photography was always distinguished by impeccable geometry and dispassionate remove. But in Here and Now that graphic sense is expanded to encompass his paintings, drawings, and very early photographs. If his photography has been criticized as cold and abstract, those roots are very much in evidence here. Crowds at a distance or from above translate magically into Kline-like strokes. He always seemed to know where to stand, and how to translate the subject into chiaroscuro. Some of the portraits and still lives in this book could be lifted from a low-res Ed Weston scrapbook. Cold? Yes, maybe. Cold-blooded killer of visual geometry. The 20th century was one huge visual playground, from which he could build and create as he pleased. And so he did.

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Edited by Clement ChérouxThames & Hudson, 2014.

The only problem with the book is the reproductions, which are consistently muddy, blocked up, and strangely yellowed. I think there was an attempt to remain true to the look of old prints or perhaps to the newsprint on which many of Cartier-Bresson's photos were originally published. The scrapbook effect is in full force, but unfortunately it detracts from the clarity of the photos. This effect varies throughout the book. Some photos are printed better than others. But in the worst cases (Madrid, Spain or Seville, Spain, for example) the images are downright ugly.

Equally mystifying is the decision to reprint all of the photos with full-frame border cropped out. This is an ironic decision for a photographer who famously declared himself against cropping, and it runs counter to the style of many previously published Cartier-Bresson books. Perhaps it was an effect added in later years but it's one to which we've grown accustomed, and it's come to be associated with his work. So to not see it here is jarring. I think the book would've been improved with at least a few photographs printed full-frame.

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Edited by Clement ChérouxThames & Hudson, 2014.

For Francophiles, Here and Now goes a long way toward reclaiming him for the homeland. This is both fitting and somewhat awkward, since in recent years France has severely restricted the sort of candid public photography with which Cartier-Bresson made his name. But he was a Frenchman through and through, a flaneur on a mission. And now with this grand book and exhibition France embraces its native son, at least until some other retrospective draws him away again in search of more treasure.—BLAKE ANDREWS


BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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