I think it makes sense to write my first book article/review about one by, or at least almost by, my favourite photographer. That it comes with one of photography’s better anecdotes is a good bonus too.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was, in his stubborn and brusque (ie. French) way about as good at being a photographer as it is possible to be. He treated photography with dignity and respect without getting lost inside it. He was as much, if not more, a filmmaker and a painter who was coming to documentary work from surrealism. It all made a good mix.
For the record, you can expect his name to pop up semi-regularly on this blog. It already has, in fact. His work fascinates me in a sort of magical way, the same sort of feeling that makes one do nothing but giggle nervously when in front of the prettiest girl in the school. I’m good at looking at photographs and pulling them apart, finding what makes them tick and admiring them differently when I put them back together. That’s how I process photography. When I take one of HCB’s best photographs apart though, I never manage to put it together again. There are just too many bits, I can’t understand how they all fit together and I end up just giggling like a nervous little school boy again. The photographs just don’t have clues as to how they came into existence. They’re just there and it’s not for me to work out how it happened. At least not yet, maybe one day.
Anyway, book. During World War 2, HCB’s Leica was buried under a tree for a fair amount of the conflict, whilst he faired a little worse after being captured by the nazis. He made three escapes, the last of which saw him spending the rest of the war in hiding.
Meanwhile, whilst he was living and hiding in France he had died in America. Or at least the Museum of Modern Art thought he was dead and decided he was deserving of a posthumous exhibition. By all accounts they were a little surprised when he turned up, not at all dead, carrying a scrapbook of images that he felt should be included in an exhibition of his work having heard it was being planned. The exhibition was no longer posthumous but went ahead anyway.
And, that famous scrapbook having sat first in a suitcase, then a bookcase of HCB’s for several years, is reproduced here.
Except that it isn’t.
Unfortunately, despite HCB describing it as his most precious possession he started taking the pictures out of the scrapbook before anyone had fully noted which pictures were even included, let alone where. A few pages were left intact, perhaps when he realised this wasn’t his finest move, but the rest was emptied entirely.
Those few pages left intact are reproduced here, but the rest is just guesswork. Highly educated guesswork, but guesswork nonetheless and that somewhat undermines the book. It’s a beautiful thing, substantial and packed with magnificent images that are printed extremely well (though they are rather small) but…It’s just not what you want it to be. It’s just a compilation of his work from a specific era with some interesting supporting matter. Of course that isn’t anything against the actual photography, HCB is arguably at his best here, and the book includes hundreds of photographs that will have been missed by most compilations, but there isn’t that much of real importance you won’t get in every compilation of his work.
It sold out fairly quickly, based I suspect on the hope people held for it. Some people claiming to own it even seem to believe it’s an accurate recreation, oddly, which doesn’t help either. I ended up going to the smallest, but most full, little bookshop in the backstreets of London after googling for weeks to find a stockist. If you’re not lucky enough to manage to do that, and with its price increase in mind, I just can’t recommend it. I’m sure they couldn’t have done anything more to improve it, but it’s just fundamentally flawed and I can’t help but think by dressing it up as such a significant tome of leather and weight there is a hint of dishonesty to it. Whilst I couldn’t say they’d have been better not bothering at all, I do think that making it a cheap and more accessible introduction would have been perhaps a little more genuine. Really, it feels a bit like he’d look down his nose at it and tut, which is a shame.
So you shouldn’t buy it.
But it’s Henri Cartier-Bresson’s scrapbook, packed with pages and pages of his photographs which are, of course, properly amazing. You should totally buy it and read it whilst giggling like you’re a little school boy.
Title: Henri Cartier-Bresson – Scrapbook
Author: Foreword, Martine Franck. Introduction, Agnes Sire. Essay, Michel Frizot.
Publisher: Thames & Hudson
Amazon link: Henri Cartier-Bresson – Scrapbook