Tete-a-Tete: Portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson

23rd March 2013

As part of the ‘People Aware’ section of People & Place I didn’t want to just research the photographers recommended by my tutor I wanted to get as wide a view as possible, and as I was looking around on the internet I came across a book title for Henri Cartier-Bresson.  Now being the philistine I am I of course hadn’t realised that Cartier-Bresson was a portrait photographer, being only aware of his fame as a photojournalist, and recognised as the father of that genre.  So when I saw Tete-a-Tete, not being a total philistine, I recognised that meant head-to-head, or face-to-face, and wondered if it referred to portraiture, naturally.  Surprise, surprise it does.

134 black-and-white images of, mostly, famous people of their time, with some ordinary folks thrown in and also 8 pencil sketches created by the great man himself, remember he trained as an artist first and foremost, with a very good and longish introduction by Sir Ernst H J Gombrich, the Austrian born art critic.

Apart from the fact that the images are all by Cartier-Bresson, what was it that attracted me to the book?  It’s the quality of the images, and particularly the very first photograph of Ezra Pound which is outstanding amongst the other 133 for his use of natural light and the beautiful tones, an inspiration to anyone who tries to use only natural light for their image making.

Ezra Pound 1971 copyright Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum

The rest of the images are very nearly as compelling, although there are a couple that seem to have been taken ‘on-the-fly’ as they’re not as well exposed and tonal as the rest, but still, a man who can have a book of portraits, all his own, when he’s best known as a photojournalist, I’m sure we can forgive some that don’t seem to match up to his own standards.

I read a review of this book by some critic or other, can’t remember who, but his first concentration was on who he could name himself from the plates and was amazed that he didn’t know about one-third of them.  Now I can’t profess to know very many of the people in the images, I’ve heard a lot of the names but I’ve no idea what they’re famous for.  But does that matter?  I personally looked at the images first to get an idea of the style, then I looked at them again in detail to suck out as much information about framing, pose and lighting, it was only after that, that I looked to see who the subjects were, and I think that’s what we should always be doing with photographs.  Who cares who the subject is?  It’s the art that goes into the image and what the photographer makes of his ingredients that matter, not how many people will recognise who it is.

Having read and studied this book it led me to another by HBC, ‘The Minds Eye’, apparently a more famous book, which of course as the self-confessed philistine, I’ve not heard of, but which I’ve now got on order from the local library.

The use of natural light in all the images in Tete-a-Tete is the most enthralling technique in these images, along with the fact that he used only a 35mm  Leica and a 50mm lens means that if I study them closely enough and ponder hard enough I too can use light in the same way.  The one thing I was disappointed with though was the fact that his poses didn’t seem to vary as far as eye contact with the subject is concerned; in every nearly all the images they are looking somewhere else, which is a difficult pose to do very well, but it is boring when you look at so many collected together, it really makes those that do look at the camera stand-out more than they perhaps should as the images themselves, in a lot of cases, aren’t that good really by comparison to the majority.

I’m really enjoying this research into portraiture and I’m looking forward to seeing more masters work.

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