On an upper wall of the staircase in our family house is a framed black and white photograph of a set of stairs rising crookedly between the edges of white-walled houses. Towards the top of the photograph a young girl is caught running energetically but erratically upwards. Light is dappled, shadows cutting shafts through sunlight and emphasising the dazzling whiteness of the buildings. The photograph was taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson and requires no identifying signature.
Cartier-Bresson’s photographs have a spontaneity, a sense of the immediate. He was a master of the ‘now’, the captured instant, the unvarnished and unmediated moment. An artist of haunting absences, of the sharp image caught without any surrounding context or border. The visual author of the seemingly ordinary. Few other photographers have been able to spring such human stories into life without any ordering script. Cartier-Bresson snapped intuitively.
Lockdown needs a Cartier-Bresson to record barely populated streets with randomly spread inhabitants. Anonymous, stray passings of one person by another. Carefully distanced, unspoken encounters. An overwhelming human silence made bearable by birdsong and the rustle of leafing Spring trees. Rare sightings of vehicles. Shapeless scenes. Cartier-Bresson froze such moments. He focussed on individuals or groups, caught them spontaneously on film. His simple 35mm camera and his searching eye fused as he swung into quiet action: the bystander as participant. His kind of undidactic photographs are what we need now: images without comment but sensitive to palpable public anxieties laced with boredom. His monochrome shadows reflect an unease we all feel about the uncertainties waiting around the corner ahead. Notwithstanding the sunshine we have enjoyed so much of late, our present lives are in black and white, not in colour.
Cartier-Bresson was a philosopher with a camera. He was a slightly odd amalgam of a Surrealist and a news photographer. Sometimes his photos look like those of his mentor, Andre Kertesz, with his idiosyncratic ’take’ on the world. At other times they appear like the news photos of Robert Capa, who, with Cartier-Bresson and others founded the co-operative agency, ‘Magnum Photos’, in 1947. Cartier-Bresson was both unforgettably French but also cosmopolitan. His time in Africa in 1931 when he nearly died of ‘blackwater fever’ was among many influences also on his camera’s eye. His preference for ‘ordinary’ people over celebrated ones, took root early. Sent in 1937 to photograph the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, he concentrated on the lines of people in the streets and rather ignored the new King and Queen. After the Second World War he travelled the world for ‘Life’ magazine. But he was never overtly political; he observed the world rather than sat in judgement upon it. He was always an artist with an artist’s vocation. As he wrote (in 1957):
“Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eyes must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
Cartier-Bresson’s photos had a distracting coolness about them. Take a look online, especially at his wonderful range of ‘streetscapes’. He would have recorded our lockdowned streets with irony and humour. He would have conveyed a sense of the temporary, of the transient. He would not have been interested in using his photography to imply or tease out political lessons or to hint at the changed world ahead. He would, as always, have simply ‘looked’ through the lens of his 35mm Leica. Such unpremeditated simplicity and focus would have soothed anxiety and the shadows in the frame disarmed us. Our lockdowned world would have been ‘taken’ at an angle which would have quietened us. Cartier-Bresson could have helped us live in the moment and not to fret over what we cannot control.