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By the early Seventies Cartier-Bresson was considered retired and other than the odd private portrait, he no longer indulged in photography although he never quite rid himself of his Leica. Kept in a safe in his house, he rarely took it out anymore. Putting a 45-year photographic career behind him, Cartier-Bresson once said, “I never think about photography…it doesn’t interest me.” (Susan Stamberg, NPR, Jul 3 2003)
Surprisingly he never thought of himself as imaginative and that certainly comes across as a surprise given his magnitude as a great photographer of impeccable enigma. As Cartier-Bresson applied himself to his drawings and paintings, it was clear that what he possessed in his photography was largely absent in his canvas. Subjects for his paintings were essentially those of French life such as buildings, landscapes, museum artefacts, portraits of friends and models including one of his second wife, Martine. While competent, they lack the spontaneity that he was famous for although his use of colour was distinct only because he lacked this medium in his photography.
In 1975 the Carlton Gallery in New York held Cartier-Bresson’s first exhibition of his drawings.
In the twilight of his years, Cartier-Bresson would be at his studio near the Place des Victoires or in the Louvre or at his apartment overlooking the Tuileries where he enjoyed the panoramic views that captivated the imagination of Monet and Pissarro more than a century ago. In any of these places, he would be seen drawing or painting.
Just prior to turning 95, Cartier-Bresson together with his wife Martine and daughter established the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation (http://www.henricartierbresson.org), coinciding with a retrospective of his work held at the French National Library. It was also the country’s first private foundation that was dedicated to photography. Having almost removed himself from photography, Cartier-Bresson would insist that he no longer wanted to talk about the art form.
“It’s like when you’re divorced and people keep asking you about your former wife,” he said, “…there’s something indecent about it.” Nonetheless he couldn’t actually keep himself away from it.
The French Government recognised the Foundation for its value and interest to the public, housing it in an elegant refurbished atelier in Montparnasse. As it is written in their website, the aims of the Foundation are:
To preserve the independence and keep alive the spirit of HCB’s work
To maintain this exceptional heritage in France, which will be inalienable and open to visitors
To show – through exhibitions – the ‘highlights’ of the collection and the work of other photographers, painters, sculptors. This is the originality of the Foundation.
To allow scholars access to carefully organised archives for research purposes
To encourage creativity through a biennial grant programme that provides financial support for a photography project selected by an international jury
To stimulate exchange and debate through an ongoing conference and lecture programme
Perhaps the setting up of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation best echoes the importance that Cartier-Bresson himself placed the element of humanism, his longstanding ethic in his work as a photojournalist. In essence his subjects were predominantly people. He sees them with an eye for warmth, amusement, empathy, connectedness, curiosity and sensitivity.
Cartier-Bresson spoke of photography as an art form that required emotions and not just the technical dexterity of the head and hand. In other words the heart was an important part of what his eyes saw. His brand of humanism coveted both a respect for his subjects as much as it must serve an audience. In his book ‘The Decisive Moment’ Cartier-Bresson wrote of, “a world weighted down with preoccupations,” with people “needing the companionship of images.”
“What is most satisfying for a photographer is not recognition, success and so forth. It is communication – what you say can mean something to other people, can be of a certain importance.”