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Documentary on photojournalism icon lacks context

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) gave photojournalism the richness and depth of art -- and art the immediacy and directness of photojournalism. In coining the phrase ''the decisive instant" -- that moment when light, motion, and pattern combine before the lens -- he gave photographers a standard to strive for, one only a few reach, and none with the Olympian consistency he did.

Heinz Bütler's 2003 documentary, ''Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye," pays high-toned tribute to its subject. How high-toned? Bach and Ravel play on the soundtrack as a honeyed light streams through the windows of Cartier-Bresson's Paris apartment. We watch him look at his own photographs and remark upon them. We watch several talking heads -- Arthur Miller, the photographer Elliott Erwitt, the actress Isabelle Huppert, among others -- also look at Cartier-Bresson's photographs and speak in awed banalities of his artistry.

Miller and Erwitt speak in English (their gruff, muscular accents add a welcome earthiness to the proceedings). The French speakers are translated in voice-over rather than subtitles, which is distracting. Worse, the translations can be imprecise.

Bütler treats Cartier-Bresson like a kid-gloves classic -- the fact that the documentary is a coproduction of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation may have something to do with this -- yet his photographs are utterly alien to any idea of the classic. The classic is eternal, generic, embalmed. What Cartier-Bresson did was to give form to the force and astonishment of a given instant, recording a now of absolute particularity.

A similar distrust of specificity extends to the facts of Cartier-Bresson's life. We hear him mention his pivotal visit to Mexico in the 1930s, being a POW during World War II, photographing Gandhi shortly before his assassination. But no context is provided. It's assumed we either already know the necessary biographical details or don't care. Huppert's effusions seem to matter more than Cartier-Bresson's helping to found Magnum, the premier photo agency in the history of the medium.

Even so, any documentary that shows so many Cartier-Bresson images has worth (though why they couldn't be shown in tighter close-up is a source of considerable frustration). Then there is the man himself. If angels aged, surely Cartier-Bresson's is the face they would have. That that face should dominate the screen is a nice irony. One element of the Cartier-Bresson legend was his decades-long refusal to be photographed, so as to preserve his anonymity on assignment.

When the documentary exits talking-heads mode, it reveals how extraordinary it might have been. At one point, Cartier-Bresson visits a warehouse where his watercolors and drawings are kept, arts he pursued as a young man, then in his final years. We see him in long shot, walking with a cane down a corridor, and there is a sense of both his frailty and indomitability that no words could ever convey.

Best of all are two artistic encounters. Cartier-Bresson has a brief conversation with the celebrated Czech photographer Josef Koudelka; and the complicit, kindly look on his face as the younger man speaks is at once moving and thrilling. Koudelka having visited him, Cartier-Bresson pays a visit of his own, to the Louvre. He gazes rapt at Vermeer's ''Lacemaker," his face inches from the canvas. What he says in the documentary of using the camera applies at this moment to both him and us: ''You see, you feel, and the surprised eye responds."

Mark Feeney can be reached at

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