Oh Henri!

Nick Pinkerton on “Henri Cartier-Bresson in Motion” at Anthology Film Archives

Henri Cartier-Bresson, L'Espagne Vivra (Spain Will Live), 1938, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 44 minutes.

THE PHRASE THAT PHOTOGRAPHER HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON IS FOREVER LINKED TO—that of “The Decisive Moment”—seems near to an assertion of the primacy of the still image’s power over that of the moving image, the single absolutely right frame over hundreds of approximate ones, and suspended tension and mystery over unfurling drama. The phrase provides the title for an exhibition of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs currently on display at the International Center for Photography, accompanied by a program of moving-image work produced by or dedicated to the photographer at Anthology Film Archives. In a lecture accompanying the opening of the ICP exhibition, Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson artistic director Agnès Sire interrogated the myth of “The Decisive Moment,” which was connected to the photographer’s 1952 collection Images a la Sauvette in an English-language publication, and has stuck around ever since (though a closer translation is “images on the run”).

To move away from the idea of a single “decisive” Cartier-Bresson is to move away from a decided Cartier-Bresson, so to return the reflex and spontaneity to this life’s work caught on the fly—and here the seven programs that make up Anthology’s “Henri Cartier-Bresson in Motion”––is key in expanding the established view of the artist. In point of fact, the ability to produce compelling still and moving images involves discrete skill sets, and possession of one is far from a guarantee of excelling at the other. Directors Abbas Kiarostami and Wim Wenders both make the grade as still shooters, though only a few photographers make filmmakers of the first rate—offhand, I can think of Larry Clark, Raymond Depardon, and, on the basis of the incomplete Stranded in Canton, William Eggleston. However, the less well-established teenaged Look magazine contributor Stanley Kubrick, whose photographic work is now the subject of an ongoing exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, went on to do fairly well for himself in motion pictures.

Cartier-Bresson, born in 1908, is a figure who looms as large in twentieth-century photography as Kubrick does in cinema, but he was always a multihyphenate by nature. Oil painting was his first love, and toward the end of his very, very long life, he had returned to working primarily on a sketchpad—and there was a time when he might very well have been lured by movies. He traveled to New York in 1935 for an exhibition, then still going by the name Henri Cartier; there, his interest in moving pictures was stirred when he became friendly with the photographer and filmmaker Paul Strand, a habitué of the modernist redoubt that was Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen’s 291 art gallery. Strand was best known in avant-garde cinema circles for his silent city symphony Manhatta (1921), codirected with painter and photographer Charles Sheeler.

At the time that Cartier-Bresson came to know him, Strand was leading the leftist filmmaking cooperative Nykino and serving as one of several cinematographers contributing material to Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), a short underwritten by the New Deal–era Resettlement Administration that illustrates the manner in which short-sighted agricultural practices led to the ecological catastrophe of the Dust Bowl. Returning to France, Cartier-Bresson became an assistant to Jean Renoir, then at the height of his prewar prestige, working alongside Jacques Becker—who, incidentally, is the subject of a retrospective at the reopened Film Forum beginning on August 1—and Luchino Visconti. Anthology plays two of the three Renoir films that Cartier-Bresson worked on, missing only The Rules of the Game (1939), in which he appears as a servant. He also pops up in the miraculous A Day in the Country, shot in 1936 but only released in a semicomplete form a decade later, donning a seminarian’s cassock alongside Becker and author Georges Bataille.

Jean Renoir, La vie est à nous, 1936, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 66 minutes.

A dulcet riverbank reverie set in the previous century, A Day in the Country is one of Renoir’s loveliest and most altogether lovable films. However, the direction in which Cartier-Bresson would head as a fledgling filmmaker is better indicated by La vie est à nous (Life Belongs to Us, 1936), a propagandistic effort paid for by the French Communist Party and produced by Frontier Films, an organization that evolved from Nykino. In the New Deal America that Cartier-Bresson had recently left, as in the France he returned to (governed by the left-wing coalition of the Front populaire), it seemed to many a shirking of duty in the face of impending crisis not to produce art in service of political imperatives. La vie est à nous does this in the form of leveling a j’accuse at the two hundred leading French families it holds responsible for the suffering of the working class and the incipient rise of fascism.

