Eye of the century

Henri Cartier-Bresson
1908 - 2004

Photos by the legendary lensman and a tribute to him by
Raghu Rai

Henri Cartier-Bresson had a deep and fascinating relationship with reality. Photography, for him, was a medium for discovering and communicating a myriad facets and depths of reality "You close one eye and look at the world from the window of the camera with the other eye. One eye is looking at the reality outside and at the same time stay in touch with the closed eye which is looking inward," he said. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson

The photographs did not interest him as much; he wanted to seize the whole essence in the confines of one single photograph of each situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before his eyes.

Multitudes gather to pay their last respects to Gandhi, Delhi, 1948
Multitudes gather to pay their last respects to Gandhi, Delhi, 1948

Only a realised master can simplify the process of creativity and share it with such clarity. 

He successfully bridged the gap between his vision and reality and met the requirements of his imagination. This he did by redefining the role and purpose of photography. 

Before Henri photography was the handmaiden of the painting. The more a photograph approximated a painting, the better it was. 

The pictorial and the visually scenic captured the attention of the people. Truly the role of photography cannot be replaced by any other art form.

So he revolutionised and redefined the role of photography and powerfully demonstrated the rich possibility of the medium. 

To him, photography was the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event. 

That's what people with vision are all about. In place of record-shots and predictable series of pictures what Henri captured in his photographs was the spirit of the time so that the images breathed a life and vitality of their own.

Gandhi in Birla House, a day before his assassination, Delhi, 1948
Gandhi in Birla House, a day before his assassination, Delhi, 1948

Henri's pictures, be they about momentous eras in a country's history or about daily-life happenings, have in them the space and experience captured with intuitive reflexes. In his pictures you have various elements of life existing separately as well as resonating with everything else around them. 

What they emit is the energy that is reflected through emotions, body language or textural forms happening in the now. Apart from photographs in a multicultural and historical context, a bulk of his work comprises daily-life pictures in which 'everydayness' of life surfaces in all its grace, spontaneity and quietness.

Henri's notion that a photographer needs to have "a cool eye and a warm heart" was self-explanatory and very true to his work. 

His pictures were conceived in "silence". Every element spoke up from its very depths. 

What is true of the context is also valid for the content. His use of lenses - telephotos and wide-angle lenses - never distorted the human form or the structures around it. What did he stand for? 

Indira Gandhi at a Congress Committee session, Jaipur, 1966
Indira Gandhi at a Congress Committee session, Jaipur, 1966

A person of extreme sensitivity and wide human sympathies, he chose to travel to far-off places in a diverse multicultural milieu. 

He had immense respect for different cultural denominations and connected with people deeply.

Through the rich body of work he left behind, Henri will always be known for the wealth of creative possibilities - in fact a realm of new possibilities. 

His work clearly offers many a take-offs in many directions. Many have benefitted from this and many more surely will.

I recall one incident that speaks of his sensitivity and true humility. In the mid 1980s I was in Paris as a part of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's media entourage. 

As I positioned myself on the steps of the first floor of the Eiffel Tower, a security officer told me not to stand there. After much fuss I was allowed to stay there. 

Everything was fine. Then another security officer bothered me for a few minutes. 

Then I saw a figure approaching me, and thinking that it was another security officer, I pretended to be taking pictures and he kept waiting. Finally I turned towards him and discovered it was Henri. Looking at him I said "It's you Henri." To which he said, "Since you were taking pictures, I didn't want to disturb you." Such were his sensitivity and humility.