Book Review,  Photography,  Reviews

The Mind’s Eye, Writings on Photography and Photographers by Henri Cartier-Bresson

A collection of writing by the epitome of the reportage photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson; The Mind’s Eye, Writings on Photography and Photographers.

Henri Cartier-Bresson is perhaps(anyone else for Robert Doisneau?) the most influential photojournalist the world has ever known. A co-founder of Magnum, civilised observer and skilled artist. The Mind’s Eye is the first book to collect some of his writings conveniently together in one place. For those who don’t read French or Spanish it’s a first chance to become acquainted with some of them at all. There are three logical sections, the camera as a sketchbook, travel notes and pen portraits of some of his fellow photographers and other friends; an illustrious lot. It’s actually, if one is brutal, yet another book on how to take photographs. Yet refreshingly it doesn’t contain a single passage about the correct film, or lens, or waistcoat needed to make photographs. There’s nothing here about the physical minutiae of how to compose a photograph. There is though a great deal about what goes through one master practitioner’s head while, and around, making photographs. Basically, about being a photographer; ultimately, this is far more use.

The opening section, ‘The camera as sketchbook’ forms an interesting read. In places there’s Cartier-Bresson reflecting on the changes an increasing use of colour film brings to reportage. We now have similar debates over the use of digital capture. Personally I find myself increasingly drawn toward a return to the mechanical rangefinder camera, fast prime lenses and monochrome film. Beyond the device used to make the image though, the real debate is surely down to the honesty and integrity of us as photographers, that of our editors and that of our publishers.

His four travel pieces collected in ‘Time and place’ cover Europe, Moscow in the USSR, Cuba and China. Quite the collection for a man who claimed not to know how to travel. As with his photographs, they’re all quiet, reflective and concerned with people. Often they’re concerned with the very best of people, sometimes not. ‘From one China to another’, the brief tale of his encounter with the Chinese revolution, feels remarkably hopeful. Then the postnote from 1989 rings like some Wagnerian anvil strike;

“I was in Nanjing in 1949 when the Liberation Army arrived. At that time, I had the impression that those men were still holding on to the ideal of the prestige of that colossal epic, The Long March. Today, after Tienanmen Square, it is the great ignominy of the Chinese Army to have tried to save, with the blood of students, a dying regime.”

Thankfully, the closing piece in this section, on Cuba is genuinely far more hopeful.

The final section, ‘On photographers and friends’ makes up for there only being ten photographic illustrations in the book. Cartier-Bresson had the same vision, kindness, affection and skill at writing pen portraits as he did with a charcoal or a Leica. Note here, these are influential folk, Giacometti, Renoir, Doisneau, Chim, Breton and others. Among them resides one of the most under recognised women in photography; Sarah Moon. She deserves far more recognition, on many levels. The very final piece, a letter politely refusing an invitation to The Sorbonne Colloquium on “The Photographic Act” from the “Cahiers de la photographie” is a delight. It proves, once again, that one doesn’t have to be nice to be polite. Perhaps it should be, along with this book, required reading for all critics and ‘theoreticians of the philosophy of the photographic act’*.

As you may gather, Henri Cartier-Bresson has inspired me almost throughout my life. I find this book fascinating, it gives background to his work, and it has helped me in a reconsideration of where I choose to take my photography. It sits nicely in the hand, is beautifully printed and is that comfortable tattiness of regular reading. For any thinking photographer, an essential read.

107pp, 16×21 cm hardback with dust jacket
10 photographic illustrations, one nude sketch, Martine Franck portrait on back cover
Publisher: Aperture
ISBN  978-0-89381-875-3

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.  For this book though, you’ll be trawling second hand book dealers; a special joy.

* I actually had someone introduce themselves to me as such. It’s just possible they may have recognised a camera or photograph, given a simple enough book and enough time. I shudder to think what they would have made of it though.