Candid portraits by Cartier-Bresson

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    Ian McNab

    At one point in the film “Henri Cartier-Bresson ― The Impassioned Eye” by Heinz Bütler (2003), Arthur Miller is looking at this photograph that Cartier-Bresson took of his then wife, Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits in 1960.



    Miller contemplates the picture for a long time, and eventually says, “This was the first day of shooting.” After another long consideration, he continues, slowly, and pausing frequently to reflect. “The first day. She’s thinking about something. She’s not simply posing for a picture. She’s pre-occupied with something. I don’t know what it was. But it was something. And so she’s very… alive. In the picture. It’s her. Her basic intelligence is in the picture. It’s a very introspective picture, I think. It’s her. It’s the way she was.”

    I was very struck by the strong emotions this photograph clearly evoked in Miller, by how carefully he contemplated it, recollecting vivid memories of this woman he had known intimately so that, it seemed, she was, in his mind, present again as she had been then.

    Some people say that a good portrait captures something of the sitter’s personality, their ‘true self’. This picture may not convey to us, who did not know her personally, Marilyn Monroe’s ‘true self’; but it clearly depicted something for Arthur Miller about who she really was, as he had known her.

    A little later in the same film, Elliott Erwitt is leafing through a book of Cartier-Bresson’s portraits, when he suddenly laughs out loud. “Edith Piaf! Looking like that! What a treasure!” The photograph below is what has caused him such delight.



    Then he turns over the page, and pauses. He contemplates the picture of Meerson and Ribaud, below, for a long time. At last, he looks up, and says, “You see, you can’t pose things like that. It’s just not possible.”



    He looks again at the picture, and after long consideration, he continues, “The best way to take portraits is to spend a little time with people, and to just sit with them. And see what happens.”

    Unlike Miller, who is reconnected with his personal memories of his ex-wife by Cartier-Bresson’s photograph, Erwitt is, I think, engaged not by the likenesses, nor the ‘truth’ of the portraits, but by their qualities as photographs. Yes, they are ‘candid’, perhaps in two ways: the photographer has not directed the subjects how to pose; and he has pressed the shutter at a moment, not when the subjects were ‘ready’ to have their picture taken, but rather when the composition has come right. This is particularly clear in the photograph of Meerson and Ribaud where a striking geometry of forms has momentarily come together: a great Z-shape of diagonal lines descends from the wisp of smoke at the top left to where Ribaud’s left elbow meets the edge of the frame, then back across to the left, whence Ribaud’s right leg and sari carry the movement down to the bottom right of the frame. It is a breathtaking example of consummate precision in composition and timing. You surely couldn’t pose a thing like that.

    Like me, you may know nothing about Mary Meerson and Krishna Ribaud, and have no way of telling whether this portrait is a ‘true likeness’, let alone whether it reveals something of their real personalities. But what is eminently clear is that this is a powerful, visually rich and beautifully composed photograph that has two people as its subject. I think it adequately makes the case that a candid, informal, ‘on the fly’ photograph may be called a ‘portrait’.

    Cartier-Bresson’s portraits are often images of people in transitional states, between physical positions or points of mental stillness. He captures the life of the subject in mid flow, as the geometry of the image comes right for an instant before dissolving again. Often, his pictures give the impression that the subject is somehow passing through the frame, rather than trapped in it, like something glimpsed through a window rather than placed in a box. This is candid portrait photography at its highest level, mastery of the skill of spending a little time with people and seeing what happens.


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