Granted, the exhibition “Images à la Sauvette” at the Fondation Cartier-Bresson (January 11 – April 23, 2017) is a great opportunity to see most of the photographs published in the eponymous –and mythical– album, be it for the first time or once again. Undoubtedly, it will be an interesting discovery for neophytes, and a refresh of pleasant memories for long-time amateurs of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work. But it seemed there were no surprises, nothing original, until I happened on a short 1’40’’ film, shown in a nook, in which we can see the Frenchman at work (although he apparently hated being photographed of filmed), caught in action by the American photographer Gjon Mili. The scene takes place during the celebrations for the Chinese New Year in New York, in 1959: paper dragons, firecrackers, a crowd… nothing extraordinary, just partying. But in the midst of this crowd, we see a man dancing, jumping, bouncing around in whirls and zigzags, gently elbowing his way, taking a step back, two steps aside, three steps forward, ready for anything.
Henri Cartier-Bresson said it himself: the photographer has to be swift like the referee of a boxing match, just outside the fight but still in the action, attentive, aware of every little thing. With, at the end of his/her arm, as an extension of him/herself, as a prosthesis, a Leica camera. The photographer’s gesture, according to Vilém Flusser, is very much comparable to the philosopher’s, concerned with similar questions: choosing a point of view as methodical doubt, photographically altering reality as a questioning of objective causality, and reflexively using critical distance in front of images as a manifestation of philosophical freedom. The photographer is not a distant observer, a detached outsider: the very scene that is pictured includes him/her. In as much his/her camera is an instrument, the photographer is also a tool in service of the camera. Even if you know Cartier-Bresson inside out, go and watch this short video (I cannot find it via Google; instead, the image pictured above comes from Roger Kahane’s film L’Aventure moderne).
Original publication date by Lunettes rouges: February 10, 2017.
Translation by Lucas Faugère