In the most literal translation of the word from the Greek, anarchy means to be ‘without authority’. Although, it has been used to define a social movement, and often instills a sense of rebellion and disorder against the conservative and well-ordered establishment, a sense of chaos in fact that harks back to riots and revolutions throughout history and the dissolution of power. However, in order to define anarchy one must wrestle with the contradiction that doing so poses. Language is all about labels and definitions, statements of fact and ordered explanations of an altogether seemingly disorderly existence. To be a true anarchist, one simply needs to be, no explanations or labels necessary, no definitions to confine the freedom of the spirit as it steps blithely through life on its sensuous fleshy toes. Indeed, anarchy implies an indulgence in all that life has to offer without restriction or restraint. If violence and war are products of hierarchical systems, then an anarchic system might naturally imply the opposite.
The famed photographer and co-founder of Magnum Photos, Henri Cartier-Bresson was a self-proclaimed anarchist. He claimed to be an artist with a camera following his instinct, and capturing the world as he saw it, without prior motivation other than to live life and experience it to the full. He was non-violent, and full of the wonders and gratitude for life. His ethic was simple, yet not without form, despite his abhorrence of labels, and the accolades that the world festooned upon him. His discomfort was plainly obvious during one of his last and very rare interviews with American journalist, Charlie Rose, as Mr. Rose pressed the elderly Cartier-Bresson for answers to his searching questions, especially with regards to the artist’s definition of anarchy.
The concept that Henri Cartier-Bresson seems to be most famed for is his ‘Decisive Moment’, coined from the title of the english version of a photography book of his originally published in 1952. The French title ‘Images a la Sauvette’ just meant, ‘pictures taken on the run’.
According to Martine Franck, his second wife and fellow member of Magnum, he absolutely abhorred the term ‘The Decisive Moment’ and the association with him that it bestowed upon his legacy. Bill and I happen to share that deep-seated sentiment. The ‘Decisive Moment’ was coined as being that moment when the universe conspires to create the opportunity to capture the perfect picture, which was indeed something that the highly esteemed photographer believed in. Yet few seem to really understand what it means, and what Cartier-Bresson intended to capture with regards to his own instinctive and artistic vision, and his need to immortalise precious moments of his reality on photographic film. He believed in the perfection of his photographic moments. That in capturing a moment of life was like capturing its essence, so it therefore required no further tampering. To him such moments were about capturing the beauty and splendour of life, and thus about capturing pre-existing perfection.
Cartier-Bresson never saw a need to develop his own prints, to edit them, or to shoot in anything other than the charcoal tones of black and white. Photography was another artistic medium for him, a way of sketching with one finger instead of the three required to hold a pencil. The spontaneity of photography gave him the freedom to explore the world in a way that was less restrictive and time consuming than classical art, yet he was ever the classical artist viewing the world through its fine and inherent geometry, almost a contradiction in terms with regards to his anarchistic values.
Charlie Rose, however, perhaps like many of us seemed to find his host’s concept of anarchy a little confusing, and illusive, and when Cartier-Bresson referred to the fight necessary to combat modern society’s slow descent into chaos, the dogged journalist seized on the decisive moment and sank his teeth into the word ‘fight’ as if the free-spirited artist had let slip his secret and his real intent behind his illustrious catalogue of work and his life. Journalists like dogs like to dig in the dirt, and I’m guessing Mr. Rose had thoroughly done his research on the nonagenarian’s perhaps sometimes sordid and questionable personal history. But for a man nearing the end of his life and having experienced so much from the heights of fame, to the horrors of war, it was obvious at least to both me and Bill as we watched the interview, that the dirt and the love of his wife Martine were the only protection he had left from the harsh exposure of the world. Famous or not, ones’ personal history and beliefs is nobody else’s business, and it was obvious to see that Cartier-Bresson shared that sentiment.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s body of work spans decades, and he was prolific in the way that many professional photojournalists are. Whether he or his work form the pinnacle of photographic achievement to date is a highly subjective and questionable subject of debate. He was a good photographer in a sea of good photographers. Was he the best? I don’t think so, and by the sounds of it from the interview below, he didn’t think so either. He just loved what he did. An artisan with a camera as he called himself, that’s all.
The following interview is a must see for all photography and Cartier-Bresson fans. There is nothing like hearing things straight from the horse’s mouth in dispelling long overrated popular myths. Enjoy!