Renoir would effectively disavow La vie est à nous in later years, in effect leading a project he had been intimately involved with to be redesignated as a collective undertaking. His “fellow traveler” period barely even lasted out the 1930s; as noted in Pascal Mérigeau’s superlative biography of the great filmmaker, Renoir was a natural-born people-pleaser whose commitments went whichever way the wind was blowing, and he made no bones about expressing his fondness for Benito Mussolini while preparing to direct Tosca in fascist Italy in 1940. Cartier-Bresson, however, remained true to the international left, and the next decade would find him completely immersed in the struggle for Europe, which is reflected in his cinematic output.

Henri Cartier-Bresson and Herbert Kline, Victoir de la vie (Return to life), 1937, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 47 minutes.

Victoire de la vie (Return to Life, 1937), L’Espagne vivra (Spain Will Live, 1938), and the recently rediscovered With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain (1937–38) are all the result of boots-on-the-ground work on the shell-shocked Iberian Peninsula, documents of a besieged Madrid and flooded field hospitals from the front lines of the fight between the Spanish Republican Army and the German-Italian allied Nationalists led by Francisco Franco. Lambasting the French-British Non-Intervention Agreement of 1936 as short-sighted and suicidal for the European democracies—the scornful image of a brolly-toting Neville Chamberlain recurs—Victoire de la vie and L’Espagne vivra petition the French public for financial contributions to the war effort and to provide relief to a beleaguered civilian populace. The tone in L’Espagne vivre is relentlessly positive, crowing over the victory at the Battle of Guadalajara and emphasizing the unflagging support of the native Spanish peasants for the Republican cause—as opposed to the Nationalist reliance on fascist armaments and “Moorish” foot soldiers imported from Morocco as if to, per film historian Georges Sadoul, roll back the Reconquista. This brio is touching, though from a vantage point eighty years later, the images tell a very different story, as the threadbare, under-equipped Republican units drilling for the front appear doomed, doomed, doomed.

The tone shifts from resolution to weary acceptance in Cartier-Bresson’s next film, Le Retour (The Return, 1945), a document of the bedraggled survivors of Nazi prison camps. Working at the behest of the US Army Signal Corps, Cartier-Bresson captures the DDT disinfections at Displaced Persons camps, the mass movement across pontoon bridges, the weeding out of collaborationists, and a panorama of the toll of war as etched in individual human faces. It’s Cartier-Bresson’s greatest contribution to cinema, invested with the heft of his lived experience—captured during the Battle of France, he spent almost three years in a POW camp before finally escaping, after two failed attempts.

This experience, among others, is touched on in Heinz Bütler’s Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye, a 2003 documentary made in the lead-up to a retrospective at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, which finds the photographer a still lucid and engaging subject at the end of his days. Among the assembled talking heads are several members of the Magnum Photos cooperative, cofounded by Cartier-Bresson in 1947, as well as admirers including Isabelle Huppert and Arthur Miller, who once commented that the US “is a place of great extremes, and if you choose to look at the extremes it can be very tragic.”

Cartier-Bresson does exactly that in the certifiable discoveries of Anthology’s series: California Impressions (1970) and Southern Exposures (1971), two documentaries made for CBS News shot respectively in the Golden State and Mississippi, remarkable not only for putting the now internationally celebrated photographer back behind a film camera but for encouraging him to work in color. These are not groundbreaking as films—they are essentially composed of strings of vignettes, and Cartier-Bresson doesn’t experiment much with form beyond letting the audio from one scene bleed into the one preceding—but are captivating as reportages from a country still vibrating with the shockwaves of the 1960s, driven to spiritual questing. (Seen back to back, they suggest parallels between squalling Esalen Institute therapy and speaking-in-tongues back-country tent revivals.)

Differentiating his two lens-based disciplines after a Paris screening of Southern Exposures, Cartier-Bresson said, “Photography is sketching. On the other hand, to make a film is to make a speech.” While Cartier-Bresson, to use his metaphor, was more of a sketch artist than a raconteur, the sideline in movies he pursued through his peripatetic life resulted in a body of work offering up fresh questions about the relationship between politics and aesthetics, cinema and photography, and the decisive and the indefinite in art.

“Henri Cartier-Bresson in Motion” runs from July 20 through July 26 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.