Book Review,  Reviews

An inner silence: The portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson

Now, I’ll admit to a little bias here. Henri Cartier-Bresson remains an inspiration to me. He and many of his contemporaries like Lee Miller, Robert Doisneau, Bill Brandt and Eve Arnold combined great technique, visual awareness and a deep sense of our shared humanity. And they allowed the stories they told to speak.

Notwithstanding my personal bias, this is a sumptuous colection of portraits; the first to be drawn entirely from the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson. The ferocious aquiline face of Samuel Beckett glaring off leftward challenging you, open the book, see what he cares.

But this isn’t just a few of Cartier-Bresson’s famous friends. Ordinary folk get the same elegant, respectful treatment. All photographed in HCB’s quiet, non intrusive style, the apparent lack of artifice demanding of real skill and humanity. All are placed within a telling environment, there are no tight head shots or drop out backgrounds here. An approach which is often touted as the essence of the genuine photojournalist, a label Cartier-Bresson steadfastly refused. I feel like I’m being gifted a privileged glimpse of the sitter’s life at that moment, that thirtieth of a second or thereabouts. Though whether that glimpse is of the sitter’s image of their life, or HCB’s vision of that image is an intriguing question.

As in real life rarely does the subject look directly toward you, most people here are somewhere in contemplation, gaze askew. Perhaps they’re looking for that inner silence of the title?  To my eyes the best use of this is Edith Piaf. I probably don’t really want to know what her inner silence was screaming at her; yet her off kilter gaze piques my curiosity. Sartre comes a very close second; I think his sideways silence I’d like to hear. Where people do look at the camera it is  to startling effect, who’d have thought Truman Capote could ever have appeared as such such a surly teenager? Or Ezra Pound look so sternly demanding?** Here, the protrait becomes more dialogue than observation, the sitter clearly aware of the photographer, and by implication the reader of the image. I find it intriguing that Susan Sontag, a brilliant writer on photography and companion of Annie Leibovitz, is one of the sitters looking quite evasively away from the camera.

Together with the mis-en-place nature of the images another point of compositon arises in these works. When flicking through, though images are generally in the same position on the page, the head positions and eye lines form no real discernable pattern. There’s a flexibility and deep craft skill here. With some modern photographer’s books this is not the case, faces are all centre or edge, eyes full forward. Obviously, both approaches are artifice. Personally I generally prefer HCB’s compositional approach, it feels more respectful; that one is photographing the person rather than creating another portrait by X. In our modern must be shiny-happy world a small thing rattles a rather welcome discord throughout all but one of the portraits; the sitters are serious, almost no-one smiles. The lone exception is the glorious lady from Vicksburg, smiling with mouth and eyes; a lovely portrait.

So, this is a portfolio book. Does it deserve a place on your bookshelf?

Well, yes it does. Whether you simply enjoy beautifully printed books or wish to study the work of a master portraitist. And that goes whether you use a camera or brush; an artist(portraitist) friend went out and bought her own after reading my well thumbed copy.

Go buy your own.

160pp, 20×24 cm softback
97 tritone photographic illustrations on a heavy warm tone paper
extended introductory essay, The Given Gaze
Compiled by:
Agnes Sire
Jean-Luc Nancy
Publisher: Thames & Hudson Ltd
Publication date: 2010
ISBN-13: 9780500288757
Cover price: £18.95 at publication; currently out of print.

If you have a local independent bookshop I urge you, please buy from them. If not, you can find an indy on this ever growing map of Independent Booksellers.

* Before anyone asks, yes these are my bookshelves. They really are that jumbled and full.

**Okay, they’re not perhaps the most original illustrations of my point(and the descriptions should be read in a sarcastic/knowingly ironic tone), perhaps better is the deeply moving portrait of Elsa Triolet.