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In summing up his artistic outlook, Cartier-Bresson once said during a BBC interview citing English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626), “The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion without substitution or imposture is, in its self, a noble thing than a whole harvest of inventions.” He added, “That is a respect of reality.”
Shortly thereafter Cartier-Bresson was at the Pompidou Centre sketching a Matisse portrait busy and focused and paying no attention to the people who were milling around snapping pictures of him. He was absorbed in his world while others were amused by the simple sight of an old man so engrossed in his sketching. When he finally called it a day and got up to leave, Cartier-Bresson caught sight of a couple seated aside each other on a bench with a child resting on the man’s shoulders.
“A perfect composition if you cut out the woman,” he said before making a short chopping gesture towards her. Taken aback by the suddenness of an old man’s movements, the woman was startled.
“Why didn’t I bring my camera?” Cartier-Bresson asked himself. Then he clicked an imaginary shutter and left.
Cartier-Bresson passed away at the age of 95 in 2004 in Céreste in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence* in France. The cause of death was never made public. He was buried in Cimetière de Montjustin in the same province. His wife Martine Franck and daughter Mélanie continue to promote his works today through the HCB Foundation.
* Some other media reports had claimed that he died in l’Ile-sur-Sorgue in the rural Vaucluse region in south-eastern France
Cartier-Bresson in 1989 (c) Charles Platiau/Reuters Newmedia-Corbis
In the 1985 publication called, ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson in India,’ Satyajit Ray, famed for his Apu Trilogy, wrote in its preface words that described the man who has done for photography no others at any time has matched let alone changed:
“(His work was)…unique in its fusion of head and heart, in its wit and its poetry… The deep regard for people that is revealed in these Indian photographs as well as in his photographs of any people anywhere in the world, invests them with a palpable humanism. Add to this the unique skill and vision that raise the ordinary and the ephemeral to a monumental level and you have the hallmark of the greatest photographer of our time.”
Philip Brookman* in his article called, ‘Conversations in Silence,’ perhaps put it very aptly:
“…Cartier-Bresson’s pictures have influenced generations of followers. His photographs have entered our collective memory, lodged there like signposts in the visual narrative of this century. His portraits, of famous and anonymous lives, bring personalities to life by merging their often-complex psychologies with an economy of formal elegance. He is equally at home as an artist and as a journalist.”
* Philip Brookman is a curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The famous “Tête à Tête: Portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson was held at the National Portrait Gallery from October 29 1999 to January 9 2000 at which time his article, ‘Conversations in Silence’ was written.